The morality-as-cooperation hypothesis and the link between evolution and moral philosophy

“Morality” comes from the Latin moralis, which was Cicero’s translation for the Greek ethos. The Greek word is related to our idea of character, the Latin one has to do with habits and customs. In an important sense, then, morality (or ethics, used here interchangeably) is the study of how to conduct your life, and particularly how to constructively deal with other people.

Recently, a group of researchers headed by Oliver Scott Curry has put out a paper (as yet unpublished) entitled “Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies” which is both interesting and more than a bit irritating. (Here is the site with the full version, and here is a commentary by the lead author, put out by the Evolution Institute.) It is interesting because it provides tantalizing empirical evidence to bolster the case, made by several researchers for a long time now, that the bio-cultural origins of a moral sense lie in the need for a species like ours to foster pro-social behavior, or as Curry et al. put it, “cooperation.” Frustrating because it fails to make the crucial conceptual distinction between the origins of morality and its current function, as well to recognize the equally important difference between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to ethics. I’ll do my best to highlight both the positives and the negative in what follows.

First off, a recap of the study as presented by the authors themselves:

“What is morality? And to what extent does it vary around the world? The theory of ‘morality-as-cooperation’ argues that morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. Morality-as-cooperation draws on the theory of non-zero-sum games to identify distinct problems of cooperation and their solutions, and predicts that specific forms of cooperative behaviour — including helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession — will be considered morally good wherever they arise, in all cultures. In order to test these predictions, we investigate the moral valence of these seven cooperative behaviours in the ethnographic records of 60 societies. We find that the moral valence of these behaviours is uniformly positive, and the majority of these cooperative morals are observed in the majority of cultures, with equal frequency across all regions of the world. We conclude that these seven cooperative behaviours are plausible candidates for universal moral rules, and that morality-as-cooperation could provide the unified theory of morality that anthropology has hitherto lacked.”

Curry’s commentary begins with more than a whiff of scientism: “What is morality? And are there any universal moral values? Scholars have debated these questions for millennia. But now, thanks to science, we have the answers.” Ah! Yes, thanks to science we have the answers! Except that those two questions are quite distinct, of course. The nature of morality has been debated by Socrates (in the as yet unsurpassed Euthyphro) and is of course the topic of the entire field of meta-ethics. Whether there are universal moral values is a rather ambiguous question: do we mean whether there ought to be (prescriptive) or whether there merely happen to be (descriptive)? Philosophers tend to be concerned with the first sense (e.g., Kant), and are more than happy to leave the second one to anthropologists (it is, after all, an empirical question!).

Curry suggests that addressing problems of social behavior is something that has kept natural selection busy, so to speak, for millions of years during the evolution that led to the human lineage, and that moreover, once cultural evolution got started people have added a panoply of norms, rules, and institutions to deal with such problems. So far so good.

The approach used by Curry and his collaborators revolves around seven principles imported from evolutionary biology: “Kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains: why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity; why we defer to our superiors; why we divide disputed resources fairly; and why we recognize prior possession.”

Setting aside a few caveats (like the fact that not all societies actually have a taboo against incest), this theoretical apparatus does, in fact, go a long way toward explaining the origin of the behaviors mentioned. That brought the researchers to predict the universality of the following seven moral rules: “love your family, help your group, return favors, be brave, defer to authority, be fair, and respect others’ property.” And their results do show that these rules are present across cultures, though different societies vary in the way they rank or prioritize the rules. While their data do not explain the reasons for this variation, they also found no case were any of the rules was considered bad.

The overarching conclusion: “so there is a common core of universal moral principles. Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon.”

Woah, slow down a second here. First off, perhaps the seven principles in question are common across modern cultures, but that does not ipso facto mean that they always were, nor that they evolved by natural selection, though that is a plausible scenario. Take, for instance, “be fair.” Are we really to understand that “fairness” was a moral precept in the highly unequal ancient Egyptian, or Roman (or pretty much all other) societies? And what do we mean by “fair,” anyway? Fairness may be the same as equality, or not, depending on one’s views, so we have to have a discussion about what it means and how the concept is interpreted in various societies.

“Be brave” is another highly ambiguous idea, and again it is hard to imagine that it means the same thing in, say, modern day Japan, with its penchant for anti-individualism, and ancient Sparta, which was characterized by a cult of individual bravery. And of course there are many different ways of being brave (or cowardly).

Second, jumping to the conclusion that morality is “always and everywhere” about cooperation seems entirely unwarranted. We are not ants or bees, each of us has autonomous projects that we intend to pursue and that have a large impact on the degree to which we flourish, as individuals. Yes, human beings are essentially social animals, and we flourish within a given social framework, but I would argue that morality isn’t about cooperation, but rather about how to balance self-centered vs pro-social needs. The two aspects — myself as an autonomous individual and myself as a member of a group — are in constant tension, and it is that tension that morality addresses, not just the group aspect of it. Cooperation is just one means to the end of survival, reproduction, and flourishing.

And by the way, natural selection doesn’t give a damn about the latter, but we most certainly do. Which is why a lot of our norms, rules, and institutions don’t address mere survival and reproduction, but rather issues such as justice, fairness, and access to resources. That is, they are concerned with flourishing.

Third, one can perfectly coherently object to some of those rules even being on a list of moral dicta. Let’s consider three of them a bit more closely: help your group, defer to authority, and respect others’ property.

At the least since the ancient Cynics and Stoics introduced the concept of cosmopolitanism, it is actually highly morally questionable to “help your group” if this is taken to mean regardless of circumstances, or at the expense of other groups that have an equal claim to resources. Today, it is not acceptable to engage in wars of conquest, for instance, in order to make our group thrive (the fact that it happens is irrelevant to the moral point). It isn’t even acceptable to exploit other groups economically, or by imposing on them environmental damages for our own convenience.

As for deferring to authority, nope, that’s a no starter. It may be a common cross-cultural practice, but it’s a bad idea, and it is in fact highly immoral if one does so blindly, following the orders of whoever is in charge. That way lies the road to tyranny, which is not morally acceptable, in either ancient or modern societies.

But surely we should respect other people’s property. Well, it depends. If it is acquired unethically, even if legally, no, I don’t think there is any such moral requirement. If your wealth is both disproportionate and arrived at by exploiting others (and let’s be frank, if it is the former, it can hardly not be the latter), then it is just and fair to pass laws to relieve you of much of that burden, through proportional taxation, for instance. My libertarian friends can scream loudly all they want, but that doesn’t make their claims to having a “natural right” to property one bit less nonsense on stilts (in the immortal phrase by Jeremy Bentham).

So, by all means let us inquire into the likely biological and cultural evolution of morality. It is a fascinating topic, somewhat amenable to empirical investigation. But let’s not confuse the descriptive with the normative aspects of the question, just like we wouldn’t for a second confuse, say, an account of the origin of mathematical thinking with the delivery of a sound proof of Fermat’s last theorem. Any time Curry et al. tell me that rule X is universal it is still perfectly meaningful for me to reply, yes, but is it moral?

91 thoughts on “The morality-as-cooperation hypothesis and the link between evolution and moral philosophy

  1. Robin Herbert

    To put it another way, the very fact that you can say “X increases the benefits of cooperation and X is shameful” indicates that “morality as cooperation” does not cover what you mean by “morality”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo Post author

    Mark,

    reproductive fitness is just one potential benefit of cooperation. Cultural moral norms can be selected for by whatever benefits of cooperation are attractive to people. Cultural moral norms (norms whose violation are commonly thought to deserve punishment) can even reduce reproductive fitness of the group.

    I don’t doubt the existence of cultural norms, nor the fact that they evolve partially independently of biological forces. Indeed, that’s my point: a lot of what we call morality nowadays does not impinge on survival and reproduction, and it cannot, therefore, be the result of natural selection.

    The emergence of culture and cultural evolution forever unhitched moral behaviors (solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma) from being selected for only by reproductive fitness

    Right, which is why I accept the idea that moral instincts evolved by natural selection to facilitate pro-social behavior (which is a broader definition than just cooperation). But after that it’s all cultural so far as I can tell.

    Haidt’s empirical moral foundation theory originally observed five circumstances that cross-culturally trigger moral judgements: harm/care, fairness, loyalty, and respect for authority and sacred objects. Respect for sacred objects such as flags increases in-group cooperation because it is a marker of membership and commitment to the more cooperative in-group

    I honestly don’t think much of Haidt’s work, for a variety of reasons. But that’s a splendid example: he seems to imply that “liberals” are deficient because they do not recognize all five of those categories, including loyalty, respect for authority, and sacredeness, as moral. Well, that’s one why to put it. Another is that “conservatives” are simply confused about what counts as moral, and in including those three they are making a category mistake. Surely the thing is open to discussion, and cannot possibly be settled empirically.

    All behaviors that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma are descriptively moral since it appears that, as empirical truth, all behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present moral codes are explained as elements of cooperation strategies (suggestions for counter-examples are welcome!) that solve this dilemma

    As Socratic pointed out, that might include slavery. Which is definitely not moral. Indeed, the phrase “descriptively moral” comes pretty close to an oxymoron. You can describe how people behave and what norms they adopt. And that’s interesting. But as soon as you call those things “moral” you have switched (often in an unacknolwedged way) to prescription.

    the minimum necessary subset of behaviors that solve this dilemma are defined by “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”

    Ah, nice move! Where did that “without exploiting others” come from? Seems to me you just smuggled in a prescription, in order to avoid the slavery objetion. What motivates that, biologically speaking?

    Utilitarianism can be understood as a useful heuristic (usually reliable but necessarily fallible rule of thumb) for choosing behaviors that will increase benefits (however people define them).

    I don’t know what that is, but it’s not Utilitarianism, the philosophy.

    Kantianism can be understood as another useful heuristic for moral behaviors that generally avoids exploiting others

    Again, doesn’t sound like Kantianism to me.

    Virtue ethics answers the broader question “How should I live?” rather than just “How should I cooperate?” and I leave it to someone who better understands virtue ethics than myself to explain how its prescriptions for virtues relevant to interactions with others fits into morality as cooperation.

    Virtue ethics, like all ethics, is a framework to solve not the narrow problem of cooperation, but the broader one of how to balance our selfish and social natures. Cooperation is only a subset of it, and biology brings you only so far because our societies have evolved into incredibly complicated systems, and our conception of flourishing has changed dramatically since the Pleistocene.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Robin Herbert

    On the other hand if you want to say that exploiting an out group is bad because it is a non-cooperative behaviour then we have identified a non-cooperative behaviour that has been widely regarded as a moral good.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. SocraticGadfly

    Per Massimo, Mark, like Curry et al, seem to first not know which side of the prescriptive-descriptive axis to come down on, or even, perhaps, if they’re straddling an axis at all. But, when push comes to shove, they both fall on the prescriptive side.

    Haidt? Please. Unless one is a “metaphysical evolutionist” named Otto Rank, sacredness is clearly a purely cultural value. There was no evolutionary biology pressure to “select for” some concept called “sacredness.”

    And, Massimo beat me to it on the slavery issue. That said, I was anticipating such a “move” yesterday, and was ready to offer the same response. Any attempt to narrow universalist issues to ones that are moral based on a move like that is not only prescriptivist, to go Massimo one better, it’s an a priori prescriptivist move.

    ==

    And, to riff on Massimo, virtue ethics is itself culturally conditioned. He, I or Aristotle might find a New Guinea highlander practicing what we might call virtue ethics, but with a stress on cultivation of different virtues, or different techniques for that, than Aristotle. He notes that with his aside that, to read between the ev psych lines, there was no EEA for evolving the concept of “flourishing.”

    Like

  5. SocraticGadfly

    Oh, to bring this whole discussion to an etymological full circle, per Massimo’s first paragraph?

    Cicero derived “moralis” from “mos,” the Latin word for “custom,” probably best known from Cicero’s own bon mot “O tempora, o mores.”

    Like

  6. SocraticGadfly

    Specifically, Massimo’s piece on the “no” side is sublinked at: https://evolution-institute.org/is-there-a-universal-morality/

    The overview is by D.S. Wilson (who has an individual piece on the “maybe” side … [probably says yes if it includes group selection; was that out loud?]) Mark Sloan of comments here who has a subpiece on the yes side, and Michael Price who has a subpiece on the yes side. Curry’s seven universals is also sublinked as a piece on the yes side.

    And, with that, and Wilson’s comments to Curry’s piece that got this ball rolling, I’m guessing the Evolution Institute officially butters its bread on one side.

    ==

    And, I’ve just dropped a comment on Massimo’s piece, largely disagreeing with Wilson’s comment.

    Like

  7. brodix

    Massimo,

    If I’m the one being snarky or worse, I apologise, but it does seem Mark is stuck in an academic tradition/rut that is old, deep and guided by prevailing orthodoxies.
    I thought I might try chipping away at it with a little heresy, but it seems any scratches I might have caused are quickly healed, so all is good.

    Like

  8. brodix

    I would add though, that trying to discuss morality and ignoring economics seems like trying to furnish a house that hasn’t been built.

    I think he needs to get out in the world a little more.

    Like

  9. brodix

    Not to run on, but slavery, colonialism and quite a few other forms of exploitation are largely economic in nature and many of those benefitting from the proceeds like not to know the details, as it might sully their conscience, so ignoring economic factors is, in itself, questionable morality.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Mark Sloan

    Hi Massimo,

    ___” … moral instincts evolved by natural selection to facilitate pro-social behavior (which is a broader definition than just cooperation). But after that it’s all cultural so far as I can tell.”

    What unifies genetic and cultural selection for moral behaviors is that they share the same selection force, the benefits of cooperation. That is why we can observe elementary “morality as cooperation” strategies in pre-cultural species as well as the emergence of “morality as cooperation” strategies in computer agents who have no moral instincts. If both share the same selection force, both genetic and cultural evolution can select for behaviors with the same function and produce “morality as cooperation”.

    Morality as cooperation is not dependent on biological evolution.

    ___”…Haidt’s empirical moral foundation theory originally observed five circumstances that cross-culturally trigger moral judgements: harm/care, fairness, loyalty, and respect for authority and sacred objects. Respect for sacred objects such as flags increases in-group cooperation because it is a marker …
    ____”I honestly don’t think much of Haidt’s work, for a variety of reasons. But that’s a splendid example: he seems to imply that “liberals” are deficient because they do not recognize all five of those categories, including loyalty, respect for authority, and sacredeness, as moral.”

    All I was referring to was Haidt’s empirical data which I understand to be good science. Fortunately, morality as cooperation offers a more coherent and culturally useful understanding of that data than the cringeworthy “liberals are deficient” interpretation.

    Harm/care and fairness are strategies that generally exploit no one, increase the benefits of cooperation, and thus are generally universally moral. On the other hand, loyalty and respect for authority and sacred objects often increase the benefits of cooperation in in-groups by “exploiting” (in the cooperation/exploitation sense) out-groups, making them not universally moral. The deemphasis of the last three “foundations” by liberals is due to their historic role in exploitation of out-groups.

    That said, morality as cooperation tells us that loyalty and respect for authority and sacred objects will also be universally moral if they can be implemented in ways that both increase the benefits of cooperation and exploit no one. I look forward to this insight being valuable for liberals as means to increase motivation to behave cooperatively (and thus better meet human needs and preferences) by tapping into the strong emotional force of such in-group focused norms. Motivations about loyalty and respect for authority and sacred objects can be particularly powerful motivators for cooperative behavior since they were evolved as a matter of life and death during our evolutionary history in small groups. Their powerful motivation for cooperative behavior is also, of course, why conservatives love them so much.

    If groups’ different loyalty’s and respect for different authorities and sacred objects do not exploit out-groups (in the cooperation/exploitation dilemma sense), they can be powerful tools for motivating universally moral behaviors.

    Note that morality as cooperation also addresses between group cooperation. Morality as cooperation defines universally moral behaviors regarding interactions between groups as those that “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”.

    ____”the minimum necessary subset of behaviors that solve this dilemma are defined by “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”
    ____”Ah, nice move! Where did that “without exploiting others” come from? Seems to me you just smuggled in a prescription, in order to avoid the slavery objetion. What motivates that, biologically speaking?”

    No, neither you nor I have any choice regarding what morality as cooperation tells us is universal about strategies that solve the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

    For in-group cooperation to be sustainable, other in-group members cannot be exploited. So all descriptively moral behaviors, even those that cooperate in in-groups to exploit out-groups, share the necessary component of behaviors that “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”.

    The tricky part here is who is included in “others” who are not to be exploited. Is it just some people, all people, people plus conscious animals, or what? I expect all here would prefer it to include all people, but to me that is an open question that is not in science’s domain.

    ___”I don’t know what that is, but it’s not Utilitarianism, the philosophy.”

    I expect we both agree that the philosophical definition of utilitarianism is something like “A normative ethical theory that judges right and wrong solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies.”

    Morality as cooperation reveals that utilitarianism is objectively wrong based on what morality ‘is’ – cooperation strategies. However, while morality as cooperation tells us what objectively moral ‘means’ are, morality as cooperation is essentially silent about what the ultimate goals of this cooperation ‘ought’ to be. If we prefer utilitarian ultimate goals, the only objectively moral ‘means’ for achieving them is “increasing the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others” which suggests a kind of rule-utilitarianism.

    My point was that pursuing utilitarian goals can be a useful, but fallible, heuristic for choosing objectively moral goals (that do not exploit others) for cooperation.

    ___”Kantianism can be understood as another useful heuristic for moral behaviors that generally avoids exploiting others”
    ____”Again, doesn’t sound like Kantianism to me.”
    I am describing what morality as cooperation reveals Kantianism to be, not how Kantianism is defined.

    ____”Virtue ethics, like all ethics, is a framework to solve not the narrow problem of cooperation, but the broader one of how to balance our selfish and social natures. Cooperation is only a subset of it, and biology brings you only so far because our societies have evolved into incredibly complicated systems, and our conception of flourishing has changed dramatically since the Pleistocene.”

    Right. I also see virtue ethic’s wisdom about “how ought we live” as having an important role for judging the right balance between our selfish and social natures. However, morality as cooperation is not entirely silent on this balance. That is, it is a cooperative behavior to set a moral norm that recognizes the necessity to flourishing of not neglecting self-interested behaviors. Morality as cooperation is about increasing the benefits of cooperation, including self-interested benefits, not just increasing cooperation as such.

    Morality as cooperation is independent of our concept of flourishing in the Pleistocene, present, or future. Morality as cooperation defines moral ‘means’, not moral ‘ends’.

    One topic we have not discussed is normativity. While science provides no source of innate imperative bindingness, morality as cooperation does provide what can be argued to be “the moral principle that all well-informed, rational people would put forward as universally moral”. This is remarkably like Bernard Gert’s definition of normative in the “morality” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “ ‘morality’ can be used … normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons”

    So if the science underlying it is sound, morality as cooperation might be “normative” without being innately, imperatively binding?

    Like

  11. Mark Sloan

    Hi Brodix,

    I’ll assume the “he” here refers to me, so I will attempt to clear up a couple of important issues.

    Actually, morality as cooperation directly reveals money economies and rule of law to be formally part of morality.

    Money economies are wonderfully efficient, culturally invented, means of solving the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. But as you might intuitively guess, it is the exploitation potential for money economies that can make them immoral.

    Rule of law is also a culturally invented, but necessarily flawed, means of increasing the benefits of cooperation. Punishment of exploiters is necessary for moral norms to be culturally stable. Rule of law’s power comes from its punishment by the group as a whole of exploiters which is less likely to provoke conflict and cycles of violence than individual punishment. Indeed, this punishment by the group as a whole is so effective that there are commonly laws and moral norms against punishing immoral behavior except by public criticism and ostracism.

    Morality as cooperation also clears up issues for what “human rights” ‘are’, but that is a conversation for another day.

    Like

  12. Paul Braterman

    Law is interesting. I accept and mentioned earlier the plausible just so story that make the urge to punish, and the urge to punish those who don’t do their share of the necessary but dangerous task of punishing, as part of an evolutionarily stable adaptation against wrongdoers and freeloaders. If so, the cultural development of law has shifted these urges, at the individual level, from socially adaptive to maladaptive, and (since moral decisions require all relevant factors to be considered) from moral to immoral.

    Like

  13. SocraticGadfly

    Ahh, Mark officially, like Curry with his seven rules, let’s the cat out of the bag:

    Actually, morality as cooperation directly reveals money economies and rule of law to be formally part of morality.

    So, humans before Croesus and the invention of coinage were immoral? Got it.

    Bunch of neoliberal BS.

    To riff on Wilde: “A neoliberal is a person who knows how to put a price on everything and a value on nothing.”

    Like

  14. Mark Sloan

    Hi Robin,

    …Morality as cooperation does clarify the mechanisms by which people cooperate and informs us as to how those cooperation norms originated and why they are maintained. For example, “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is evil” are norms which shamefully increase the benefits of cooper…
    ____”If morality is cooperation then why “shamefully”? If morality is cooperation then wouldn’t something that increases the benefits of cooperation be morally right, by that very thesis?”

    Morality as cooperation reveals both what is merely descriptively moral “behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation” (many of which do so by exploiting others in ways we commonly judge immoral) and what is universally moral (behaviors that increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others).

    Norms such as “women must be submissive to men” and “homosexuality is evil” are shameful in that they both increase the benefits of cooperation in in-groups by exploiting out-groups. “Homosexuality is evil” exploits homosexuals as imaginary threats to the in-group. Due to our evolutionary history, perceived threats to our in-groups, whether real or imaginary, are particularly powerful means of motivating in-group cooperation.

    Like

  15. Mark Sloan

    Massimo,

    Rereading your opening post on Curry’s paper and some of the other comments here prompts me to point out that the view of ethics you propose based on the meaning of the word in Greek was not shared by all ancient Greek philosophers. At least one advocated a morality as cooperation view of morality with no necessary relationship to character and certainly not a prescription for how to conduct your life.

    Protagoras, in Plato’s dialog of the same name, patiently explained to Socrates that the function of morality was to increase the benefits of cooperation. For no clear reason, Socrates rejected this view, perhaps because it was the common view at the time and insufficiently intellectually challenging.

    Part of morality as cooperation explanatory power is that it provides a plausible reason why “morality as cooperation” did not continue as the common understanding of morality.

    Prior to the invention of money economies and rule of law, the most reliable way of getting the essentials of life were to increase the benefits of cooperation by acting morally. The function of morality would have been obvious to everyone.

    However, the incredible efficiency of money economies and rule of law at increasing the benefits of cooperation muddied the intellectual water to the extent that people ‘forgot’ what morality’s function was.

    I remember a film from perhaps the 1940’s showing a Kung tribesman’s pained expression while he explained to an anthropologist why he helped others at substantial penalty to himself (why he acted morally). He said, in a tone and with body posture as if he was explaining something to a particularly dull witted 5-year-old, if I do not help them, they will not help me when I need it.

    I expect “morality as cooperation” was the common pre-civilization understanding of morality. We just forgot.

    Like

  16. Mark Sloan

    Hi Paul,

    ….”Law is interesting. I accept and mentioned earlier the plausible just so story that make the urge to punish, and the urge to punish those who don’t do their share of the necessary but dangerous task of punishing, as part of an evolutionarily stable adaptation against wrongdoers and freeloaders. If so, the cultural development of law has shifted these urges, at the individual level, from socially adaptive to maladaptive, and (since moral decisions require all relevant factors to be considered) from moral to immoral.”

    Right. Morality as cooperation without exploitation is species and culture independent. However, as we adopt new, more effective strategies, heuristics for moral behaviors (such as pre-civilization personal punishment of other’s exploitation) can change to being considered immoral because there are much more effective ways of punishing exploitation.

    Morality as cooperation without exploitation did not change. We just improved our implementation of it.

    Like

  17. brodix

    Mark,

    Thank you for the reply.

    I don’t see this focus on cooperation alone as effective. For instance, there are logical reasons why we don’t allow monopolies. Your argument against that point will, presumably, be that in the bigger picture, it is a form of exploitation, but the other, equally important reason they are frowned on is that they do stifle competition and the advances it encourages. Life is not static. Not only is it dynamic, but there is a constant interplay and tension of opposites. The real problem is when side gains too much advantage and the whole situation becomes unbalanced, rather than fluctuating between these sides.

    So what would a world where only cooperation is considered permitted behavior actually look like? Wouldn’t a feedback loop start to develop, where the fun police start drawing the line around permitted behavior and keep drawing it tighter and tighter? That doesn’t even have to be a selected elite, just those who take it upon themselves to make sure the rules are followed.

    Why wouldn’t it be taken to the point of absurdity, where kids games are not even allowed, as that might instill some inclination for competition? It would seem society would grind to a halt.

    Yin and yang. Keeps the blood flowing.

    Like

  18. Massimo Post author

    Mark,

    What unifies genetic and cultural selection for moral behaviors is that they share the same selection force, the benefits of cooperation

    That is simply an unproven, and highly questionable, assumption on your part. So far as I can tell, nothing unifies genetic and cultural evolution, they are distinct, though the latter is constrained / made possible by the former.

    The deemphasis of the last three “foundations” by liberals is due to their historic role in exploitation of out-groups

    How does that help? We are still talking about major cultural divisions about what counts as moral or not. Howw does your theory account for it? Either the liberals are deficient or the conservatives are deluded, one of the two is making a mistake about what counts as moral.

    if they can be implemented in ways that both increase the benefits of cooperation and exploit no one

    Again, adding “and exploit no one” is gratuitous. Why shouldn’t selection favor exploitation, if it increases cooperation? Cooperation itself is only favored by selection because it increases survival and reproduction, so it is perfectly possible that selection would favor exploitative strategies (in fact, it does, to a point).

    Note that morality as cooperation also addresses between group cooperation. Morality as cooperation defines universally moral behaviors regarding interactions between groups as those that “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”.

    Again, this is a completely arbitrary addition, the only purpose of which seems to be to be able to square the circle, which would otherwise be impossible.

    For in-group cooperation to be sustainable, other in-group members cannot be exploited.

    That is both theretically and empirically not the case.

    I expect we both agree that the philosophical definition of utilitarianism is something like “A normative ethical theory that judges right and wrong solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies.”

    No, you should look at this article for a good sense of what utilitarism is: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/

    Morality as cooperation reveals that utilitarianism is objectively wrong based on what morality ‘is’

    That both begs the question, since the utilitarian could simply respond that the theory is wrong about what counts as morality, and a category mistake. Moral theories are not right or wrong, as they are not scientific theories. They are judged by their coherence and usefulness.

    I am describing what morality as cooperation reveals Kantianism to be, not how Kantianism is defined.

    But if your description bears little relevance to how philosophers understand Kantianism then it seems to me your description is problematic.

    Morality as cooperation is about increasing the benefits of cooperation, including self-interested benefits, not just increasing cooperation as such.

    Fine, but since self-interested benefits will vary with the individual, that still generates a tension between one’s own interests and cooperation.

    morality’ can be used … normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons”

    I don’t believe there is such thing. Morality is a complex phenomenon, and the goal of living a flourishing life has many different instantiations. So the problem will likely have a number of reasonably good solutions, without one of them necessarily emerging as being the rational one.

    Protagoras, in Plato’s dialog of the same name, patiently explained to Socrates that the function of morality was to increase the benefits of cooperation

    He was a damn Sophist! Anyway, I ddin’t mean to say that all Greco-Roman schools agreed on a conception of morality, but most of them did reflect the etymology I gave previously.

    I expect “morality as cooperation” was the common pre-civilization understanding of morality. We just forgot

    That’s an interesting idea, but entirely untestable, so far as I can see.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. Mark Sloan

    Hi Robin,

    It is important to distinguish between behaviors that are morally acceptable, moral, supererogative (beyond what morality requires), and immoral.

    By “morality as cooperation without exploitation”, competition by individuals and groups is a behavior that is commonly morally acceptable as long as it does not reduce the benefits of living in the society. But sure, monopolies who decrease those benefits are behaving immorally. Rules restricting competition so that it does not decrease those benefits are arguably moral norms (in addition to being laws or whatever).

    There are lots of behaviors that are morally acceptable that have nothing to do with cooperation. The key to whether they are immoral is if they decrease the benefits of living in that society.

    Like

  20. Robin Herbert

    More agency metaphors. Evolution has no dilemmas. If a group can increase its fitness by exploiting, pushing out or killing another group at less cost than cooperating with them then that is what they will do and evolution will not try to ‘solve’ this.

    And these non-cooperative actions are often regarded as a moral good. How often has slavery been regarded as an act of altruism towards another group? Or robbing another group (the ‘white man’s burden’)? Homosexuality was, still often is, regarded as evil and therefore any oppression of gays is often regarded as a good.

    The man responsible for the Amritsar massacre, where unarmed people were slaughtered because their actions were judged inimical to Britain’s interest in India, he was given a statue, praised in the House of Lords, showered with reward money and called ‘The Man Who Saved India’ by Rudyard Kipling. That seems to be a big counter example to ‘morality-as-cooperation’ right there.

    Like

  21. Robin Herbert

    Mark

    I expect we both agree that the philosophical definition of utilitarianism is something like “A normative ethical theory that judges right and wrong solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies.”

    That is not the definition I know of, or one I have ever heard. It is certainly one of the features of Utilitarianism, but definitely not the definition. It is not just about any old consequences.

    Utilitarianism is the ethical theory that says that for an action to be good it must maximise utlity, or to increase the general well-being or to maximise happiness or flourishing.

    For example if hospitals started harvesting the organs of healthy individuals to save the lives of a greater number of sick people, then people would stop coming to hospitals and the overall effect would be that more lives would be lost and so such an action would obviously be counter to Utilitarianism.

    Like

  22. wtc48

    Massimo: “The point is that natural instincts are simply insufficient for social life in increasingly complex societies, certainly after the agriculture revolution. Hence the idea that it is cultural selection that has taken the driving seat, and a lot now happens by way of deliberation, explicit norms, institutions, etc., not just by instinct.”

    Another way of putting this, is that we humans more or less went off the reservation at some point in prehistoric days, probably around the time we invented language, thereby giving our thoughts an objective existence that enabled us to build a complex culture which essentially replaced our instincts as motivation for everyday behavior. Our instincts have, at most, a vestigial existence: estrus and mating seasons are gone, but mating itself is very much with us, and we have jury-rigged and McGyvered regulatory solutions for this and innumerable other situations, and these are often unsatisfactory in outcome and even more misunderstood in theory.

    I’m going to have to let it go at that, being currently afflicted by a non-philosophical problem, to wit an irrigation breakdown complicated by a heat wave and a holiday weekend.

    Like

  23. Robin Herbert

    Mark

    For in-group cooperation to be sustainable, other in-group members cannot be exploited. So all descriptively moral behaviors, even those that cooperate in in-groups to exploit out-groups, share the necessary component of behaviors that “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others”.

    Presumably you are defining ‘in-group members’ as those in the group who are not currently being exploited at any given time.

    In which case it becomes “increase the benefits of cooperation without exploiting others, except for the others that are being exploited”

    And as I pointed out before, that very exploitation of others is often widely regarded as a moral good.

    Like

  24. Robin Herbert

    The in-group/out-group makes the proposition trivial in any case.

    I was once mugged by a group of five kids. They co-operated with each other just beautifully and they didn’t exploit anyone in the in-group. So do their actions count as behaviours which increase the benefits of cooperation in the in-group without exploiting anyone in the in-group?

    Liked by 1 person

  25. SocraticGadfly

    No, Mark, and per Massimo, I don’t need to look up the SEP definition of utilitarianism.

    Hey, we COULD ask Michael Shermer, skeptical philosophic genius extraordinaire, though.

    Like

  26. Robin Herbert

    From the paper itself:

    And we have shown how one of the theory’s central predictions – that cooperation is always and everywhere considered moral – is supported by an extensive cross-cultural survey of moral values.

    Now if we were to add the suggested caveats “cooperation within a particular group is always and everywhere considered moral by that particular group” then it says little at all and is still dubious and would lead to the very relativism that Curry claims his theory avoids.

    If we take it as it is written then it is obviously wrong and it is pretty easy to find counter examples.

    So if it is a central prediction of this theory that cooperation is always and everywhere considered moral then it seems that the theory has been pretty well falsified by a wealth of counter examples.

    And, in the final analysis, I would just have to shrug my shoulders and point out that it is not what I mean by morality, in any case.

    Like

  27. Robin Herbert

    I remember a film from perhaps the 1940’s showing a Kung tribesman’s pained expression while he explained to an anthropologist why he helped others at substantial penalty to himself (why he acted morally). He said, in a tone and with body posture as if he was explaining something to a particularly dull witted 5-year-old, if I do not help them, they will not help me when I need it.

    This illustrates another problem. If these intuitions evolved in such environments where the population is small and know each other and any help is likely to be reciprocated, then why should we think that it should apply in large anonymous populations of the sort most of us live in today?

    For example my failing to return the wallet with money intact would be highly unlikely to result in any cost to me in my lifetime or my children in their lifetimes and my not returning it would benefit me to the tune of $200.

    So if the reason for this behaviour is the reciprocity then it will not apply to the wallet situation I described.

    Like

  28. Robin Herbert

    I have to say finally that I find it baffling that anyone in this day and age can take the expression ‘defer to superiors’ seriously, never mind consider it a positive moral value, never mind a universal positive moral value.

    Surely we give people in authority respect after exactly the same criteria we give anyone respect – if and when they deserve it.

    Even conservatives don’t do this – their rule appears to be “respect authority – where ‘authority’ refers to any sufficiently conservative leader”

    Like

  29. wtc48

    “….. helping kin, helping your group, reciprocating, being brave, deferring to superiors, dividing disputed resources, and respecting prior possession — will be considered morally good wherever they arise, in all cultures.

    A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.”

    The cooperative criteria reminded me of something, which turned out to be the Boy Scout oath, another list of the kind of behavior generally deemed appropriate to minors. Odysseus (among many other celebrated heroes of history and fiction) would certainly have flunked.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.