On Failing To Grasp How Competition Can Be Cooperative And How Cooperation Can Be Counter-Productive

Robin Hanson responds to work such as Frans de Waal’s which emphasizes the invaluable role that empathy and cooperation played in natural selection of humans by stressing that as good as cooperation might be, we are prone to making serious errors about what genuinely helpful cooperation entails in specific instances:

The unstated moral behind most media stories on our biological instincts to cooperate seems to be that we would do better to empower and emphasize these instincts.  Such as, oh, taxing carbon, and shaming those who don’t tax carbon.

But such stories mostly ignore the dark side of cooperation:  pro-cooperation instincts rely on dangerous conformity. Yes groups can be better off if individuals can see who do things that hurt the group overall, and punish those folks, and punish those who don’t punish them, etc.  But our evolved instincts about which are the individual actions that actually hurt others might be quite out of whack.

The problem is that evolved cooperation instincts reward supporting behavior that most people feel is cooperative, and not what is actually cooperative.  In novel situations, where our ancient instincts and simple rumor mills are poor guides, ordinary folks can be quite mistaken about which actions help vs. hurt everyone.  In this case our “cooperative” instincts can make it much harder to share info about what actually helps or hurts.  In contrast, if it is accepted that we will each act selfishly, cooperating selfishly via exchange and contract, we can more easily rethink and relearn what actions are actually helpful in our new changing world.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • mikespeir

    I guess this line bothers me a bit:

    “But our evolved instincts about which are the individual actions that actually hurt others might be quite out of whack.”

    While I find it almost intuitively true, I would suggest we do better than guessing they “might” be out of whack before we start tinkering. Let’s find out which ones are for real and come to a consensus as to alternatives first.

    And isn’t “cooperating selfishly” a contradiction in terms. (Notice how I avoided “oxymoron”?)

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/ Camels With Hammers

    Well, I think the idea of cooperating selfishly is “cooperating” in the evolutionary sense. So much evolution talk is maddeningly misleading. Evolved functions are described often as though designed—even by evolutionists. So, for example evolutionists talk about survival “strategies” of species which is the human mind—even the mind of the staunch evolutionist/anti-intelligent-design thinker—still using a metaphor of purposeful intention when it’s not there.

    So, I think the idea is that cooperation evolutionarily is an effect, not an intention. But when my coordinated behavior with yours combines for our mutual benefit then we have a de facto unintentional cooperation. It’s the effect of cooperation without the conscious cooperating mentality. Ants don’t “feel” cooperative but they co-operate, they operate together for their mutual benefit.

    So, I think that’s what she means by selfish cooperation. We’ve evolved to not only cooperate in effect but in intention. I think Hanson’s pointing out though that the beneficial effects of co-operating for mutual benefit in human communities from a sociobiological or an economics standpoint is not always identical with what we can recognize as cooperative.

    Part of why this is important is that the evolutionary advantages of cooperation are being trotted out as justifications for the conscious spirit of cooperation. It’s important in that context to investigate the ways in which deliberate cooperation might wind up counter-productive to this blind process doing its magic the best way it does it.


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