Cooperation Versus Altruism

Something that has long puzzled me is the fact that in our society the highest compliment you can pay someone is to say that that person is selfless. Anakin Skywalker did it in Revenge of the Sith “The Jedi are selfless. . . they care only about others.” My question is, as a society, why would we want to encourage people to have such little regard for themselves that concern for the self ranks so low on the scale of human values? This concept could only be good in a worldview that regarded the interests of the individual as being diametrically oppose to those of the group. A more rational view is that the interests of the individual and the group often coincide or at the very least don’t conflict which is why individuals choose to become members of a group in the first place. In this view, the dichotomy of caring about one’s self and caring about others proves too simplistic because it leaves out an option not properly identified in those options, that of cooperation (and you know it’s important because I put it in italics).

Contrary to what some may think, cooperation is not the antithesis of individual ambition. If I’m a baker and you are a cook and we discover that by working together we can sell hamburgers at a profit level higher than if we sold our wares separately, that is cooperation that is not likely to be mistaken for altruism. There are other forms of cooperation, however, that might be. Tit-for-tat reciprocity (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) might be mistaken for altruism if someone witnesses only one side of the dynamic (they see me lend you an amount of money while they don’t see you returning the money and perhaps extending me other in-group benefits later). Saving a fallen comrade in battle is a classic example of cooperation that might be mistaken for altruism. It is cooperation because the success of the group depends on such actions and since the individual has a vested interest in the outcome of the battle rescuing a fallen comrade cannot truly be viewed as selfless.

The problem with these examples is that the casual observer doesn’t necessarily readily distinguish between acts of altruism and cooperation. The most likely thing is that the people often misidentify these all as selfless and proceed from there. Our popular conceptualization of ethics reflects this which causes us to glorify selflessness as such with some drastic and unfortunate consequences. When selflessness is upheld as a virtue, it is a necessary consequence that self-interest comes to be characterized as a moral failing. This is a bastardization of the correct moral construction wherein cooperation should be extolled because it enables groups of people to voluntarily work in their collective self-interest. In this formulation self interest is not the enemy, it is actually the goal which is important because people are not then left with the choice of whether to be good people or to work in their own self-interest (a dilemma which could only be pleasing to an enemy of humankind).

As a hypothetical example, imagine a universe where Kevin Durant was convinced that selflessness was the highest virtue. In this alternate world his performance in team USA’s FIBA final against Turkey would have been one where he was constantly deferring to his teammates and passing up open shots even though he’s the best player on the team and in this scenario the US would have lost. As it stands, however, Kevin Durant acted in a cooperative fashion meaning that he did what was best for the team. What was best, in this case, is that he scored 28 of the USA’s 81 points leading the team to a gold medal victory. This is an example of the fact that cooperation is a more effective strategy than altruism both for the individual and for the group.

The point I am making is that our cultural and social mores should be changed to reflect the fact that cooperation, not selflessness, should rank among the highest of values for human society. This would work both to encourage traits that are actually useful rather than focusing on the negative by-products of heroic action such as the pain and suffering that is often endured by our heroes (we can all admire people like Dr. Martin Luther King but who in their right mind would encourage their children to get shot like him?) I would think of a better concluding sentence but if you’re gotten this far into the reading I think you get the gist of it. Peace out!

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5 comments
  1. I agree that the biochemical aspect of it is a large part of the impetus toward cooperative action. If there ever were humans who were hardwired to be completely antisocial they would have been selected against in competition with cooperative people (interesting point that I’m sure you’re aware of, sociopaths might actually be a biological adaptation that has benefits in certain extreme situations). I have purposely refrained from touching on the scientific argument as to how our genetics and hormones make us more want to act cooperatively because I don’t have any expertise in that area (although I understand the arguments) and my point can be made without it. I think we have biological drives that point us toward in-group benevolence (I won’t level it as altruism per se because many of these things we would do for members we regard as the in-group we wouldn’t actually do for members who fall outside that group). My point is simply that, in my opinion, society mislabels cooperation as altruism which is understandable because human beings don’t need to understand their instinctive motivations on an intellectual level in order to benefit from them.

  2. I will agree that some people do confuse the two, but I don’t think society does as a whole. There is enough of a difference for research to differentiate between the two – and that difference is recognised in most social systems.

    It is commonly said, in one form or another, that a partnership works best when both people strive to give more than 50%. That’s because somedays, one will have to give less and sometimes what is 50% for one, is not for the other, due to perception, ability, etc. 50-50 relationships do not work very well. In marriage counseling, couples who go for the 80-80 goal are more successful and happier.

    Societies need at least a few altruistic members to flourish. Cooperation is not enough. Biology shows that, which is why I keep referring you to those studies, because they do make your argument weak. Therefore, it is the best interest of societies to encourage altruistic behavior.

    You can always choose not to be an altruistic person and ignore society’s attempt to maximize individual sacrifice for the good of the whole and just be satisfied that there are others who will sacrifice enough to keep things together – most people do. I don’t understand why it irks you so.

  3. Not only is altruism unnecessary, at best it is misguided and at worst it is actually harmful. It is unethical to promote an ethic that calls for some people to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. That’s why ritual child sacrifice would have been evil even if it had in fact been useful in preventing plagues and curses from the gods. I challenge you to give me an example of altruism that is necessary for society to function properly. I might not be able to reply in a timely fashion because I’m going to be away from the computer for a few hours but I will respond as soon as possible.

    p.s. I love these kinds of arguments!

  4. Oh by the way the first link wasn’t an example of altruism, it was about a cooperative strategy (if motives can be imputed to ecoli) among bacteria. The second link was about how our neurons increase our feelings of empathy. Empathy is important part of what drives people to mutually beneficial group dynamics that facilitate tit-for-tat reciprocity (we don’t necessarilythink about reciprocity when we help our friends and loved ones but the ultimate cause is part of the reason these instincts developed in the first place, or you can choose god given empathy if you like). The third link was about how chemicals in the brain influence cooperation. The fourth one is the worst of all because it posits that the opposite of altruism is cheating which is really stupid, the opposite of acting altruistically is to act in ones one self interest. The opposite of cheating is playing fair. It possible for altruists to cheat (Robin Hood) and for self-interested people to play fair (me returning $10 a Wendy’s cashier overpayed me in change). The next link was about how oxycontin helps autistic people figure out game theory. The last was about people have a monkey see monkey do effect when it comes to acts of altruism. I don’t see how any of these weaken my argument.

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