Cooperation throws up various problems, for which morality, and a moral sense, are
the solution. See also: morality as cooperation
The human moral sense is a psychological matter, and our present-day moral psychology
has evolved to be this way through ancient selection pressures on our human ancestor
The psychological selection pressure on the entire human family tree was towards
being able to learn, evolutionarily, how to cope with the demands of cooperation,
in the form of collaborative hunting (by 500,000 years ago); and foraging, child-rearing
and providing that was obligatory because of the risky ancient human foraging niche
of the African grasslands and open woodlands (from around 2 million years ago), where
food is hard to obtain and process.
The other great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas, orang utans and bonobos, do not have
to cooperate (coordinate, communicate) in the same way to obtain their plentiful
fruit or even to hunt for monkeys.
The psychological mechanics of cooperation can be treated as a philosophical matter.
Obligate collaboration and the evolved human sense of “ought”
The situation of obligate interdependence (a consequence of collaborating in order
to survive) therefore provided the selection pressure that lead to the evolution
of a number of “oughts”: things that humans today feel they should do, as part of
their evolved moral psychology:
we “ought” to help others in need; we have evolved a desire to help others willingly
(otherwise our partners or prospective partners might not be in good enough shape
to collaborate with) (you > me)
we “ought” to stick to commitments (otherwise the project might fail; we will let
down our valued, respected and therefore deserving partner; and our cooperative identity
(reputation, conscience) will be damaged) (we > me)
we feel a sense of responsibility to our partners to uphold role ideals, including
helping and fairness, and guilt when we fail. (we > me)
we feel a sense of responsibility to all partners to share the spoils to our mutual
satisfaction (i.e. fairly). (we > me)
we feel a need to treat all partners as equals and with respect (i.e. fairly). (you
Any failure to uphold an “ought” can result in protest from others, and damage to
one’s cooperative identity; while virtuous behaviour builds our cooperative identity
and can bring us praise.
SMALL SCALE COLLABORATION – interpersonal morality
Personal interdependence and helping ("ought": "you > me")
Chimpanzees and bonobos help family, friends and coalitionary partners, but humans
help collaborative partners (and prospective collaborative partners) too.
On a small scale of cooperation, people are interdependent with known partners. In
this case, in the way that partner A needs partner B, it makes sense for partner
A to personally help partner B in general, because partner A needs partner B to be
in good shape. This situation is experienced psychologically as a desire to help
anyone in the vicinity without necessarily receiving direct benefits in return.
It has been found experimentally in young children that their helping behaviour is
not motivated by a desire for reciprocity (return benefits) but just to see the person
in need helped, it does not matter by whom. This means that the helping behaviour
we see in humans is unlikely to have evolved in the context of tit-for-tat reciprocity
(Tomasello 2016), and is likely to have evolved in a situation of interdependence
and the need to keep people around us in good shape.
Humans will help “paternalistically” in the sense that they will take care of someone's
physical well-being before considering their other desires: for example, a cyclist
who has fallen off their bike may be more concerned with their bike than themselves,
but onlookers will wish to help the cyclist first. This again suggests that the
evolutionary origins of the extended helping behaviour of humans lies in interdependence.
Altruism is one-way helping: X helps Y but Y does not necessarily help X in return.
Collaboration is a form of two-way (or more) helping, where each partner helps the
other to achieve a joint goal, including helping each other to fulfill their respective
Partner choice; reputation; mutual respect
People who cooperate do better than loners (Alvard 2013). Humans need to collaborate
in order to thrive and survive well, and consequently we face these two problems
in social life: 1) finding good partners for cooperation: those who are skilled and
diligent, and not lazy or dishonest, for example; 2) being chosen oneself for collaborative
We need therefore: 1) to know others’ track records as cooperators; 2) to have a
good track record ourselves.
Our image as a good or bad cooperator is called our reputation or cooperative identity.
As we evaluate others, we know that others are evaluating us. This process of all
evaluating all is internalised as a personal cooperative identity, defined as our
opinion of ourselves as a cooperator. Ultimately, because of the pressure to be
chosen, there is a pressure to maintain our good cooperative identity. A personal
cooperative identity can be seen as a conscience or moral compass, guiding the individual
towards ethical behaviour (i.e. more cooperative).
As a result of this situation of needing others to cooperate with, other people are
potentially valuable to us, giving them bargaining power. Conversely, we too are
valuable to others and also have bargaining power. This breeds mutual respect among
In response to the need to be seen to be a valuable partner, we engage in impression
management, where we try actively to influence favourably how other people see us,
and the best way to achieve this is actually to be a good partner, so we self-regulate
in this direction.
If people see each other as equals because of self-other equivalence (see below),
then they cannot help but feel a degree of mutual respect towards each other.
We can initiate a collaborative activity either by:
simply “falling” into it;
(We also are more or less committed to helping the people we depend upon, according
to how much we depend on them. As the benefits they give us grow large, we may be
totally committed to helping them in any circumstances. In other words, commitment
can be implicitly based on loyalty. [see also: unconditional love; stakeholder principle])
making a joint commitment: explicitly communicating, between two or more people,
an intention to collaborate to achieve a particular goal.
To be trusted, a prospective partner has to have a good track record as a cooperator;
i.e. a good cooperative identity or reputation. One partner addresses the other
respectfully, with an assumption that they are trustworthy and have a cooperative
Explicitly communicating an intention to collaborate involves laying out in common
ground knowledge 1) the goal; 2) all that is required to fulfill each role (role
ideals). Each partner openly invites the other to make plans to do something, and
to trust that they can be depended upon to persist in the goal, and to fulfill the
role ideals, until both are satisfied with the result and receive their reward. Terminating
the joint commitment requires another joint commitment in itself: one partner asks
to terminate the commitment, and the other must agree.
The commitment is therefore a commitment to achieve: 1) the goal; 2) the sub-goals
or role ideals.
Any failure of the commitment on someone's part can result in damage to their personal
or public cooperative identity.
The content of the joint commitment is thus that each partner plays her collaborative
role diligently and in the ideal way until both have benefited.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality”
It is risky for partners to trust each other to stick to a collaborative activity
faithfully to the end, without giving up, being tempted away or losing motivation.
What each needs is for the other to feel that they “ought” to stick to the commitment,
that we owe it to one another. Then, we can trust one other more deeply, in a more
committed way, and the risk is reduced.
There is a physical source of normativity (the joint goal) and a social source (other
partners). Normativity can be defined as “ought”-ness.
The governing body in this situation, the social source of normativity (“ought”),
is the joint agent “we” with which each partner identifies (“I am a member of the
When the partners make the commitment, each relinquishes some control to the joint
agent “we” (“we > me”): 1) for the sake of attaining the goal, and 2) because they
care about their partners with whom they are interdependent (“you > me”).
This is internalised as a sense of responsibility to the others partners (“they’re
my team”), backed up by the cooperative identities of all concerned.
Partners therefore feel a responsibility to one another to achieve the ideals or
goals of their role: the sub-goals of the overall goal; and to see the collaboration
through to the end, unless terminated by another joint agreement.
The joint agent “we”
The joint agent “we” is the cooperating unit formed by individuals collaborating,
coordinating and communicating towards a joint goal, cemented by a joint commitment.
The individual members of the joint agent have joint attention, in that each is attending
to the joint goal, together (i.e. each knows that the other is attending to it).
Each member has their own role to play and has an understanding of the other roles
as well. This means that in principle, the people playing the roles can be exchanged
and the result can be the same.
The same is true of perspectives: each player has their own perspective and has an
understanding of the other perspectives too.
Based on their capacity to coordinate actions and attention with others toward joint
goals, humans came to understand that different individuals can have different perspectives
on one and the same situation or entity. ... We thus encounter once again the dual-level
structure of simultaneous jointness [goal, attention, coordination] and individuality
[roles, subgoals, perspectives]. Just as collaborative activities have the dual-level
structure of joint goal and individual roles, joint attentional activities have the
dual-level structure of joint attention and individual perspectives.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Thinking”
It is possible that the members see the collaboration as a plan form, a “bird's eye
view” of all the roles and perspectives within it, with their own just one among
Communication is used to skilfully coordinate the different perspectives and roles
towards the joint goal. The knowledge that is communicated then becomes part of
the common ground knowledge of all concerned, and can be used by all to further the
work towards the goal. Common ground knowledge is the store of practical knowledge
that all partners share, that can be used to facilitate achieving the joint goal.
These characters: “I”, “you” and “we” are the essential players in the morality of
fairness. “I” relinquish some control to “we”, which is internalised as responsibility
towards “you”, with whom I feel mutual respect and deservingness, together with an
impartial sense of self-other equivalence.
Role ideals or standards
A collaborative role ideal is the ideal way that a role should be performed in a
particular activity, in order to ensure success. They are the goals of each role:
sub-goals of the overall goal. There are general ideals that apply to all roles,
such as helpfulness, diligence, honesty, faithfulness to the task, and fair sharing
of the proceeds. There is instrumental pressure towards achieving success and against
A role ideal – the virtuous performance of a particular role – is not just the goal
of the individual player, but is a sub-goal of the joint agent “we”. “We” is made
up of individuals coordinating separate roles together to collaborate to achieve
the joint goal.
If an individual fails in their performance of a role, it negatively affects everyone
involved in the project. This common-ground knowledge adds a social pressure to
perform properly, since we value our partners and what they think of us, and we also
need to maintain our personal and social cooperative identities.
A role ideal is “agent-independent” in that it applies impartially to anyone performing
that role. A role ideal forms an ideal standard, an impartial external arbiter of
the quality of someone’s behaviour.
Role ideals have all the hallmarks of being the ancestors of today's shared social
General and specific role ideals
There are standards or ideals which apply to specific roles, and general ideals which
apply to all collaborative roles alike. These general role ideals include helping
partners where needed; treating them with respect; sharing fairly; the general role
ideal of upholding specific role ideals; seeing the collaboration through to the
end until all have received their reward, without being distracted by something more
interesting (sticking to the commitment); truth telling in communication, etc. Therefore,
cooperative moral principles (e.g. helping, fairness, upholding norms, honesty, accountability,
commitment, responsibility to others) can be seen as general role ideals of being
a good cooperator.
Fairness as a role ideal
While we are collaborating with somebody, we expect them not to harm us more than
necessary, and to help us as much as possible towards the joint goal. Therefore,
we expect to be treated with respect, i.e. fairly.
We treat others in the same way because we internalise a relinquishing of personal
control to the joint agent (“us” or “we”) as a sense of responsibility towards them,
and because we respect our partners as valued (we need them) and deserving (they
have helped us; and they are in a sense equivalent to us).
We share the rewards equally or proportionately because all partners are equivalent
and equal, because: 1) all have contributed; 2) of self-other equivalence.
Self-other equivalence (“you = me”)
The existence of separate roles, each with its own necessary role ideals, leads to
the fact that among partners, roles can in principle be reversed, and as long as
the role ideals are upheld, the result will be the same. Therefore the role ideals
are “partner independent”, and must be upheld by any person who fills that role.
The implication of this is recognition of a kind of self-other equivalence among
collaborative partners: that within the roles, people can be interchangeable.
Within a collaboration, each partner will necessarily swap perspectives with the
other in order to monitor what they are doing, and also, in order to monitor what
they themselves are doing from the other partner's perspective.
In turn, this recognition of self-other equivalence, and perspective-swapping, has
a number of implications for morality:
equality of status, where everyone is on a fundamentally equal plane. Each person
playing any role is forced to submit to role ideals, impartially, in the course of
everyday life: each ego is thus constrained by circumstances. Therefore, in a sense,
it is possible for the concerns of others to be seen as important as one's own. In
a potential or actual interdependent collaborative situation, where people are [potentially]
helping each other, this leads to a sense of mutual deservingness.
Equality of status must lead to a degree of mutual respect, as each recognises the
other as an equal in a fundamental way. This respect in turn makes possible a sense
of the deservingness of the other person.
Mutual deservingness, mutual respect, and impartial equality of status, make fairness
possible (see Perfect Compassion)
reversing perspectives in the imagination. This is the origin of the Golden Rule.
If somebody treats us badly we can say to them, “how would you like it if I did that
If we see somebody in need, our empathic concern makes us trade their place imaginatively
with a valued person X: ourselves or another loved one who may be similar to them
in some way. Then we say, “I wouldn’t like it if that happened to X”.
We sometimes say to someone, “if I were in your position, I might have done the same
Partner control and joint self-governance
In partner control, we attempt to turn a failing or disrespectful partner into a
good one, through “respectful protest”, or through helping and guidance, or a combination
of the two. (See also: unconditional love.)
There is positive pressure to treat the other partners well – the respect and deservingness
we feel towards them, and because we internalise “commitment to achieve goal and
uphold role ideals” as “responsibility to others”. There is also negative pressure
in the forms of 1) the threat of sanctioning or 2) partner choice (i.e. rejection
in favour of somebody more cooperative) and 3) guilt.
Each partner relinquishes some of her personal control to the joint agent “we”, and
in doing so, grants authority to the other partners to sanction her if she is wayward
in carrying out her duties.
Through role reversal and self-other equivalence, she will also judge herself as
deserving of their sanctioning under these circumstances, and if she is cooperative,
will attempt to correct her behaviour in response. The judgment is seen as legitimate
because it comes from “us”, the joint agent formed by a joint commitment.
The legitimacy of “we” to regulate “you” and “me” derives from: 1) the impartiality
of self-other equivalence; 2) the possibility of role reversal, again because of
self-other equivalence, whereby I can judge myself impartially as I judge others.
Each partner’s performance is therefore continually monitored and evaluated by the
other partners, and by themselves, and each governs or regulates themselves in accordance
with this evaluation.
It is in the common ground knowledge of all partners that each is expecting to be
treated with respect and as equals.
If partner A feels that he has been treated unfairly, unjustly or disrespectfully
by partner B, he can make an “respectful protest” towards partner B, informing her
of his resentment but assuming that she is a cooperative person who wants to maintain
her cooperative identity. If partner B is still behaving poorly after this, then
partner A always has an option to change partners (partner choice), and partner B
will run the risk of damaging her own cooperative identity.
This illustrates that the construction of a cooperative identity, and the process
of morality itself, are interpersonal: both social and personal.
Fair sharing and mutual deservingness
Sharing fairly means to be treated as an equal and given an equal share (equality)
or an equal return on investment (proportionality). We feel that other collaborative
partners are deserving because
self-other equivalence (“you = me”), and mutual recognition of value, lead to mutual
they have helped us towards a joint goal (“you > me”);
we are each judged deserving (or not) by “us”, the joint agent, for the quality of
the ways in which we uphold general and specific role ideals (or not) (“we > me”).
Partners to a joint commitment do not just prefer that we share equally; they feel
that we owe it to one another to share equally.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality”
Free riders have not done a share of the work towards our shared goal, are not part
of our joint agent “we”, and have not helped us. According to this, they do not
deserve any of the rewards.
Responsibility and guilt in a cooperative relationship
We decide to collaborate, and in order to reduce our risks, each makes and receives
a joint commitment, backed up by our cooperative identities. Alternatively, we fall
into an implicit commitment, perhaps based on loyalty.
The commitment is to achieve both the goals and sub-goals (general and specific role
ideals), together, and to share the rewards fairly.
I identify with our joint agent “we” (“our goals are aligned”) because it fits in
with my cooperative identity (“I am a cooperative person collaborating with a cooperative
entity”). (“we = me”)
In making the commitment, and because I care about my partner (in a small interdependent
group), I relinquish some control to the joint agent (“we > me”).
This commitment and relinquishing of control is internalised as a responsibility
to others to uphold the general and specific role ideals, thereby helping to maximise
the benefits all round (“others > me”; “you = me”). The joint commitment regulates
the self-regulating “us”.
This is similar to the modern situation where we all agree to follow laws for the
sake of a society that benefits everybody as far as possible, i.e. fairly.
If I fail in this regard then I will punish myself with feelings of guilt, and may
elicit protest from others.
Therefore, there is both a positive normative pressure (in the form of responsibility)
and a negative normative pressure (in the form of potential guilt or, conversely,
a respectful protest) within and between individuals.
Alvard, Michael S. in Baumard, N; André, J; and Sperber, D (2013) – “A Mutualistic
Approach to Morality: The Evolution of Fairness by Partner Choice”. Behavioral and
Brain Sciences, 36(1), p. 80
Tomasello, Michael – “A Natural History of Human Morality”: Harvard 2016
Tomasello, Michael – “A Natural History of Human Thinking”: Harvard 2014
Each year 1.6 billion passengers fly to destinations around the world. Patiently
we line up to be checked and patted down by someone we’ve never seen before. We
file on board an aluminium cylinder and cram our bodies into narrow seats, elbow
to elbow, accommodating one another for as long as the flight takes.
With nods and resigned smiles, passengers make eye contact and then yield to latecomers
pushing past. When a young man wearing a backpack hits me with it as he reaches
up to cram his excess paraphernalia into an overhead compartment, instead of grimacing
or baring my teeth, I smile (weakly), disguising my irritation. Most people on board
ignore the crying baby, or pretend to. A few of us are even inclined to signal the
mother with a sideways nod and a wry smile that says, “I know how you must feel.”
We want her to know that we understand, and that the disturbance she thinks her
baby is causing is not nearly as annoying as she imagines, even though we also can
intuit, and so can she, that the young man beside her, who avoids looking at her
and keeps his eyes determinedly glued to the screen of his laptop, does indeed mind
every bit as much as she fears.
Thus does every frequent flier employ on a regular basis peculiarly empathic aptitudes
for theorizing about the mental states and intentions of other people, our species’
gift for mutual understanding. Cognitively oriented psychologists refer to the ability
to think about what someone else knows as having a “theory of mind.” They design
clever experiments to determine at what age human children acquire this ability and
to learn how good at mind reading (or more precisely, attributing mental states to
others) nonhuman animals are. Other psychologists prefer the related term “intersubjectivity,”
which emphasizes the capacity and eagerness to share in the emotional states and
experiences of other individuals – and which, in humans at least, emerges at a very
early stage of development, providing the foundation for more sophisticated mind
reading later on.
Whatever we call it, this heightened interest in and ability to scan faces, and our
perpetual quest to understand what others are thinking and intending, to empathize
and care about their experiences and goals, help make humans much more adept at cooperating
with the people around us than other apes are. Far oftener than any of us are aware,
humans intuit the mental experiences of other people, and – the really interesting
thing – care about having other people share theirs. Imagine two seat-mates on this
plane, one of whom develops a severe migraine in the course of the flight. Even
though they don't speak the same language, her new companion helps her, perhaps holding
a wet cloth to her head, while the sick woman tries to reassure her that she is feeling
better. Humans are often eager to understand others, to be understood, and to cooperate.
Passengers crowded together on an aircraft are just one example of how empathy and
intersubjectivity are routinely brought to play in human interactions. It happens
so often that we take the resulting accommodations for granted. But just imagine
if, instead of humans being crammed and annoyed aboard this airplane, it were some
other species of ape.
At moments like this, it is probably just as well that mind reading in humans remains
an imperfect art, given the oddity of my sociobiological musings. I cannot keep
from wondering what would happen if my fellow human passengers suddenly morphed into
another species of ape. What if I were travelling with a planeload of chimpanzees?
Any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached,
with the baby still breathing and unmaimed. Bloody earlobes and other appendages
would litter the aisles. Compressing so many highly impulsive strangers into a tight
space would be a recipe for mayhem.
... Descriptions of missing digits, ripped ears, and the occasional castration are
scattered throughout the field accounts of langur and red colobus monkeys, of Madagascar
lemurs, and of our own close relatives among the Great Apes. Even among famously
peaceful bonobos, a type of chimpanzee so rare and difficult to access in the wild
that most observations come from zoos, veterinarians sometimes have to be called
in following altercations to stitch back on a scrotum or penis. This is not to say
that humans don't display similar propensities toward jealousy, indignation, rage,
xenophobia, or homicidal violence. But compared with our nearest ape relations,
humans are more adept at forestalling outright mayhem. Our first impulse is usually
to get along. We do not automatically attack a stranger, and face-to-face killings
are a much harder sell for humans than for chimpanzees. With 1.6 billion airline
passengers annually compressed and manhandled, no dismemberments have been reported
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy – “Mothers and Others”
“=>” means “leads to”
COMMITMENT TO CONVENTIONS, NORMS AND INSTITUTIONS AS LEGITIMATE => MORAL SELF-GOVERNANCE
A) identification with the group by being born into it and conforming to its ways
of doing things =>
coauthorship of conventions, norms and institutions
B) objective point of view and objective morality =>
3rd party norm enforcement =>
judgement of 3rd party comes from “us” as legitimately correct =>
judgement is deserved
A) + B) => commitment to conventions, norms and institutions as legitimate =>
C) obligation to other group members.
A) + B) => commitment to conventions, norms and institutions as legitimate =>
normative judgements of deservingness on self =>
creation of moral identity =>
D) judgements of self and others for how taking care of “me”, “you”, fairness,
and “we” concerns.
C) + D) => moral self-governance in an ethical direction
COOPERATION IN LARGE GROUPS – group morality
interdependence and group loyalty
coordination through similarity and cultural knowledge in common ground
conventions, norms and institutions
the objective point of view
objective right and wrong
cultural differences in objective right and wrong
commitment to conventions, norms and institutions (the social contract and its legitimacy)
obligation to others
moral identity and moral self-governance
organised religion and large-scale cooperation
agriculture, warfare, and hostility to out-group members
We believe that by 150,000-100,000 years ago, modern Homo sapiens were living in
large tribal groups separated into small bands of, at most, around 150 people (the
“Dunbar number”). Because of increased division of labour by this time, the individual
would have been totally dependent on the [tribal] group, and facing two challenges:
1) how to recognise, and therefore trust, other people as group members; 2) to help
and protect, and be helped and protected by, other group members.
depend on each other and on the group
help each other
identify with the group (“our goals are aligned”; “we are similar”)
trust, and feel solidarity with, each other
act in similar ways
have knowledge, skills and beliefs in common (cultural common ground)
Interdependence, group loyalty, and in-group favouritism
Because of increased division of labour, an individual was by now totally dependent
on the group to provide all the necessaries of life. This dependence, analogous
to the dependence of early humans upon their collaborative partners, meant that the
individual now felt loyalty and commitment to the group as a whole.
The interdependence of all in the group led individuals to identify with the group
(“I am one of ‘us’, the big interdependent ‘we’”: “our goals are aligned”).
This interdependence also served to spread empathic concern and helping to all in
the group, favouring those within the group over those outside it.
Similarity and coordination
In order for group members to coordinate with both friends and strangers within the
group, they all needed to do things in standard ways that all in the group would
The knowledge of how to do things in these standard ways was therefore held in common
ground by the whole group, and formed part of the group’s culture.
Conforming to these standard ways of the group led individuals to identify further
with the group: “we” do things in “this” way.
Conforming to standard ways also allowed trust and solidarity to develop between
group members, qualities which may otherwise be lost on a large scale as people no
longer personally knew everyone in the group (their collaborative partners).
Finally, conforming to the group’s ways allowed group members to recognise each other.
To this end, at some point, modern humans began to mark or decorate themselves in
distinctive ways in order to show their group membership.
It was therefore necessary, in a practical sense, for group members to conform to
the group’s standard ways.
These standard cultural ways of doing things became part of the group members’ shared
The standard ways of doing things fell into three categories: conventions, norms
According to modern social psychological research, there are two ways that a group
can be formed: 1) on the basis of collaborating together; 2) on the basis of similarity
of some kind.
Cultural knowledge in common ground
When two strangers want to cooperate, it is necessary to establish a certain amount
of knowledge in common ground. A large group will maintain a bank of conventional
knowledge, skills and practices in common ground that all group members can use to
coordinate with strangers. This group-wide bank of knowledge, skills and practices
forms the culture of the group.
Conventions, norms and institutions
Conventions are the group’s standard ways of performing practical tasks, role ideals
necessary for in-group coordination with strangers, held in group-wide cultural common
ground. The group therefore has “correct” and “incorrect” ways of performing its
In a large group, individuals do not have personal knowledge of the track records
of all members, apart from, possibly, reputational information and gossip, so other
ways to know how to trust and coordinate with people had to be found.
[Social norms:] a set of expectations that everyone in the group shared in cultural
common ground about how individuals must behave in various situations to be cooperative.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality”
Social and moral norms can be seen as partner control on a large scale: a group-wide
system of social control that enables coordination and cooperation in otherwise potentially
disruptive and competitive situations, and generally facilitates the cohesiveness
and smooth running of the group, to the benefit of all group members. As such, they
are shared by the whole group and form part of its cultural common ground, and so
everyone expects everyone else to follow them, and group members enforce norms upon
each other. People follow norms for at least three practical reasons: 1) to be recognised
as part of the group; 2) for coordination with others; 3) from fear of punishment,
including possible threats to their reputation.
The most universal norms, worldwide, are those around situations that have the strongest
tendency to bring out people's selfish or aggressive sides, e.g. regarding marriage
or the sharing of food. For example, in the UK, when a group of people are waiting
for something on a first-come first-served basis, it is the norm to form an orderly
queue, with later arrivals adding themselves to the back of the queue, so as to forestall
competition and selfishness.
Patriarchy may be seen as a set of norms aimed at cooperativising the competitive
mate guarding (seclusion and protection) by males of females.
Since they promote cooperation, a subset of norms are moral norms, ultimately connected
with the small-group morality of helping, fairness, and generally being a good personal
cooperator. Moral norms thereby define right and wrong within a group.
Norms may well be the modern-day equivalents of the role ideals of small-scale cooperation.
As such, norms are a form of ideal cooperative behaviour.
It is easy to see how quickly a group’s code of norms can become a “twisting garden
Institutions are sets of norms or rules that are specially created to meet specific
collective goals, often administered by special governing organisations. An institution
For example, modern humans were presumably pair bonding and mating in accordance
with informal social norms before, at some point, some societies began institutionalizing
marriage by drawing up explicit sets or rules for who can marry whom, what is an
appropriate dowry or bride price, where the couple should live, what happens to the
children if one person abandons the marriage, and so forth. And the marriage often
was performed in a public ceremony with publicly expressed commitments (aka promises).
Knight (1992), among others, argues that individuals are driven to institutionalize
activities when the expected benefits are being unacceptably diminished by the costs
of inefficiencies, disputes, and norm enforcement (e.g., by the “transaction costs”
involved in settling disputes over bride price or compensation for abandonment).
Individuals thus explicitly and publicly promise to bind themselves to certain institutional
rules. The advantage to individuals is that they can now better predict what others
will do, and in addition, punishments are delivered impersonally by the institution
or group, so that no single individual has to bear the risks and costs. Ideally,
the diminution of undesirable transaction costs through institutionalization means
that many problems involving public goods are alleviated, and everyone benefits.
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality”
Reference: Knight, J. 1992. Institutions and social conflict.Cambridge, MA:
Cambridge University Press
Early humans felt themselves to be interchangeable with their collaborative partners,
since a role and its role ideals were standard and must be fulfilled by anyone playing
that role. Therefore they could swap perspectives with their collaborative partners,
and in fact they needed to as part of the collaborative process. The result was
that each person now had a view from “there” as well as “here”.
In a large interdependent group, each person has her role to play and must submit
to role ideals (conventions, norms). Each role is now fully “agent independent”
in that it could in theory be played by anyone in the group. Each person can now
swap perspectives with anyone and everyone in the group. The result is that as well
as his own perspective, each person now has a view from “everywhere” (or “nowhere”)
– the “objective” point of view.
Each person could now judge others, or be judged themselves, from an impartial point
of view: that of the cultural group in general. This is necessary for justice to
operate, as judgements of what someone deserves need an impartial external arbiter.
Objective right and wrong
The “local” standards or ideals of early humans (belonging to individual teams of
collaborators) thereby became group-wide or “objective” standards or ideals of the
ways things should be done – objectively correct or incorrect; objectively right
Children were taught by adults that “this is the way things are done” meaning the
right way, by all rational people, i.e. by those in our group. The voice of the
teachers was the authoritative voice of the culture at large and its venerated history.
Norms are seen as impartial and objective. They apply to anybody in the group, are
enforced by anybody in the group (as a representative of the group), and the standards
are impartial and seen as belonging to an objective world of values. Breaking a
norm threatens to rupture the moral order of the group, and with it, the fabric of
the group’s cooperation.
Since objectivity has the property of being group-wide, and norms specify what everyone
in the group (i.e. anyone who matters) should do, norms take on an objective quality.
Cultural differences in right and wrong
Cultural groups are a bit like species of animals, in that each group does the same
things (internal cooperation aimed at surviving, thriving and reproducing), and each
is adapted to its own natural niche, so each one is built and looks and acts differently,
in its own way. The set of norms in each group is created to deal with recurrent
competitive problems that may arise within that particular group based on its natural
circumstances. One group may face water shortages, so there are norms concerned
with saving water. Another may face competition from other groups, so it contains
a strong warrior culture. In another group, some people are able to accumulate capital
and resources, so there are strong norms designed to maintain a social hierarchy.
The social contract and its legitimacy, leading to moral self-governance
The argument for this is dense and involved, so it is presented in outline, together
with some explanatory notes.
The social contract; social obligation; moral self-governance
Because we identify with our cultural group and commit to its norms and values as
objectively true, and some of those norms and values are to do with helping and fairness,
we feel an obligation to our other group members to govern ourselves, each other,
and third parties in that direction.
To identify as a member of a cultural group has to be earned, as it is based on the
recognition of the others in the group. If they say I am not one of them, then I
am not. We earn it by proving that we are competent to follow the group's norms
Children are born into the group and accept its cultural values and institutions
as objectively correct. They identify with the group by learning to follow its values,
norms and practices. Since they are born into and identify with the group, they
assume a “coauthorship” of the norms and values, and this legitimises those norms
and values for the individual.
Since all in the group are seen as equals in some fundamental way (all have to submit
to role ideals in the service of the group), and in an interdependent group, all
are helping all, then all are seen as equally deserving of helping and fairness,
and this rewards individuals for their loyalty and motivates further the legitimacy
of the group’s cultural values. What is more, if everyone in the group is equally
deserving of helping and respect, then it follows that I must uphold the social contract
in order to help and respect them.
Finally, since the rules and norms have always been good for the group, they must
be correct, which provides another motivation to accept them as legitimate.
Since the conventions, norms and institutions of the group are seen by individuals
as objectively correct and legitimate, those individuals make a collective commitment
to them. This commitment is internalised as a sense of obligation to other group
members to follow those conventions and norms, including moral norms, and a desire
to govern oneself (and others) in this direction on behalf of the group. This commitment
also is an affirmation of one’s cultural identity.
This governing by and on behalf of the group “we” and its “objective” values is done
via the moral identity: a public moral identity is one’s reputation, and the personal
moral identity can be thought of as a combination of a conscience and a moral compass.
In accordance with moral norms, the individual judges themselves and others for
the way they balance concerns for “me”, “you”, “we” (observance of group norms and
conventions; observance of individual commitments), and equality or fairness.
Since the group's social contract is seen as legitimate and its values objective,
then its judgements are seen as deserved by the self and others. The moral identity
is created by the role reversal of judgements by third parties upon the self: the
self begins to make judgements upon the self.
If the individual later judges her own previous judgements as morally mistaken, then
she is likely to feel guilty and to wish to put right the resulting action, in order
to demonstrate to the world her own knowledge of her own mistake. This may be to
avoid punishment, but also to show solidarity with those who judge her harshly, as
a coauthor of the values and norms involved, which helps to maintain her public and
personal moral identity, which in turn maintains her position as a functioning group
member (where the ultimate alternative is expulsion from the group).
The moral identity thereby facilitates moral deliberation and judgement in the individual
about the self and others.
Organised religion and large-scale cooperation
Organised religion seems to have arisen in the past 10,000 years, since humans discovered
agriculture and started living in culturally mixed city states (Norenzayan). This
will have presented new problems for large-scale cooperation, for example, that people
were now sedentary and could not just move away from troublesome others; and a strong
hierarchy would have been reintroduced to social relations as some people were able
to accumulate resources and power over others.
Organised religion helps large scale cooperation in at least three ways (Norenzayan):
reputation monitoring and self-governance through God’s “eye in the sky”
partner choice, through “costly signals of faithful observance” that in theory proved
that someone could be trustworthy as a member of the faithful
partner control provided by God’s governance of the populace.
When religious people aim to follow moral norms, they are aspiring to something “higher”
than mere earthly concerns: they are attempting to please God by acting cooperatively
rather than selfishly.
Interestingly, Jesus’ morality is that of the small group (cooperation, helping,
fairness and unconditional love) and he explicitly rejected social norms.
Warfare and out-group hostility
There is almost no archaeological evidence of warfare until 10,000 years ago and
the discovery of agriculture. The evidence from before that time is rather of peaceful
trade and inter-breeding of species. Human beings were relatively rare on the Earth
and so they were probably more valuable as collaborative partners than threatening.
We conjecture therefore that out-group hostility evolved a long time after in-group
favouritism, when city states were competing to accumulate resources. Other groups
and their members would have been seen as free riders or competitors, with strange
and unnatural norms that do not coordinate with ours.