People who cannot work together cannot succeed together.  

Mark Price



Features of cooperation

Separate interests become joint interest


Partner choice

Initiating collaboration

Working together

(“ought”: “we > me” → “others > me”)

See also: map of cooperation



Cooperation and the evolution of morality

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 species.  

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:  

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. we feel a sense of responsibility to our partners to uphold role ideals, including helping and fairness, and guilt when we fail.  (we > me)
  4. we feel a sense of responsibility to all partners to share the spoils to our mutual satisfaction (i.e. fairly).  (we > me)
  5. we feel a need to treat all partners as equals and with respect (i.e. fairly).  (you = me)  

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 roles.  


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 activities.  

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 potential partners.  

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.  


Initiating collaboration

We can initiate a collaborative activity either by:

(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])

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 attitude.  

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 team”).

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 many.

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 failing.  

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 norms.

Moral 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, i.e., ethical principles (e.g., reciprocity, fairness, helping in response to need, honesty, accountability, commitment, responsibility to others, upholding specific role ideals) can be seen as general role ideals of being a good cooperator.  In other words, they are ideal ways to be cooperative.  

Fairness as a cooperative role ideal

Fairness can be seen as a cooperative distribution of benefit and harm, an ideal distribution, an optimum one that all concerned can feel happy with.  

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:  

If we feel that someone else deserves something, then other-directed inequity aversion has been achieved.  

Mutual deservingness, mutual respect, and impartial equality of status, make fairness possible (see Perfect Compassion)  

If somebody treats us badly we can say to them, “how would you like it if I did that to you?”  

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 thing.”  


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


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 yet.  

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy – “Mothers and Others”


“=>” means “leads to”




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 =>

           internalised as

       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





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.  


In-group members:  


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 know.  

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.  

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 cultural identity.  

The standard ways of doing things fell into three categories: conventions, norms and institutions.  

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 roles.  

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, group members enforce norms upon each other, and we look favourably on people who enforce norms, and unfavourably on those who fail to.  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 (domination, seclusion and protection) by primate males of females for reproductive purposes.  A human norm of sexual pair bonding, together with norms of female subjugation and sexual control, and male chivalry, typically have been our cooperative solutions to this otherwise competitive problem.  

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, social norms are a form of ideal cooperative behaviour.  

We may imagine that a group’s cultural, religious and moral norms, ideals, can interact over time to become a “twisting garden of rules”.  A culture is innately conservative, relatively unchanging, since tradition is a part of culture, and culture is passed down through time socially.  

Institutions are sets of norms or rules that are specially created to meet specific collective goals, often administered by special governing organisations.  An institution is public.  


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, and as they could swap roles, 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 or wrong.  

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 and practices.  

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):

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.  

See also:  disgust, targeted helping





Norenzayan, Ara – “Big Gods – how religion transformed cooperation and conflict”

Tomasello, Michael – “A Natural History of Human Morality”: Harvard 2016

Tomasello, Michael – “A Natural History of Human Thinking”: Harvard 2014