How I treat you depends partly on how you treat others.
Cooperation, interdependence, reputation and partner choice
I need other people to cooperate with me.
Others need people to cooperate with.
I need to evaluate others by how cooperative they are.
Others need to evaluate me by how cooperative I am.
I need to care about what others think of me.
I need to regulate my actions in order to fit in with the moral expectations of others.
I may feel shame and guilt if I do not fit in with the moral expectations of others.
In a small group of people surviving together, such as early humans or hunter-gatherer
societies today, even the most dominant individuals need people to cooperate with
and are aware that they may be rejected as cooperative partners if they themselves
are not good cooperators. Partners are chosen on the basis of their past performance
as cooperators, and this information forms their reputation: the way in which they
are seen by others. The best way to be seen to be a good cooperator is actually
to be one.
Over history, as morality became more complicated, moral reputation has come to be
seen relative to the prevailing norms of the group, whatever those happen to be.
Of course, a “reputation” can be for anything.
Cooperation and reputation in chimpanzees and humans
Our nearest relatives are the chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimpanzees have a highly
stratified, rigidly hierarchical social structure and are fairly aggressive; bonobos
have a matriarchal social structure (females are in charge) and are much more peaceful.
Chimpanzees are not cooperative (collaborating, coordinating, communicating) to anything
like the same degree as humans. This is probably why they do not particularly care
about how they are seen by others, as has been shown in experiments by Michael Tomasello
and his team at the Max Planck Institute.
In an experimental study, 5-year-old human children share more and steal less when
they are being watched by a peer then when they are alone. In contrast, chimpanzees
behave the same whether they are being watched by a [more dominant] groupmate or
not. This species difference suggests that humans’ concern for their own self-reputation,
and their tendency to manage the impression they are making on others, may be unique
to humans among primates.
Jan M. Engelmann, Esther Herrmann, Michael Tomasello – “Five-Year-Olds, but Not Chimpanzees,
Attempt to Manage Their Reputations” – PLOS One 2012
partner choice, partner control
Credit: Penny Spikins, Barry Wright and Derek Hodgson – “Are there alternative adaptive
strategies to human pro-sociality? The role of collaborative morality in the emergence
of personality variation and autistic traits” – Time and Mind 15 Nov 2016
Results of stealing / helping tests in chimpanzees
Results of stealing / helping tests in human children
Credit: Jan M. Engelmann, Esther Herrmann, Michael Tomasello – “Five-Year-Olds,
but Not Chimpanzees, Attempt to Manage Their Reputations” – PLOS One 2012
Individual action, joint cooperation, group cooperation
Individual action and thinking
We assume that in the respect of cooperating together to achieve complex goals, chimpanzees
and bonobos are like our last common ancestor, which lived around 6-8 million years
ago in the forests of Africa.
Chimpanzees act mainly individually and competitively, competing with others for
valued resources. They will form alliances in twos and threes, and sometimes act
as a group (e.g. when crossing roads, or when males are hunting monkeys or patrolling
borders). Their thinking is Machiavellian: keeping track of dominance and alliance
within the rest of the group with a view to how this affects themselves.
Their daily foraging activities are not cooperative: they just land up at a fruit
tree, and all spread out to gather fruit next to each other. There is little or
no cooperation and therefore very little need for partner choice.
Joint action and thinking, and partner choice
We assume that very early humans cooperated to hunt in groups of two or three from
a larger, loose band of collaborators. This introduces strong partner choice selection
and the need to be, and to be seen as, a good and valuable cooperator, as this affected
the individual’s likelihood of feeding or starving. This strong partner choice would
have been a strong evolutionary pressure towards being and acting certain ways. Particularly,
what would have been valued (from looking at modern hunter gatherer societies) was
cooperation, prosocial behaviour, fairness, sharing, generosity, and relevant attitudes
When an individual transgressed, he or she would have to worry about:
harming specific others
not conforming to expectations of valued others
Individuals would be concerned with being judged and evaluated as cooperative partners.
They would have monitored and regulated their own behaviour according to this standard
of the opinion of valued individual others.
Collective action and thinking, and reputation
Over time, we are not sure when, joint action was scaled up to involve the group
as a whole. Individuals would now think and act on their own and jointly and collectively.
There would probably have been an “objective” standard for how things were done:
we have to [hunt / gather / collect honey / raise children] this way otherwise we
don’t thrive, survive and pass on our genes. This was applied by all and to all:
each person was expected to do their part in the right way.
This introduces the idea of third party enforcement: group members expected all other
group members to play by the rules (for the sake of everyone) and would be able to
enforce this on behalf of the group. In modern times, small children will enforce
rules on each other, saying “we do it like this, not like that”. These rules and
their enforcement was seen as the group’s rules and evaluation, and possibly even
God’s rules and evaluation.
As well as self monitoring and regulation, as before, we enforce these group rules
on ourselves in the form of guilt and shame, on behalf of the group. Guilt is the
private feeling of wrong doing, and shame is the feeling of having one’s crime exposed
to the world. Even if we may feel we have done nothing wrong, we still feel the
shame of public disapproval. Sometimes, we feel more concerned with being exposed
than with actually doing something which we know to be wrong.
Concern in joint thinking with the approval of valued individual others becomes,
in collective thinking, concern with violating group norms of behaviour and of public
status, knowledge and disapproval – reputation.
This need to act in accordance with group norms applies equally to everyone in the
group, and is objective in that it does not depend on any single person’s point of
view or opinion: the group has spoken. The joint perspective of two cooperative
partners has become extended, also, into a fully objective perspective of the whole
group: “anyone’s perspective”.
We all want to look good, not to say impressive, in front of everyone else.
Backbiting and slander
Islam describes backbiting (bad-mouthing people for negative purposes) and slander
(saying bad things about people which are not true) as great sins.
A normal feature of schizophrenic delusion, at least in the West, is to feel that
one’s thoughts are being broadcast to others, thoughts are being beamed into one’s
mind, and one is being morally tested. It seems that the surveillance we all feel
from all sides, and the accompanying evaluation, penetrate deeply into the psyche.