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 if I do not fit in with the moral expectations of others, and guilt
if I do not fit in with my own moral expectations.
We all want to look good, not to say impressive, to ourselves and everyone else.
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 groups grew large and social norms became necessary for generalised
social control, moral reputation has come to be seen relative to the 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,
perhaps because their food supply is more dense and plentiful. It could be said
that humans contain both sides in their nature.
Chimpanzees do not need to cooperate (collaborate, coordinate, communicate) to anything
like the same degree as humans. Therefore they presumably do not need to care so
much about how they are seen as others, and this has been shown to be true 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
moral identity (social and personal)
Watched people are nice people.
Ara Norenzayan – “Big Gods – how religion transformed cooperation and conflict”
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 dominances and alliances
within the rest of the group with a view to how this affects their own status.
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. As there is little
or no cooperation, there is correspondingly 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 others
disapproval from others.
Early humans 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 actual and potential collaborators.
Collective action and thinking, and reputation
Over time, certainly by 150,000 years ago, as there is evidence for cultural differentiation
between groups: joint action was scaled up to involve the group as a whole. Individuals
would now think and act: 1) on their own; 2) jointly; and 3) collectively as a group.
The large size of the groups of modern humans meant that not everyone knew each other
within the group, therefore reputation in itself became ineffective to govern behaviour
on a large scale. Conventional ways of doing things, which were found to be the
successful ways, became formalised into social and moral norms, along with the existing
interpersonal morality of fairness and helping in response to need.
This introduces the idea of third party enforcement: group members expected all other
group members to follow the norms (for the sake of everyone’s success) 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 “objective” norms and evaluative
authority, and eventually with the rise of organised religion, those of the gods.
As well as self monitoring and regulation, as before, we enforce these group norms
on ourselves 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 for violating group norms of behaviour and for public
status, knowledge and disapproval – reputation.
This need to act in accordance with group norms applies equally to everyone in the
group, and, as self-other equivalence scaled up to agent-independence (interchangeable
people within fixed roles and standards) 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”.
Governing the self on behalf of the group, through a sense of responsibility, obligation
violators of moral norms punish themselves ... through feelings of guilt. They take
on the perspective and attitude of the group towards the judgements that they themselves
have just made. Their commitment to upholding the social norms of the group, along
with their ability and tendency to view themselves as simply one not-so-special member
of the group, leads to the kind of self-flagellation that only humans could invent.
chastising oneself in the same way one would chastise others for violating a social
Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality”
Just I am judging others, I know that others are judging me. Our judgement comes
from the group I was born into, and therefore is governed by the norms I was born
into and sign up to – “we judging me”. Through self-other equivalence, I internalise
this as “me judging me on behalf of the group”.
This moral opinion of myself by myself and others is called the moral identity.
Moral identity therefore has a social dimension and a personal dimension. The social
dimension is called reputation.
The moral identity endures over time and the individual feels the desire to maintain
a good moral identity, whatever that means to them. It is common for a person’s
moral identity to develop and mature over their lifetime, so that they become better
at behaving according to moral norms.
Sometimes I may judge that my previous judgement was wrong, and now I feel guilty.
If someone’s moral identity gets damaged, it must be repaired in order for the person
to feel OK: they themselves must make reparations. (see also: moral injury).
Concerns of moral self-governance:
Concerns about myself and my own thriving, surviving and reproducing.
Concerns about the welfare of others.
Concerns about equality and fairness with others as equally deserving people.
we-concerns (face-to-face we and group we)
There are two levels of cooperation and morality: face to face relationships, and
the relationships within the group as a whole.
The face to face morality of fairness and helping in response to need would have
evolved first, presumably soon after early humans found themselves marooned on the
savannah with not much readily available to eat, around 2 million years ago in Africa
(Homo erectus). Michael Tomasello in “A Natural History of Human Morality” puts
the figure at around 4 hundred thousand years ago (Homo Heidelbergensis).
The group-minded morality and cooperative skills would presumably have evolved in
the context of groups growing larger, and there is evidence of cultural markings
from around 150,000 years ago (Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalis(?)).
Group-mindedness includes using social norms and conventions, reputation, moralised
religion, and in-group favouritism and loyalty. Out-group members may not be seen
as part of one’s moral community, and therefore either irrelevant or a threat.
Commitment and social obligation
In a face to face cooperative arrangement, morality comes into play. Each partner
expects the other, and themselves, to play their parts diligently and skilfully and
with to treat the other with respect and fairness. This may be seen as the we (commitment)
governing me (individuals).
Within a large social group such as we all live in today, everyone has expectations
that everyone will play their part according to the social and moral norms and conventions.
We are all governed by an internal and external expectation of obligation and responsibility
to behave in certain morally acceptable ways. If we make a mistake and fail to live
up to this, then we feel guilt and a need to undo the action.
Any or all of these concerns may conflict, leading to a moral quandary or dilemma.
Each ethical decision is a creative act of balancing these different concerns and
interpreting them according to context.
Backbiting and slander
Reputation spreads through language and gossip. Islam describes backbiting (bad-mouthing
people for negative purposes) and slander (saying bad things about people which are
not true) as great sins. For each of us, our reputation and standing in the world
are of supreme importance, so to damage someone’s reputation through falsehood or
malice is a serious offence.
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 human
By 10,000 years ago, people in the middle East had begun settling in agricultural
city states, where we may imagine a number of different cultures would be forced
to exist cheek by jowl within a relatively large, densely packed population. An
individual no longer had personal knowledge or even second-hand knowledge of all
other (city state) group members. Under these circumstances, how can an individual
know who to trust? How can society therefore be coordinated on a large scale?
In moralistic religions, this job is effectively given to the “eye in the sky”, the
all-seeing god or gods who keep an eye on the behaviour of subjects at all times,
and reward or punish them appropriately, including in “the afterlife”.
The moralistic religion works to promote large-scale trust through two mechanisms:
costly signalling and supernatural watching.
Costly signalling means the credible displays of faith that believers must make in
order to be trusted as true followers of the religion. A credible display of faith
must not be worth faking, otherwise it would often be faked to achieve the trust
benefits accruing to the faithful. Examples of credible displays of faith include
changes in diet or daily schedules of prayer.
The supernatural watcher is God's “eye in the sky”.
Studies have found that that as human group sizes grow larger, their Gods become
Reference: Ara Norenzayan – “Big Gods – how religion transformed cooperation and