How I treat you depends partly on how you treat others.


Cooperation, interdependence, reputation and partner choice



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







Watched people are nice people.  

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


Chimpanzee groups

Human groups

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 and skills.  

When an individual transgressed, he or she would have to worry about:

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”.  

See also: evolution of social norms




Moral identity

Governing the self on behalf of the group, through a sense of responsibility, obligation and guilt.  


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 norm

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 psyche.  




Organised religion

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 more moralistic.  

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