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 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






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 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.  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, 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”.  

See also: evolution of social norms



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 human psyche.  



Moral identity