Cooperation: An Objective Moral Principle/Standard?

I wrote a blog post, a few months back, that wondered if nature's prime directive (survival) could be used as the basis for morality. Since then, I've realized that I missed the most important point of all: survival of our species depends on cooperation. Survival is the purpose of cooperation, so survival is still the basis of morality but the operative principle is cooperation. This is because we are intelligent social animals who can choose to cooperate instead of fight or kill. Nature may be "red in tooth and claw" be we are more than mere animals.

One could pose moral questions in context of cooperation but I don't think humans can achieve perfect objectivity with any moral standard or principle. Everything gets interpreted subjectively and this is especially true with morality. People tend to bend reason to suit their existing ideas and beliefs.

Having said all that: I'd like to test both objectivity and cooperation as tools for moral decisions. I haven't found any moral quandary that can't be analyzed in context of cooperation. But the analysis is always MY application of cooperation. This doesn't automatically make it invalid but I find it hard to believe that humans can reach a consensus based on ANYBODY'S application of cooperation.

The lure of an objective moral principle or standard is, of course, as a tool to settle disputes and make public (and private) policy. Some would say that we already have an objective moral standard: based on the Bible or Quran or whatever. But there's a serious logical problem with basing morality on God's (or Allah's) will . . .

. . . If something is good because God wills it, why does God will it? Does he have a reason? If he has a reason, then good exists independent of God. If he has no reason, then good exists at the whim of God. "Thou shalt not kill" could just as easily be, "Thou shalt not cover your bodies", if God has no reason for what he wants or likes.

If we can't logically look to God for our morality, we need to look elsewhere. If morality is not to be found in the supernatural realm, that leaves us with the natural realm. Is there a natural principle for morality that would apply to all intelligent life (humans)? I say that, if there is an objective moral standard, cooperation must be it. If you know of a better standard, please tell me what it is. If you don't, then give me a scenario in which cooperation would fail as an objective moral standard.


Prior discussion reveals that I need to deal with the notion of altruism.

The word, "altruism" has a different meaning in science than it does to us laymen. Most dictionaries give the layman definition first, then the scientific definition.

According to (Webster's), altruism is:

1. The principle or practice of unselfish concern for, or devotion to, the welfare of others (opposed to egoism).

2. Animal Behavior. Behavior by an animal that may be to its disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind, as a warning cry that reveals the location of the caller to a predator.

According to, altruism is:

1. Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others

2. Zoology. Behaviour of an animal that benefits another at its own expense

Altruism is the opposite of selfishness. An altruistic person is motivated by others instead of himself. A purely altruistic person is entirely selfless. Please note that all these definitions define altruism as a one-way street. Concern is for others and not for one's self ("unselfish", "disinterested", "selfless", "at its own expense", "opposed to egoism").

I would agree that we feel great respect for the soldier who dives onto a hand grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers . . . or the fireman who races into a burning building to save people trapped inside. Heroism inspires and impresses us by its selflessness. But there are more common, mundane, forms of altruism as well. There are people who are masochists or emotionally needy or have low self esteem who sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others. Often, there's a religious component to their behavior because the Bible teaches that pride is a bad thing and that all credit goes to God. Whether or not these people are motivated by masochism, self-loathing or religion, they often evoke pity or disgust from us because they make human doormats of themselves. Despite what the Bible says, pride is normal and healthy unless in excess. So I disagree that "altruistic alternatives are good": some (if not most) clearly are not.

Contrast cooperation with altruism: cooperation is based on mutual benefit and respect. This is more rational than behavior based on altruism. For this reason, I've excluded altruism, in favor of cooperation, from the main discussion.

Views: 33

Comment by Fancy Nancy on August 10, 2010 at 5:21pm
Well there are reams of books on ethics, most of which I have not read = so meantime my thoughts ... we are social animals who enjoy friendship as well as the benefits of cooperation ... our parents care for us, we learn to care for ourselves and for others - it feels good; and we develop our thoughts by participating in discussions like this one ... The problems seem to arise when we compare ourselves with others, especially those we think of as different and/or outside our 'group' and especially when there is a fear of scarcity or physical threat... so some of us can care for our family and friends but even commit atrocities to those outside the tribe ... is tribalism innate? I don't know ...
Comment by Fancy Nancy on August 10, 2010 at 5:28pm
Also, of course, 'morality' can be relative/situational ... say your boss has a favourite plant - you have an accident with some coffee, it dies ... there are lots of redundancies and your job is on the line ... are you gonna lie to keep your job? I found out I might! Am I evil? Will you still talk to me?
Comment by Fancy Nancy on August 11, 2010 at 2:42am
Thanks Nelson, pal!
Comment by Jen on August 12, 2010 at 10:20am
Survival is the purpose of cooperation, so survival is still the basis of morality but the operative principle is cooperation. This is because we are intelligent social animals who can choose to cooperate instead of fight or kill.

You are assuming that we choose or at least at one point chose to cooperate. To me this seems to be a rather unsupported assumption in your blog post that I cannot overlook unless you give me more insight as to what you are basing this assumption upon. What if, instead of rationally choosing to cooperate, we evolved with an affinity to cooperate. In other words, what if cooperation in homo sapiens was not a trait that is chosen by any one individual or individuals within the species. What if the trait of cooperation survived and thrived in the species over generations of breeding and is now something that is inherent in the species itself? Those who cooperated begot more offspring than those who did not. Therefore, perhaps the species does not have a special ability to choose to cooperate but rather has acquired the trait as a product of the survival rate of those individuals who had the ability and compulsion to cooperate within a society of other individuals and now is a slave to that biological evolution.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 15, 2010 at 1:01am
Hi Nelson,

Saying that cooperation can be compromised is a whole different assertion than saying "cooperation isn't at all rational". But my thesis asserts that cooperation is based on survival. In your "prisoner's dilemma" scenario, cooperation has already been compromised. The scenario is now adversarial instead of cooperative. It can no longer continue as if cooperation is still intact when the logic dictates selfishness instead of cooperation. However, I will concede that circumstances might obfuscate our choices in just such a way. Prosecutors have the power to change the rules of the game. This is an artificial construct . . . not a natural one.

Despite this, I believe that cooperation would still prevail if survival value is taken into consideration. The prisoner's dilemma is presented as: "the dilemma arises because if neither defects on the other, the police can convict them both only on a lesser charge, so both would be better off if they stayed silent, but each is individually better off if he defects" This ignores the fact that if they both "defect" on each other, both can be convicted of GREATER charges. Cooperating, by maintaining silence, means they'll be convicted of lesser charges.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 15, 2010 at 1:04am
Hi Fancy Nancy,

I agree with you. Cooperation and altruism begins at home. As our sense of community expands, so does our circle of influence and cooperation. Ultimately, we will (eventually) all think globally and act accordingly. But not in our lifetimes.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 15, 2010 at 1:09am
Hi Jen,

Where did you get the notion that I am "assuming that we choose or at least at one point chose to cooperate"? I suppose all our actions are choices but I believe cooperation is evolved, via empathy, to enhance the survival of social animals. Our tendency is to cooperate. Conflict is riskier: we might end up on top or we might end up dead.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 15, 2010 at 1:11am
Hi Neal,

Yeah, I think you answered Jen better than I did. I'm still fuzzy on what she means.


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