Review: Morality as Cooperation

At our March meeting, Dr Oliver Scott Curry (Oxford University) joined us to talk about Morality as Cooperation: how evolution explains ethics.

Oliver described the research that has recently been carried out by a team from the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford. It set out to demonstrate the validity and universality of the hypothesis that morality or moral behaviour is ‘essentially a set of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life.’ 

This definition – the equivalence of morals and cooperation – is not controversial. It has been proposed and accepted by philosophers from Aristotle until today. What is controversial is the proposal that this equivalence applies not only in Western societies but also throughout the world. The alternative view is that morals are relative rather than universal and that what is considered moral behaviour in some societies is seen as evil behaviour in others. 

He explained that all humans face a range of problems of cooperation, and have developed a range of solutions, based on instincts, intuitions, inventions and institutions. These solutions motivate social, cooperative and altruistic behaviour. They also provide the criteria by which we evaluate the behaviour of others. We call these solutions morals or moral behaviour. 

The research identified seven types or dimensions of cooperation: 

  1. Kinship e.g. special obligations to kin, duty of care to children, incest aversion – ‘blood is thicker than water’;
  2. Mutualism e.g. loyalty, unity, solidarity, conformity – ‘united we stand, divided we fall’;
  3. Exchange e.g. reciprocity, gratitude, guilt, forgiveness – one good turn deserves another;
  4. Hawk e.g. bravery, generosity, noblesse oblige – ‘with great power comes great responsibility’;
  5. Dove e.g. respect, deference, obedience, humility – ‘blessed are the meek’;
  6. Division e.g. fairness, equity, compromise – ‘let’s meet in the middle’:
  7. Possession e.g. property rights, territory, prohibition of theft – ‘possession is nine-tenths of the law’

Oliver explained that all seven dimensions can be identified in all societies, although their relative importance does vary. 

The research method involved searching the electronic Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) for references to cooperative behaviour. eHRAF is a database of thousands of textual ethnographic descriptions of social behaviour in hundreds of societies all over the world, collected over the last 200 or so years. Each example was classified under one of the seven dimensions of cooperation and was also checked for approval or disapproval in the society from which it was collected. Of the 962 examples that were analysed all but one were regarded with approval. 

This finding provided the research team with the confirmation that it was seeking, i.e. that moral behaviour is indeed cooperative behaviour and that it is a universal human characteristic. 

There followed a very lively Q&A and discussion among the large audience that had assembled for this meeting, and this discussion continued informally in The Rose pub afterwards. 

I was left with two thoughts. The first concerned the research method: if all of the ethnographic descriptions had been collected by Oxford anthropologists, or even by independent anthropologists trained or influenced by Oxford anthropologists, there would have been a high risk of confirmation bias, i.e. of observing and documenting the kind of behaviour that the observer was hoping to find, rather than the behaviour that was actually taking place. Oliver said that the team had been very aware of this risk and had taken careful steps to control it. However, I was not convinced. 

My second thought was what does this all mean for humanists? Since, presumably, we are no longer reminded of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes in church every Sunday, or their equivalent moral rules in other religions, how do we determine our own moral behaviour? Oliver’s findings surely provide us with guidelines. In any particular situation we can ask ourselves which of the seven dimensions of cooperation is most relevant, and then determine what kind of cooperative behaviour would be most cooperative, useful, honest and therefore ‘moral’. You may not agree. 

Review by Tony Brewer

You can find the slides to Oliver’s presentation here: