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" but 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 (is symmetrical) and is judged by motive. This is more rational than behavior based on (asymmetrical) altruism. Note also that, in science, evolutionary altruism is driven by survival value (fitness), so is normally tentative: altruistic behavior is eventually withdrawn if not reciprocated in some way. In this regard, evolutionary altruism consists of initial vulnerable gestures or risks that can't be extended indefinitely without diminishing survival value. If the motive component of laic altruism could replace the fitness component of evolutionary altruism, then the latter would actually align closer to cooperation than to altruism.

For these reason, I've rejected altruism, in favor of cooperation, for this discussion.

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Comment by Atheist Exile on August 11, 2010 at 9:30pm
Well . . . I just Googled "morality and cooperation" and, right away, find that the roots of my own ideas go back (at least) to Jean Piaget's (1896 - 1980) ideas of moral realism and morality of cooperation. I'm going to go see what Wikipedia has to say about him and his theories.
Comment by John B Hodges on August 11, 2010 at 1:50pm
Thanks, Free Thinker- and I apologize for the triple post, they didn't show up immediately so I wondered if the posting had worked.
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 11, 2010 at 7:41am
Hi John,

I read your "Deconstructing "Christian" Morality", "Atheist Ethics in 500 Words", and "Atheist Foundations of Ethics". We do share a lot of similar ideas . . . which isn't surprising, given the well-worn path of freethought that precedes us. Every time (except once) I think I have an original idea, I've been able to Google previous versions of it. I do, however, have an interpretation of free will that appears to be original (based on Google searches).

I haven't yet Googled "objective moral standard" or "cooperation and morality" or whatever, because I'm sure it's already been thoroughly covered. All I do is try to write what seems important to me, based on my personal experience.
Comment by John B Hodges on August 11, 2010 at 4:22am
See "Atheist Foundations of Ethics", on my blog
Comment by John B Hodges on August 11, 2010 at 4:20am
I have several essays on ethics on my blog, which take a very similar approach.

To start with, see
Comment by John B Hodges on August 11, 2010 at 4:08am
On my blog, I have several essays on ethics that take a very similar approach.

John B. Hodges
Comment by Atheist Exile on August 11, 2010 at 12:52am
Hi feralboy12,

I think I must not have made myself as clear as I should. I am not saying that cooperation for its own sake is good or moral. I'm saying that survival-based cooperation can be used as a basis or guide for moral decision-making. Other components (good information, rational integrity, objectivity, etc.) of decision-making still apply. In other words, the principles of survival-based cooperation would be a tool to help make moral decisions.

Take, for instance, Vidkun Quisling and his pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, kindred to Hitler. Could an objective survival-based application of cooperation decide if his socio/political beliefs were moral ones? I believe so. With cooperation as a basis for evaluating moral questions, I think much or most of Hitler's actions and tenets can be easily identified as immoral . . . thus impugning Quisling's Nazi sympathies.
Comment by feralboy12 on August 10, 2010 at 7:40pm
I hear what you're saying, and I think you're on the right track. Humans did evolve as social animals, and cooperation within small groups increases the odds of survival of both you and your descendants.
Unfortunately, I think humans also evolved, once they form those groups, to eliminate competing groups when they are encountered. I regard cooperation as a morally neutral concept--it's hard to see people like Quisling, who cooperated with Hitler, as having behaved morally.
Cooperation, though, often results in moral behavior--and having the ability to cooperate is an important component of a moral system. Are their human traits, deeper tendencies that enhance that ability? My personal morality is built on empathy, the ability to recognize suffering in others, and a desire not to increase that suffering. This often results in cooperation, but also allows for opposing those who would cause suffering. It also recognizes the ability to suffer in babies & animals, who essentially lack the ability to cooperate, thus creating moral obligations toward them. It might not be entirely objective (hard to quantify suffering), but as a foundational principle of moral behavior it certainly beats referring to a 2000 year-old book.

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