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Virtue as Cooperation

Let's give an example of one kind of cooperation. There were several people involved in the production of the book. Ridley was one, and the indexer was one of the many others. The index is important in this book because of the inexcusable lack of a bibliography and the endnote form of citations. So the indexer was a necessary part of the operation. Or was s/he? The index includes ``names'' like ``Olduvai George'' and ``Rosenburg, Schloss''. Clearly the indexing would have been better if Ridley had indexed the book himself. But would the book be better as a consequence? Probably not. The time and effort that Ridley would have spent both indexing and learning how to index would have had to come from somewhere. The book or something else that Ridley may be uniquely qualified for would have suffered. The world is a better place because he did not do his own indexing. More value is created if we each pursue our comparative advantages.

The division of labor is part of human nature. Whether it is between fishers and hand-ax makers or authors and indexers or butchers and bakers the principle is the same. The division of labor is not some consequence of the industrial revolution, but one of its causes. We evolved to pursue comparative advantages.gif And this may account for humanity's success as a species. Ridley introduces this concept in chapter two, but fleshes out the argument in a later chapter. It is here where we just begin to see why a management scholar should be interested in this approach to cooperation. (The first chapter is dedicated to Kropotkin, and getting the reader up to speed with genetics and kin selection.)

The third chapter of the book introduces the reader to the Prisoner's Dilemma, which is one of many situations in which all participants would be better off if they agree to cooperate and comply with the agreement despite a temptation to cheat. Ridley's introduction to the problem, and his explication of why there is a problem to be solved, is amusing and clear. He uses real life (or literary) examples, instead of the decision scientists variables and expected utility functions. This makes the work far more readable, and may enhance its impact. But the reader should be warned that if they want to make use of these notions in their own work, they will have to read some of the many other sources (e.g., [Rapoport and Chammah1965, Rapoport1966, Kreps1990, Hirshleifer and Riley1992, Sigmund1993]). It is also in this chapter that he first introduces the work of [Trivers1971] and [Axelrod1984] who show how reciprocal altruism can lead to cooperation (and overall benefits) that a more narrow selfishness would not. Ridley concludes chapter 3 with stating:

our frequent use of reciprocity in society may be an inevitable part of our natures: an instinct. We do not need to reason our way to the conclusion that `one good turn deserves another', nor do we need to be taught it against our better judgments. It simply develops within us as we mature, an ineradicable predisposition, to be nurtured by teaching or not as the case may be. And why? Because natural selection has chosen it to enable us to get more from social living.

Chapter 4 explains what is wrong with the ideas presented in chapter 3. It is more than just technicality. The extensions, refinements and conditions that need to be added in order to get reciprocal altruism to work are where we start to recognize ourselves. Humanity is in these details.

The next two chapters are where we first see Ridley draw upon anthropology (as well as prehistory and economics) to bring us a fuller picture of human cooperation. It is in chapters like these where Ridley's knowledge really shines. He is not only drawing on so many fields, but he clearly has a solid understanding of them, making this book one of the most valuable interdisciplinary books around.

Thomas Hobbes' Foole was a fool because of his extreme rationality, and so could not enter into certain sorts of cooperative or constrained behavior which requires apparently irrational actions. Amartya Sen ([Sen1977]) has been one of the most persistent contemporary voices arguing that much of the approach in economics (and he would doubtless extend this to evolutionary psychology) would have us all be ``rational fools''. Economics and evolutionary psychologists bring in emotion as a defense. Emotions are what get us to perform those behaviors that for the most part are needed for us to survive in human society. We feel guilt, indebtedness, gratitude, love and other emotions which affect our decisions in many ways. Can these prevent us from being rational fools? According to Robert Frank ([Frank1988]) they can and do:

Jones has a $200 leather briefcase that Smith covets. If Smith steals it, Jones must decide whether to press charges. If Jones does, he will have to go to court. He will get his briefcase back and Smith will spend 60 days in jail, but the day in court will cost Jones $300 in lost earnings. Since this is more than the briefcase is worth, it would clearly not be in his material interest to press charges [assuming other things prevent Jones from repeating the crime]. Thus, if Smith knows that Jones is a purely rational, self-interested person, he is free to steal the briefcase with impunity...

But now suppose that Jones is not a pure rationalist; that if Smith steals his briefcase, he will be outraged, and will think nothing of losing a day's earnings, or even a week's, to see justice done. If Smith knows that Jones will be driven by emotion, not reason, he will let the briefcase be.

Having a known disposition to behave irrationally, whether through outrage or love, can lead to benefits which straightforward rationality could not. There are other ways in which emotions prevent us from being rational fools. In addition to Frank, other economists and philosophers have been looking at the role of emotions this way (e.g., [Hirshleifer1987, Elster1989, Elster1996]). It is not just emotions that interact with rationality this way. [Cosmides and Tooby1992] argue that certain sorts of reasoning ability are tied to notions of social exchange. People can more easily detect a violation of a rule when that rule has some sort of duty or social conformity content to it then if its content is not tied to social exchange.gif Ridley's chapter 7, titled ``moral sentiments'', deals with exactly these issues.

Philosophers have also been trying to cope with the rational fool. Straightforward maximizers miss opportunities to cooperate, while constrained maximizers reap those benefits. David Gauthier ([Gauthier1986]) shows how a disposition for being a constrained maximizer works if others can make a reasonable guess at your disposition (and you can guess reasonably well at theirs). By having a disposition, we mean someone like Jones in the example above. He maintains a disposition to enforce the law and follows it through even in cases where it is narrowly irrational to do so. Gauthier argues that chosing and maintaining certain dispositions to act in a narrowly non-optimizing way can be optimizing. Frank shows how emotions get us to optimize in exactly that way.

Gauthier's book [Gauthier1986] may be the most important development in ethics since [Rawls1971] and has been followed up by many workshops and symposia and several collected volumes (e.g., [Gauthier and Sugden1993, Vallentyne1991]). Very roughly speaking, those who have looked at his work fall into two categories. (1) Those who are exposing the flaws in order to repair the theory, and (2) those who are exposing the flaws in order to repudiate the theory. [Frank1988], on whom much of Ridley's chapter 7 is based, would definitely fall into the first group, as would Ridley himself.

Chapters 8 and 9 discuss tribalism, groupishness and war. Although there is less new here then in the other chapters, some of Ridley's examples are beautifully and surprisingly choosen. Even for readers already familiar with much of the literature he draws on, Ridley's presentation and ability to illustrate a point so solidly it make even the less innovative sections wonderful to read. Also, it is safe to say that after reading chapter 8 you will never look at trios of dolphins jumping through ocean waves the same.

In chapter 9 he highlights many of the ways that we geared up for ``groupishness''. We can generally benefit by conforming to group expectations. One argument he makes is that our own instincts for ``groupishness'' may include a tendency to delude ourselves that we are motivated by benefiting the group and not ourselves. We certainly have a tendency to exaggerate cultural differences, and if we are not careful, this can affect not only everyday perception, but systematic misattribution in scholarly research as well. In management research this may be a particular problem [Markóczy and GoldbergForthcoming, Markóczy1996].

Chapter 10 returns to the notion of the divison of labor introduced in chapter 2, but instead of applying it to the individual, Ridley applies it to the group. The management scholar will be on more familiar ground here where Ridley describes the notion of comparative advantage and the benefits of trade. Ridley does not discuss organizations other than family, tribe, village or nation in these chapters, but that is not to say it wouldn't be interesting for scholars to look at organizations in this way. We may not only have economic motives for being members of organizations [Coase1937], but we may have instincts for it.

The remaining three chapters are simultaneously more controversial and less controversial than the rest of the book. They are more controversial because they address public policy (and certainly take what may be very unpopular positions), but they are less controversial in that they are not so much part of a shake up of the approach to social sciences. As such we will leave off discussion of those final chapters, titled ``Ecology as Religion'', ``The Power of Property'' and ``Trust''. The final chapter is where Ridley reveals himself as an anarchist, like Kropotkin, who believes that human nature left to itself will find community sized cooperative solutions to many of its day to day problems.

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Next: The case for the Up: The virtue of human Previous: Cooperation and the selfish

Mon Sep 8 18:21:39 BST 1997