The Spiritual Life of An Atheist

March 27, 2011

Spiritual Life of An Atheist: Generosity and Cooperation Make Good Sense

We are beings imbued through evolution with a moral sense–a capacity to ponder and attempt to answer and even enforce our answers to complex questions of morality.  Evolution itself is an unthinking, amoral process that does not tell us what is a morally correct or incorrect course of action.  It explains how it is that humans, as social animals, have a moral sense and perhaps the rough parameters of that  sense.  Right and wrong are not Platonic forms suspended in a celestial sphere. They are value decisions we have to work out using our culturally refined moral sensibilities.  

The question of what is “moral” in any given circumstance is complex and reasonable minds can differ.  But some values are demonstrably more harmful (to ourselves, other individuals, society at large) than others.  Game theory tells us that we can create “win-win” situations through cooperation. Cooperative behavior begets trust, fostering a positive feedback loop of increasing trust and cooperation.

Cheating is sub-optimal because it prevents a “win-win” situation. You can trust others when you know they know they can trust you and you both know that the only way to the best outcome for both of you is to hang together. When you cheat against someone who can be trusted, you rob yourself of the best outcome you could have achieved for yourself.

But game theory also tells us that where we cannot trust our fellow participants, we are personally better off to cheat first. So, behaving in a cooperative manner is only “rational” under conditions of trust.  In the short-term, cheating can be in one’s “rational self interest”–if one believes that one is not likely to get caught or if caught, the benefit of cheating outweighs the cost of its penalty. But chronic cheating is not a very good long-term strategy because the more one cheats, the more likely one is to get caught and the consequences of getting caught repeatedly can be exile from the group. This of course assumes some order.

Conditions of distrust erode cooperation, creating a negative feedback loop of distrust and hostile self-interestedness.   There are many places in the world today where chronic cheating is a common strategy because there are not sufficient resources/institutions for catching and punishing cheaters. The living conditions in these places are undesirable and we acribe to them “lawlessness” and “chaos.”  After a certain tipping point, widespread, chronic cheating leads to living dystopias–a race to the self-interested moral bottom.  Think of the present day Congo.

The consequences for society of unimpeded chronic cheating and the terrible, disordered living conditions it fosters are a strong indicator that cheating is undesirable and chronic cheating is wrong.

The necessity for cooperation doesn’t come from a social contract. It comes from the inescapable fact of our social relationship to each other and the provable dynamics built into those relationships.  Our entire survival and reproductive scheme is based on belonging to a group. We call inveterate cheaters against the group “outlaws” and they become “outcasts.”  Because we live in social relationship with each other–not as a matter of theoretical contract, but as a matter of fact–good must encompass more than just consideration of one’s own desires and ends.

Maintaining cooperation in a society of strangers, such as the urban US, is a particular challenge.   There is no generally understood moral requirement to give a stranger aid.  Doing so is considered charitable, altruistic, heroic.  Even though giving a stranger aid is going above and beyond, there are good reasons to do so.  It may simply feel good.  Or you may recognize that society is better off if people are more often willing to give without expectation of direct reciprocation and you want to behave in a way that fosters the generosity and trust that benefits society.

copyright 2011 by S. Anne Johnson


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