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Thursday, December 9, 2021

'Moral molecules’ – a new theory of what goodness is made of

Oliver Scott Curry and others
Originally posted 1 NOV 21

Here are two excerpts:

Research is converging on the idea that morality is a collection of rules for promoting cooperation – rules that help us work together, get along, keep the peace and promote the common good. The basic idea is that humans are social animals who have lived together in groups for millions of years. During this time, we have been surrounded by opportunities for cooperation – for mutually beneficial social interaction – and we have evolved and invented a range of ways of unlocking these benefits. These cooperative strategies come in different shapes and sizes: instincts, intuitions, inventions, institutions. Together, they motivate our cooperative behaviour and provide the criteria by which we evaluate the behaviour of others. And it is these cooperative strategies that philosophers and others have called ‘morality’.

This theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ relies on the mathematical analysis of cooperation provided by game theory – the branch of maths that is used to describe situations in which the outcome of one’s decisions depends on the decisions made by others. Game theory distinguishes between competitive ‘zero-sum’ interactions or ‘games’, where one player’s gain is another’s loss, and cooperative ‘nonzero-sum’ games, win-win situations in which both players benefit. What’s more, game theory tells us that there is not just one type of nonzero-sum game; there are many, with many different cooperative strategies for playing them. At least seven different types of cooperation have been identified so far, and each one explains a different type of morality.


Hence, seven types of cooperation explain seven types of morality: love, loyalty, reciprocity, heroism, deference, fairness and property rights. And so, according to this theory, it is morally good to: 1) love your family; 2) be loyal to your group; 3) return favours; 4) be heroic; 5) defer to superiors; 6) be fair; and 7) respect property. (And it is morally bad to: 1) neglect your family; 2) betray your group; 3) cheat; 4) be a coward; 5) disrespect authority; 6) be unfair; or 7) steal.) These morals are evolutionarily ancient, genetically distinct, psychologically discrete and cross-culturally universal.

The theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ explains, from first principles, many of the morals on those old lists. Some of the morals correspond to one of the basic types of cooperation (as in the case of courage), while others correspond to component parts of a basic type (as in the case of gratitude, which is a component of reciprocity).