How To Address Between-Groups Cooperation

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By Joao Fabiano:

"However attractive the cooperative paradise may seem, it is not clear that increasing individual agents’ levels of cooperation will increase overall cooperation on society. Although one might expect an increase in our individual tendency towards cooperation between individuals would increased between groups cooperation on higher levels, it should be made clear that what we want is the latter. That is, we want to increase higher level, between groups cooperation. We already know how to cooperate within small isolated groups fairly well. As Joshua Greene puts it, the problem is when groups collide and their cooperation solutions are incompatible. Then we have the meta-cooperation problem, as he states it.

Hence, the question is: does individual, lower level between individuals cooperation entail between group, higher level cooperation? The answer is no. But not only there is no necessary connection, there are in fact plausible mechanisms whereby lower level cooperation actually decreases higher level cooperation. If we bear in mind many well understood examples of higher level properties, this shall come as no surprise. Here I will understand high level properties (or emergent properties) as patterns or organizations which emerge out of simpler lower properties or interactions. A classical example would be snowflakes’ symmetrical patterns arising out of tiny supercooled cloud droplets.

High level organization can often possess unexpected features. This is true even for the simplest physical processes. Take a paten with water being heated from below. A natural heating convection flux will occur and the process governing heat conduction in the lower microscopic level will follow a disorderly random movement. However, under certain relatively simple settings, macroscopic, orderly and stable hexagonal structures will visibly surface. Flatten the paten, the hexagons turn into spirals; increase temperature too much, the patterns shatter into chaos. Could increasing cooperation too much shatter social institutions?

Individual ants present almost a random and chaotic behaviour. If one were to get acquainted only with individual ants, it would seem such feather-brained creatures were incapable of any complex organization. But, place many of those ants together, and patterns will emerge, synchronizing the ant colony as if it were a single macroscopic creature. Appositely, if we meddle the seemingly chaotic ant’s individual behaviour, the macroscopic pattern can change in dramatic ways.

Could meddling with individual cooperation completely reshaped social structures?

Here are some examples I could gather:

(1) Parochialism: The most classic examples are cases where increased cooperation inside a group leads to decreased cooperation and even aggressiveness between groups. Each individual values his own group to such an extent that, sometimes he may harm himself and others if under the belief he will benefit his own group doing so. This is particularly worrisome since one aspirant for moral enhancement, oxytocin, is known to produce such effects, leading to ethnocentrism and parochialism.

(2) Necessary evil: The way society’s economy is currently organized heavily relies on individual agents being at least moderately self-interested. Macro-economical models and policies often depend on such assumptions, and we aim at building our higher level cooperational structures over that lower-level individualistic foundation. Western capitalist societies are noted in particular for their reliance on individualism. It may well be that we could achieve higher level cooperation far more easily if everyone were completely cooperative. A society could even become vastly more cooperative that way. But so much for wonderful contractual possibilities if to get there we would have to decrease individualism in a society which relies on individualistic self interest.

(3) Leaders: The way politics is organized also relies in individualism. One common feature of cohesive cooperative societies is the presence of leaders. Often, the only feasible way of constraining so many desires, values, opinions and positions into one cooperative group is to delegate responsibility to fewer individuals. But if we nearly extinguish individualism, it might be the case that no one will ever want to stand out and become a leader. Again, it is plausible that such highly cooperative societies would not need a leader. However, if there is only one single iteration on the cooperative enhancement process which leads to a society cooperative enough to extinguish great leaders but still individualistic enough to make cooperation without leaders unfeasible, uncooperativeness would surface.

(4) Polarization: Advocates of moral enhancement trying to improve our crude primitive morality might try to erase black and white political thinking. Some see certain political debates as the most clear cut examples of irrationality. Many cognitive biases arise when arguing for inflamed positions. Contra Karl Popper, we selectively search for evidence favouring our position and neglect evidence which goes against it. We often are blind to the fact that likely each side has its faults and merits. As mentioned above, we might even take actions to harm other parties and ourselves when defending our party. Now the boorish and thirsty moral enhancer would say “If we ever had a chance to morally enhance, this would be it! By eliminating such blind political irrationality!”. Not so fast. Higher level organization between thousands or millions can only arise if they compromise with having only a few opposing choices or political parties. If individual’s positions could cut through opposing political positions – as reason would dictate -, chaos would emerge. Imagine if people could solely cheer good moves on football instead of supporting teams, shortly after, football would disappear as a social or profitable institution. A world full of politically unbiased individuals would fall apart.

Paradise on the cheap might cost us dearly. Moreover, if the neuroscience or psychology of morality and social behaviour solely focus the search for moral enhancements on the individual level, then, not only might we create social catastrophes but we will be ignoring very important aspects which pertain to the very nature of the problems moral enhancement desires to fix: between groups meta-cooperational issues. Although properly addressed in Savulescu & Persson’s Unfit for the Future and elsewhere[4], the consequences of moral enhancement to politics, international relations and conflict resolution can only be fittingly addressed by de facto scientific research pursuing the development of moral enhancements if the experimental settings focus on group’s social strategies towards other groups, rather than individual’s strategies towards other individuals.

More generally speaking about any enhancement, a strong case has been made that evolution - that morally blind, fickle, and tightly shackled tinkerer who should be in jail for child abuse and murder - often gets stuck on local optima, and that, bestowed with the powers of technology, we could rescue our species out of these immoral imprisonments. Nevertheless, getting out of evolutionary local optima might not be so easy; they are local optima for a reason: every nearby solution is even worse, even if far away solutions are vastly better[3]. On the impetuous of breaking evolution’s chains, one should be careful not to stumble and fall in the local optimum’s moat. Having opened the gates of evolution’s perverse captivity, enhancement advocates should pay attention when searching for easy money on design-space’s garden, for its low-hanging fruits, so close to our reach, might be guarded by abrupt moats one might be forever stuck in. Indeed, it seems plausible there would be a technological path out of the local optimum. But perform willy-nilly human enhancement, and we fall on the moat. As the four examples above indicate – particularly so 2 and 3 -, the safe path might as well be a very thin ridge. Should we fall the mountain pass, we could be left wishing for a slippery slope, instead of the painful rocky cliffs of a disrupted society. Better get stuck at local optima than absolute minima." (