Cooperation through Selfishness

In a society of humans, can cooperation exist? That was the question pondered by both Hobbes and Kropotkin, among others. Hobbes gave the pessimistic answer, writing that in a "state of nature", selfish individuals were in such ruthless competition that the result was "a state of war, every man against every man" and a life that was "solitary, poor, nastry, brutish, and short".

Kropotkin rejected this conclusion and refused to accept the notion that selfishness was man's biological inheritance, needing to be civilized by a higher authority. He saw cooperation all around him in nature, as an ancient endownment common in the animal kingdom, with which man also was equipped. Like many thinkers before him, he saw man having a noble constitution, but being corrupted by the society around him.

There were some great responses on both blogs to the questions posed. As was probably evident by the way I phrased the question, I hold a third view that partially agrees and disagrees with both Hobbes and Kropotkin.

Consider an insignificant event that took place earlier today-- I bought a bagel this morning from a shopkeeper for $1.

Does the shopkeeper make bagels out of goodwill in order to provide food to the people of the world? Is he motivated by charity? Driven by the goodness of his heart? Obviously no. He makes bagels for the purpose of making his own life better. Do I make money solely to give to other people? No, I similarly make money largely for my own personal gain, including for the purpose of using it to acquire bagels, among other things. In carrying out the exchange, both the shopkeeper and I act selfishly. He desires my $1 more than the bagel he has; I desire his bagel more than the $1 I have. To fulfill those desires, we cooperate to achieve both of our selfish desires. In a groggy early morning flash, we created a datapoint that counters Hobbes's basic view of the world. Billions of such datapoints are generated all around the world every day.

Like Hobbes, I believe that man's nature is essentially selfish. Each of us has our own subjective ends and desires, and we take action to pursue them. But rather than believing that this leads to a "war of every man against every man", like Kropotkin, I believe that cooperation can emerge among individuals. Yet, contrary to Kropotkin, this cooperation does not have to be driven solely by mutual aid, but can also result from self-interest.

Adam Smith saw the power of cooperative selfishness when he wrote:

In almost every other race of animals, each individual, when it is grown up to maturity, is entirely independent, and in its natural state has occasion for the assistance of no other living creature. Man has almost constant occasion for the help of his brethren, and it is in vain for him to expect it from their benevolence only. He will be more likely to prevail if he can interest their self-love in his favour, and show them that it is for their own advantage to do for him what he requires of them. Whoever offers to another a bargain of any kind, proposes to do this. Give me what I want, and you shall have this which you want, is the meaning of every such offer; and it is the manner that we obtain from one another the far greater part of those good offices which we stand in need of. It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.

The greatness of the Enlightenment was the escape from the filthy gutters of the zero-sum worldview of Hobbes and those before him. It was the realization by a large segment of mankind that mutual benefit for selfish goals can be achieved through reciprocal exchange, that cooperation can be entirely congruent with selfishness. The result was a massive increase in the standard of living of the common man. Despite the bleating of cultural relativists, there is sound reason to hold Western civilization in high regard.

[cross-posted at The Agitator]

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