Bootstrapping Social Cooperation
Political Economy1

Bootstrapping Social Cooperation

Social cooperation is the major thing to be explained in both sociobiology and economics. It is, after all, quite a feat. From the perspective of the former, most species never achieve it at all. From the perspective of the latter, most societies never get very far along compared to the advanced Western societies of the modern world.

One thing that shakes out of both fields is that rational self-interest doesn’t get you from autarky to cooperation, and it doesn’t get you from hunter-gatherer bands to civilization. Social cooperation is something remarkable and unlikely, and probably fragile on the timescale each field is concerned with.

This flies in the face of the tenor of post-Enlightenment philosophy, which has gone on the assumption that reason is natural, and a sufficient basis for progress. While technological progress seems to have mostly vindicated this assumption in the physical sciences, the conscious direction of social organization – supposedly the apex of social science – turned out to be an abysmal failure.

In this essay, I aim to flesh out the non-rational basis of social cooperation. The normative building blocks that undergird social cooperation are, in fact, highly vulnerable to metastatic rationalism. So far as these building blocks are cultural rather than biological, their delegitimization leaves a culture with an impoverished sense of self-interest in which defection is the rational strategy to the prisoner’s dilemma of social cooperation.

In a sense it is pessimistic. The fact that social cooperation is based on non-rational normative building blocks means that they cannot – by nature – be consciously manipulated and instilled. We are, perhaps, at the mercy of a Moloch – a perverse unconscious selection process.

Still, maybe civilization can be promoted through indirect means, through the judicious shaping of rules rather than a direct attempt. Though it would be foolish to count on it, that possibility at least depends on an understanding of the problem.

Or maybe civilization persists due to some entirely fortuitous and unforeseen event. In which case this essay will at least have done no harm.


The Basis of Value Propositions

The basic problem starts with David Hume: You can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. In other words, there’s no way to start with a description of what exists in the world and end up with anything that tells you how to act. It always depends on the introduction of a logically fundamental value proposition, one which isn’t justified by anything further. Sure we take these for granted most of the time; after all, humans do act. But at the bottom of it all, there’s always something that’s not amenable to further justification.

A clever rejoinder to this problem is – well, where else would value statements come from, if not the nature of things? And so there’s a long line of attempts, from Aristotle to Ayn Rand, to derive a fundamental value proposition from the nature of things. Usually that proposition is extremely minimal – self-love, self-preservation, etc. – for a few reasons:

  1. It’s hard work to try to derive a value proposition from the nature of things, even if you think it’s possible. So once you (think you)’ve gotten blood from the stone,
  2. You only need one! – at least in principle. Once you have a single value proposition, the floodgates are open and you can start deriving all sorts of normative propositions.
  3. And finally, reducing all normative statements to one ur-value is awfully appealing in its tidiness.

We’ll call these “bridge” philosophies. In contrast, I’d like to suggest a basket of fundamental value propositions, not necessarily reducible to one, that humans tend to pick from, and of which none are amenable to justification in the nature of things. Something like Haidt’s moral foundations idea, but broader. After all, the is-ought problem doesn’t just kick the legs out from moral principles, but also the basis of any action at all. Action depends on some sort of value, at least implicitly. Why do one thing rather than another? – the answer evinces a value.

The is-ought problem does not claim that value propositions are transcendent, or that they come from somewhere other than the nature of things. The claim is simply that the relationship between the two sorts of statements is not, fundamentally, a logical one.

The fact that values cannot be justified past a certain point doesn’t mean they can’t be explained further. We can cross from ethics into evolutionary biology, from an inside perspective to an outside perspective, though this moves us firmly onto the “is” side of the is-ought gap. Presumably a process of biological selection has given animal-kind the basic imperatives and proclivities from which action springs.

Humankind picked up a few more in the process of becoming social, and also picked up the capacity to articulate them; to impute an explicit value (end) to an emotion (imperative), which constitutes its justification. Sarah Perry quotes Pieter Hintjens on the basic groupings of human imperatives, each of which has a more or less obvious evolutionary story:

With the ability to articulate an explicit value to justify each of these emotions, something like this list – and not some single ur-value – will constitute the putty out of which normative propositions can be formed. They bear no further justification – they are ends in themselves, given by biological selection – but they in turn justify a great deal of further, subsidiary imperatives.

Socialization and Internalization

The rational faculty obviously allows humans to construct extremely elaborate plans out of these normative building blocks. The human’s planning horizon for acquiring food or sex can extend years into the future, whereas most animals are limited more or less to the immediate present.

But if it seems that reducing every human value to one of these categories takes some of the color out of the experience of being human, it’s because the rational faculty itself derives from a more important and fundamentally different human capacity. Specifically, the last two emotions in Hintjen’s list allow humans to bootstrap additional ultimate values into the list above.

This is not as obvious as it sounds. Indeed, the point of bridge philosophies is to make it unnecessary to do so. Consider the usual problems of deliberately instilling a value – for example, quitting smoking. The strategy here is to override a short-horizon value (stress relief) with a long-horizon value (health). Subordinate values might be created in service of the longer-horizon value, but at no point was a new value created. All actions in service of quitting smoking are ultimately reducible to a pre-existing fundamental value.

It is, in fact, logically impossible to choose a new ultimate value: choice is made on the basis of some value, so the conscious choice of a new value is necessarily reducible to whatever pre-existing value on whose basis the choice was made.

The bootstrapping process is, for this reason, almost entirely unconscious. It is a process of socialization and internalization of norms and rules. As Hayek (1988) argued,

These rules ‘are not derived from any utility or advantage which either the particular person or the public may reap from his enjoyment of any particular good’. Men did not foresee the benefits of rules before adopting them, though some people gradually have become aware of what they owe to the whole system.

Social cooperation on the basis of self-interest conceived in terms of a single value – say, evolutionary fitness, or monetary gain – always reduces to a prisoner’s dilemma. On this point, evolutionary biology and new institutional economics are agreed. Ostrom’s famous insistence to the contrary describes how bootstrapped norms can transform a prisoner’s dilemma into a more favorable game. It takes those norms for granted; it does not explain their origin. Much less does it suggest they can be “derived from any utility or advantage which either the particular person or the public may reap”. The process has to be unconscious and non-rational, else it could never get off the ground at all.

Little wonder then why so many animals are solitary! Rather than wondering why tigers are unable to exploit gains from trade, the real question is – how are humans, in spite of the rational faculty, able to credibly commit not to defect? How are humans able to acquire normative building blocks that 1) are not biologically innate, 2) are detrimental to individual evolutionary fitness, but 3) nevertheless allow humans to turn prisoner’s dilemmas into more favorable games and establish regular social cooperation?


Moral Ideals: Martyrdom and Monitoring

An example will make this more concrete. It might easily be said that Hintjen’s list completely misses things like moral ideals, ideals that don’t reduce to anything in the list above. How do you explain something like martyrdom? What makes a cause worth dying for? Certainly not evolutionary fitness, almost by definition. Status, maybe – something from the group emotions? It’s hard to see how; after all, martyrdom usually involves bucking the group. You could say it’s for status with a different group than the one doing the martyring – you value your church over Roman society – but considering the continued valorization of “one man against the world” stories, attributing it to status seems unfair to the sincerity of people who are genuinely inclined to do the right thing for its own sake.

At least, it would be unfair to say that status justifies martyrdom, as if commitment to moral ideals were a means toward that end. We can, however, explain moral ideals through the status impulse.

This is the process of socialization. Moral ideals first hook into something in Hintjen’s list. I want to do the right thing because that’s what my group expects. This is the point of narratives and children’s stories: this is what you have to do in order for us to hold you in high esteem.

Eventually, however – slowly, unconsciously – the moral ideal becomes “unhooked” from its original justification. Once this happens, the individual is actually willing to oppose the group and lose status in service of his understanding of those ideals. This would be unthinkable for someone for whom moral ideals were still a means to status!

Any norm without a basis in biology will have to be hooked to a biological imperative to induce action. The human drive for status, however, is unique in its ability to “launch” additional norms into ends in themselves. Such a norm is internalized, a process driven by socialization. The upshot is that an internalized norm allows a person to credibly commit to a cooperative strategy – and in particular to arbitrary conventions that may be worse in terms of his narrowly-conceived interests compared to some other conceivable rule (which, of course, would be worse for someone else). Martyrdom is perhaps the starkest example of the power of internalization to override considerations of narrow self-interest: commitment even unto death.

Having established the power of internalization with martyrdom, the example of monitoring will show more clearly its relevance the problem of social cooperation. Elinor Ostrom in Governing the Commons shows in great detail how monitoring and punishment can alter the payoffs and turn a prisoner’s dilemma into a game with a cooperative equilibrium in the context of a common pool resource. Gary Miller does something similar in the context of firm organization in Managerial Dilemmas. They both emphasize, however, that punishment and monitoring are themselves subject to a prisoner’s dilemma. Monitoring and punishment are costly and non-excludable, so the dominant strategy is to free-ride – a defection. Punishing those who don’t punish just moves the dilemma up a level – who makes sure that punishing gets done?

The upshot is, there is no “rational” solution to this problem. You can push the dilemma up however many levels, but eventually you still face a prisoner’s dilemma. The only way out is fitness-reducing norms – hooked to initially, and possibly released from, the status drive. Ostrom treats those norms as exogenous to her analysis; Miller calls them “corporate culture”. In either case, some individual-fitness-reducing mix of “don’t defect” and “punish defectors” has to serve as an ultimate end for social cooperation to get off the ground.

Because the process of socialization is necessarily non-rational, there’s very little in the way of selection processes to guarantee broadly beneficial or cooperation-sustaining norms. ISIS has its martyrs too, after all; and strong norms for monitoring and punishing blasphemy. As Doug North noted, the selection process on the content of norms is extremely weak and prone to local optima. Not quite a Moloch; more like a blind idiot god Azathoth. Nevertheless, foundational norms are not and cannot be objects of choice. Socialization can work – unpredictably and over a long period of time – but in general, the result of subjecting foundational norms to choice is to erode their normative force. Imperfect though it is, there is no alternative to the evolutionary process through which norms are selected and legitimated mostly without a view to their consequences.

At least, there’s no better alternative.


The Specter of Deconstruction

The non-rationality of these norms means that a norm can only serve as a credible basis for social cooperation if it purports to be about something else. Doing the right thing has to be valuable in itself, and not as an means to a wealthy society, or else the dominant strategy is defection. Ordeals had to be about the Justice of God, not a separating equilibrium; they never could have accomplished the latter if they were justified by reference to that purpose.

The trajectory of Western rationalism has been to demand explicit justification for norms, institutions, and action. The postmodern era began when this imperative turned to its own foundations and – finding these institutions could not justify themselves – took this to be an indictment of their legitimacy.

If this were just an ivory tower phenomenon, it might safely be ignored. But the attitude percolates down into the valorization of irony, a shield that allows one to retain high status without actually aspiring to anything. The critical theorist, failing to find their justification in the nature of things, lashes out to delegitimize the institutions around him. We might call the lowbrow counterpart the “hipster”, who looks for authenticity and fails to find it. The process of socialization and internalization, of course, implies that virtue (or any aspirational norm) is almost always inauthentic – a façade, though not necessarily a disingenuous one. We pretend to be better than we are in order to actually become better. A norm must first be followed for status before it can be internalized as an end in itself: as C.S. Lewis famously noticed, to become virtuous is to be inauthentic, at least for a little while. And so, failing to find authenticity in virtue, the hipster stands aloof from it, behind a shield of irony.1

Authenticity, like rational justification, thus metastasizes. If one can never be inauthentic, one can never internalize a norm. And indeed sociologists have noticed that authenticity is the peculiar obsession of cultures whose socialization process has been stunted through delegitimation. Thus, only a few decades following the general acceptance of deconstruction in the academy, there’s a sense that aspiration is for dupes. Our heroes are anti-heroes, earning our respect not through their virtue, but their authenticity.2 Little wonder then why the vanguards of pop deconstructionism can’t stand a hero that actually embodies long-since deconstructed virtues. There’s even a sense of gleeful schadenfreude when the mask comes off of an aspirational figure.

Of course, having kicked the legs out from under any possible justification for anything, such a culture finds it must still act. Non-action is not an option. The biological imperatives – Hintjen’s list – seem to have some “self-evidence”, or at least they impel a man regardless of the state of his intellect. And anyway, it’s much easier to unlearn an internalized norm than to rewire the architecture of the mammalian brain.

This is the effect, then, of a preoccupation with rational justification or authenticity: to reduce the normative toolkit to that endowed by biology. Someone who must be at all times authentic can never internalize a norm, can never aspire, can never acquire new normative building blocks. And with only the innate toolkit at hand, defection is the optimal strategy for individual fitness. Human sociality works because it allows norms to be bootstrapped into ultimate ends through the process of socialization. This is, in fact, the foundation of the rational faculty. If that faculty should metastasize and turn on its own foundations, social cooperation cannot persist indefinitely on the mere basis of a biological foundation that is prevented from producing new, cultural cornerstones.


So Why Are Things Still So Good? A Speculative Answer

All this may seem quite irrelevant considering the strong arguments that 2015 was the best year in human history. Sure there are barbarians at the gates here and there, and the Kids These Days are terrible or something, but in the grand scheme of things, humanity’s doing pretty darn well for itself. Given the intellectual and cultural trends I’ve pointed to so far, why don’t we see more evidence of social cooperation coming apart at the seams?

Looking just at culture, the mental mechanism I’ve argued for here suggests that intelligence should be negatively correlated with scrupulousness, at least beyond some (probably high) minimum threshold. The more aggressive one’s rational faculty, the more gusto with which one applies it to its own foundations, the more you can see through the traditional justifications, the more inured to socialization one becomes. Hence /r/atheism. At least one study has indeed found such a relationship. And once the brooding genius becomes an object of aspiration, reasonably smart kids are prone to being socialized into antisociality through the exact same process as any other norm.

But in addition to that cultural relationship, there also seems to be a countervailing biological relationship. At least for some subset of people, intelligence seems highly correlated with scrupulousness – hence white guilt among critical theorists, and effective altruism (EA) among the rationalist community. I’ve remarked before on the irony that effective altruists are much less “rational”, in the sense of rational self-interest, than the average person. On what basis does the EA feel guilty for buying a latte with $5 that could have bought a mosquito net for a kid in Africa? Surely anyone belonging to a self-styled “rationalist community” is capable of deconstructing any moral imperative that would deprive him of his latte!

From the fact that this scrupulousness carries over into many aspects of life and doesn’t seem very vulnerable to deconstruction, it seems reasonable to assume that for such people, the Kantian ethic has been promoted from a cultural norm to a biological building block. Some process of natural rather than cultural selection gave it a place among the other six blocks in Hintjen’s list.

We can go even further. I argued above that the (non-rational) social emotions are the basis of human rationality. More specifically, the rational faculty seems to have the same basic mental structure as the conscience: the ability to visualize third-party responses to one’s hypothetical actions. “What would an impartial observer say about this (action/argument)?” It makes sense, therefore, that hyper-rationality would be strongly comorbid with hyper-scrupulousness.

If people like this are the vanguard of irony and deconstruction, then it makes sense that they would up to this point appear mostly harmless. Sure we might miss some of the richness of the human experience without the ability to internalize high-level cultural norms, and maybe smart people are more prone to alienation and anomie. But if they remain committed to playing cooperative strategies, what’s the problem?

A bigger problem is when deconstruction and irony reach unscrupulous people. If progress in nutrition and monetization continue, the Flynn effect should eventually put deconstruction in the hands (and minds) of the unwashed and unscrupulous masses. And in any case, the unscrupulous aren’t likely to need as much of a push before adopting defection strategies.

Indeed, there are rumblings that this is starting to happen. If the far left is hyper-scrupulous deconstruction, the far right is totally unscrupulous deconstruction. Fascism is, after all, a child of socialism, in whose defense (and against the liberal order) deconstruction was first advanced. Socialism and fascism – as well as their hip modern spawn, SJWs and the alt-right, respectively – share a commitment to delegitimizing procedural norms, both in discourse (hence the prevalence of shouting-down) and in politics (hence a tendency toward absolutism). If those norms cannot be grounded in the nature of things, once they’ve been deconstructed, all that’s left is interest, identity, and power.3

So again the question: what happens if scrupulousness isn’t there to make the EA feel guilty about his latte? What happens once critical race theory has torn down the legitimacy of “colorblindness”, but there’s no scrupulousness to sustain white guilt? White guilt is, after all, vulnerable to deconstruction itself – a mythology in the service of tearing down other mythologies. The fact that explicit deconstruction is still largely dominated by the scrupulous suggests that maybe we have put the question of “can atheists be moral people?” to rest too early.

As the ideology of deconstruction continues to trickle out to the rest of the world, it seems far more likely to nourish nationalist politics and ethnic conflict than justice and harmony. Little wonder then that the bright promise of anti-colonial ideology has turned out so miserably!


  1. An ironic stance can in fact be maintained toward irony itself – I’ve heard it said that complaining about hipsters is the most hipster thing one can possibly do.
  2. It’s extremely difficult to write about the failings of an era while still in that era. Most complaints turn out to be perennial; kids have always been little brats, etc. In my defense, the deconstructive impulse is a very new turn in philosophy, originating in the 19th century and taking off in the 20th; and the mass appeal of the anti-hero does seem to be a relatively recent development (since the 1980s).
  3. And regardless of the scrupulousness of the ideologues supporting the regime, the regime itself will almost certainly be totally unscrupulous. Socialists and fascists may have very different personalities, but the exigencies of absolutism ensure that socialist regimes and fascist regimes look more or less identical in practice.


Cooperation, Institutions, Norms, C.S. Lewis, David Hume, David Sloane Wilson, Doug North, Elinor Ostrom, F.A. Hayek, Gary Miller


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One Comment

  • 1

    Jim Caton

    May 09, 2016 at 9:50 | Reply

    There are a lot of concepts in here that would be nice to see unpacked or further applied.

    Concerning your distinction between genuineness and social norms:

    The problem dissolves once you identify participation in a community. Individuality of the sort you describe is possible largely because we are not confined to communities. But even a radical individualist may eventually find others of like mind and develop a community where each must submit to a minimum threshold of norms. These norms, like priors in a system of logic, establish a ground for interaction. This includes rules of what is and is not permissible and common language and objects that the language refers to. You correctly point out that self-interest only gets us so far here. While I don’t believe we should chase self-interest out of the discussion, we may benefit from replacing self-interest with the broader category of the classifier (see John Holland’s work on AI). We must also never lose sight of the fundamental necessity of communication in society (see Wittgenstein). If there is to be a shared, deep structure of language, including action as language, it must be developed within a community. Here we find a place for the development of norms as 1) submission to a common end and 2) a means of communicating this common intention. Assuming that the norms tend to be beneficial to the group, than they are accompanied by evolutionary advantage.

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Hi, I'm C. Harwick, an economics PhD candidate in Virginia with an interest in monetary theory, institutional evolution, and folk music.

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