Gewinner der Karl Max von Bauernfeind-Medaille 2016
fatum 5 | , S. 27

The dialectics of cooperation

From egoism to socialization

The condition of man […] is a condition of war of every one against every one, in which case everyone is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies.1 In his Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes humans as egoistic beings that strive to fulfil their wants in constant conflict with society. Egoistic behavior is a natural right, which persons adopt to defend themselves in the middle of constant social war. But since there can be no security or peace in this primordial state of conflict, Hobbes writes, men enter a social contract—they form agreements of reciprocity for their social coordination. According to Hobbes, only a higher sovereign can guarantee the stable and lasting functioning of these social contracts, for example the civil state, which ensures social stability through the exertion of power.

Whereas Hobbes postulates that egoistic behavior should be controlled by the state for the existence of stable social interactions, the German philosopher Max Stirner (1806–1856) characterizes egoism as a tool for the emancipation of the person from religion and state—that is for the acquirement of autonomy.2 Stirner believes that if people behaved as total egoists, rejecting social rules, imperatives and authorities, a person’s ownness would be the factor defining the relation between the person’s existence and society. Society would be transformed into a union of egoists3, in which people coexist and function according to their wants, rejecting any form of heteronomous ideology. Both Hobbes and Stirner describe egoism as a mechanism for the fulfillment of personal needs. According to this way of thinking, reciprocal behavior emerges as a means for social actors to extend their possibilities in the social domain, because it is the basis for cooperation and coordination in society. Hobbes claims that the stabilization of reciprocity can be realized only through the existence of a dominant authority structure, which systematically suppresses the egoistic nature of the social actors. Stirner agrees with Hobbes that egoistic behavior is the best way to satisfy one’s wants, but he argues that successful cooperation of social actors does not require the existence of an authority structure.

Consequently, the question arises whether stable mutual cooperation can emerge in the interaction of purely selfish actors without the application of external power.

The following essay attempts to answer the above by illuminating the essence of egoism and the role of reciprocity, with the latter being considered the fundament of cooperative behavior. The essay draws on arguments from game theory that reveal conditions under which cooperation emerges from egoism.

Egoism and cooperation

Human desires are connected with the nature and limits of personal existence. The psychoanalytic philosopher Jacques Lacan stated that persons are determined by a state of lack, an absence of satisfaction that forces them to strive for their wants and needs.4 This lack in and of itself creates in each human an immanent self-interest. Egoism can be conceptualized as self-interest that becomes absolute: every action, behavior and decision of a person—i.e. the trajectory of a person in the social domain—is exclusively based on it. Consequently, egoism is non-social, since personal trajectories are limited to maintaining and extending the possibilities of the individual—without regard for others.

Even from a purely egoistic perspective, the possibilities of a single actor sometimes appear inadequate for self-preservation. Hence, people combine their forces5 through socialization and cooperation in order to fulfill their personal interests.

But how can cooperation emerge among egoists? In so-called asynchronous cooperation processes, the actors involved do not achieve their goals at the same time; hence the problem arises that egoists might end cooperation as soon as they acquire what they need, abandoning their cooperation partners.

To overcome this obstacle, a reciprocity norm is agreed to that ensures the satisfaction of all cooperating actors. The form of the norm can vary with respect to the conditions of the norm’s emergence and use. Reciprocity might be fully quantified (for example in monetary exchanges), fully unquantified (for example acts of solidarity or altruism) or a mixture of both.

Ein mongolischer Reiter in blauem Gewand vor einer Berglandschaft.
Rider in Mongolia, Source: Al Jazeera, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Egoism and reciprocity are interconnected, as both are concerned with the fulfillment of desires. There are certain conditions that lead to the stabilization of each of them in the social domain. The adoption of a certain egoistic or cooperative behavior is dependent on two factors, the one being a result of the social nature of the person, the other based on the cognitive structure of the human. Each decision of the person emerges as a mixture of both. However, their separate analysis is necessary in order to grasp the conditions that constitute the formation of social behavior.

The first factor that codetermines social behavior is a result of the pre-existing society and social setting a person lives in. There are various preconceived norms that the person embraces from a young age in order to become a member of social groups. Through the influence of their family, their school and any other autonomous or heteronomous socialization circle, the person learns how to evaluate actions as good or bad.6 The person adopts reciprocity norms that are altruistic, mathematically quantified or more ego-centered, and learns the conditions under which each norm is applicable.7 Hence, the person will behave egoistically and reciprocally not necessarily because such behavior is ideal in a specific interaction, but as a result of her upbringing and imitative learning.

The second factor that codetermines social behavior concerns itself with the emergence of egoism and cooperation in a pre-social context, in which the adoption of a certain behavior is not dependent on moral rules. In a pre-social context, a person cognitively evaluates her direct experiences. Thereby, the person determines her future behavior, trying to select trajectories that overcome immanent states of lack. In the process of fulfilling personal desires, each lived situation is assimilated by this cognitive mechanism. For example, if egoistic behavior in a certain type of social interaction provides the wanted result, then the person will continue behaving egoistically in similar situations in the future. However, if the want is not satisfied, the person will change her behavior in future interactions. The factor of cognitive evaluation is crucial for understanding the role of egoism and cooperation, as it reveals conditions under which the person actively forms their behavioral trajectories in the domain.

Modeling socialization

A semi-fictional case-study will illustrate the interaction between egoism and cooperation in a pre-social context. In the Mongolian tundra, the Buryats, a nomadic people, gathered food either by hunting or by collecting roots and fruits.8 In their struggle for survival, the Buryats were accompanied by the Mongolian horse, which was mainly used as a means of transportation and for the extraction of milk, but sometimes was also slaughtered for meat. In the extreme weather conditions of Siberia, finding nutrition was complicated in winter and spring. As the hunting season only started later while plants and vegetables did not grow in such cold temperatures, the nomads had to either collect roots or eat horse-meat. In cases when their resources where not sufficient for survival, they had to extend them by reciprocating with other groups of nomads. Generally, a reciprocity norm was cultivated between group members but not between different groups. Cooperation thus would emerge in cases of lack, where only reciprocating would provide a solution to the groups’ problems. Furthermore, as the resources of each nomadic tribe varied, the interactions were characterized by asymmetries, which led to complex formations of cooperation or egoistic behavior.

Probability of Corporation plotted against Number of Interactions.
Image: Orestis Papakyriakopoulos

The interactions of the nomadic groups in the tundra can be modeled as an evolutionary game obeying the replicator dynamics, where two actors A and B have to decide whether to cooperate or defect. Over time, they repeatedly come in contact and must act in order to ensure their self-interest. As egoists, their initial inclination is not to cooperate, because reciprocity includes a temporal moment, in which someone acts only for the benefit of the other and not of their own: a state which contradicts the very essence of selfish behavior.

Each actor has a random level of resources, which is modeled as a noisy normal distribution N(a,1) and N(b,1), respectively. The values a and b denote the mean resources available of an actor in a game and are parametrically varied in order to reveal properties of asymmetric interactions. In absolute egoistic behavior (defect – defect), both actors remain with their initial resources.









N(a,1), N(b,1)

Cases of defect-cooperate correspond to asymmetric situations, as the actor cooperating will be willing to share her resources while the other will not. This asymmetry might also lead to fooling situations, in which a defecting actor might take advantage of a cooperating one by acquiring the wanted resource but not reciprocating. Finally, cooperate-cooperate denotes the application of a reciprocal behavior by both actors.

Because the adoption of a behavior in a situation is dependent on the evaluation of the actors’ similar past experiences, the above pay-offs are of dynamic nature. Their value is updated through a modified Q-learning algorithm9, which corresponds to an actor’s memory and incorporates the profits or losses of previous decisions through the expression:

P(ai, aj) ← P(ai, aj) + γ(Uai−Úi)

where P(ai,aj) is the pay-off of an actor given the actions of both actors, γ γ is a discount factor, Uai is the pay-off of an actor given only her own action and Úi is the average pay-off of the actor given all possible outcomes of the interaction.

In the tundra domain, complete reciprocal behavior emerges only when both of the nomadic groups have inadequate resources, despite one possibly having more than the other (case a=0, b=1). In cases when nomads are self-sufficient, they maintain their egoistic attitude (case a=2, b=2), regardless of whether another nomadic group communicates their needs to them by cooperating (case a=0, b=3). It becomes clear that on a pre-social level where no social norms are already existent, the emergence of cooperation is a necessity for egoists whose resources are constrained in the domain. On the contrary, powerful egoists with many resources tend to maintain their solitary trajectories. Still, even for them, cooperative behavior can be obtained and maintained as a main trajectory under certain conditions, as will be analyzed next.

Cooperation as a dialectic process

The position of egoists in the domain, their imperatives, and their orientation are characterized by their absolute self-interest. Every decision and action is formed by this axiom, which defines the potential limits of the egoists’ trajectories in the domain. On certain occasions, the self-interest drives the egoist to situations in which the wants and needs cannot be satisfied by the actor alone. The lack distorts the stability of the person, who needs to find new paths for self-preservation. The only solution to the problem is the cooperation with another egoist. Consequently, a negative moment appears, which is a violation of the natural axioms of the egoists in the interaction. The inherent reciprocal agreement leads to instances that concern themselves only with the support of the other, declaring an antithesis to the egoists’ initial theses. The egoists now have to form certain spatiotemporal trajectories that satisfy the other, and not themselves, leading to non-egoism. This passing to the opposite behavior sublates10 the egoists and transforms them from asocial to social beings.

Egoistic Reward plottet agains Number of Interactions.
Image: Orestis Papakyriakopoulos

The realization that lack can only be overcome through the simultaneous interest for the self and the other redefines the potential trajectories of the egoist in the domain and the axioms that form them. The new social self emerges dialectically through the act of cooperating, as it is the result of a process where the person comes in contradiction to her initial egoistic self, and through the dissolution of the inherent axiomatic dispute manages to reach a higher state of being, by the negation of some personal characteristics and the adoption of others.

The transition from egoist to social being constitutes the future trajectories of the person, regardless of the proximate possibilities they might have in the domain. In a pre-social context, by the time actors manage to overcome the lack by cooperating, they per se embrace reciprocity as a norm and apply it in all future interactions, despite the fact that they might have become powerful enough to maintain their old egoistic trajectories (case a=0, b=i/50). Consequently, the emergence of sociability and its stabilization by reciprocity can be a result of the interaction of egoists, without the existence of a coercive structure that forces them to do so, even in the case of possibility asymmetries in the domain. The prerequisite for this is the dialectic transition from all egoists to higher self-states, which can provide the necessary fundament for social coordination.

In the complexity of interactions, the application of various social norms and of different motives, stable social function is difficult to achieve. This does not, however, mean that there is the need for a blind application of coercive measures or of authority structures. The powerful state against the small, the almighty corporation against its rivals, will tend not to cooperate. They defect, influence and constrain, but not due to the absence of an adequate authority structure. Rather it is a result of the existing possibility asymmetries in the domain, which allow the powerful to fulfil their wants without regard for the others. Together with the possibility asymmetries, legitimate social norms invisibly influence the trajectory formation of social actors, prescribing the outcome of social interactions.

  1. Thomas Hobbes and John C. A. Gaskin, Leviathan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), chapter XIV.
  2. Max Stirner and David Leopold, The ego and its own (Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
  3. Ibid. 161.
  4. Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, Livre VIII, Le transfert (Paris: Seuil, 1991), 139.
  5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on political economy; and, the social contract (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 54.
  6. Jean Piaget and Marjorie Gabain, The moral judgment of the child (New York: Free Press, 1965).
  7. Lawrence Kohlberg, The philosophy of moral development: moral stages and the idea of justice (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).
  8. Sabira Ståhlberg and Ingvar Svanberg, Gathering food from rodent nests in Siberia. in Journal of ethnobiology , 30(2), (2010), 184–202.
  9. Christopher J. C. H. Watkins, Learning from delayed rewards, Doctoral dissertation (University of Cambridge, 1989).
  10. Georg W. F. Hegel et al., The encyclopaedia logic, with: Part I of the Encyclopaedia of philosophical sciences (Indianapolis: Hackett. 1991).


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