PAL-FHI Interdisciplinary Faculty Seminar on Cooperation

People act or work together to achieve common purposes or join forces for mutual benefit; they cooperate. But what exactly is required for cooperation to occur? And how have philosophers conceived of cooperation and the conditions that enable it? Does the current emphasis on cultural difference, pluralism and relativism in the humanities complicate established views on the requirements of cooperation? Can there be, to put it briefly, cooperation without commonality? Should perhaps the concept itself, with its connotations of smoothly interlocking acts of labor, be subjected to scrutiny?
These are the key questions we will be investigating in our faculty seminar. The aim of the seminar will be two-fold: first, to examine how cooperation has been theorized throughout the history of thought; and second, to identify and discuss the most profitable contributions of the humanities today toward elucidating the concept.
The question of cooperation is not new. Philosophers as well as political and social theorists have sought to understand how individuals – supposedly egoistic, belligerent and deceitful – are nonetheless able to act in concert. Most often, cooperation has been taken to presuppose a common ground or common traits: people work together because of what they share (e.g. needs, enemies) or because of their deep commitments to the same set of values or goals. For thinkers in the social contract tradition (e.g., Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau), cooperation occurs insofar as common laws or norms bring the interests of citizens in alignment or orient their actions toward similar ends. Conservative and Romantic thinkers (e.g., Burke, Keats, Herder) tend to emphasize how a shared inheritance, a common culture or religion, ensures homogeneity and solidarity that in turn grounds cooperation. Theorists of the market (e.g., Montesquieu, Smith, Hayek), in contrast, maintain that self-interest alone can induce people to interact harmoniously for their mutual benefit; rationally pursued, interests renders people predictable and guarantees stability. In recent years, representatives of younger disciplines – such as behavioral scientists and sociobiologists (e.g Gintis, Nowak) – have proposed that we think of humans as a cooperative species. The benefits of intra-group altruism shed light on the existence of mutual helpfulness and generosity. Cooperation, rather than competition and strife, is the most prominent trait of humanity, and the key to its evolutionary fitness.
As even the most abbreviated historical survey indicates, the seemingly implausible but stubborn fact of human cooperation has been a topic of reflection and debate throughout the history of thought, and across the disciplines. Our seminar will explore – indeed must explore – the concept of cooperation in an historical and interdisciplinary fashion.

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