Passengers push train off womanLast week something interesting happened in Japan. A woman fell into the gap between a train and the platform. Unlike a similar instance in New York where one man could save another from a subway, no one person could save her. So 40 passengers got off the train and started pushing. Others quickly joined in. By cooperating, they managed to push the train over far enough to get her out. 

This case raises some interesting questions about cooperation? What moral obligation do we have to cooperate? Can we be obligated to cooperate with others on something that we would not individually be obligated to do? And how can we best understand any moral obligation for cooperation, as a duty or a virtue?

Before looking into these questions, let me remind my readers of the nature of Unpublished Thoughts. I don’t mean to present worked out views. These are exploratory posts, meant to spark ideas and conversation. Though I may come back to these thoughts later, they are not projects I’m currently working on, but may return to later to make into an article.

Now back to the main attraction. Not a lot of work has been done on the ethics of cooperation. Yet, it is not an uncommon topic in ethics classes, when they consider the Prisoner’s Dilemma, as mentioned in my previous post. As many professors and researchers have discovered, people tend to think we ought to cooperate even when it’s contrary to our self-interest.

Sometimes, one clearly don’t have an obligation to cooperate with another, or even have an obligation not to cooperate. Suppose A is trying to murder C. Ceteris paribus, B has an obligation not to cooperate A. But what about the Japanese train case? If B is a bystander, is B morally obligated to join in the effort to push the train off? Those that did cooperate certainly did something praiseworthy. Yet some are likely to contend that their cooperation was morally supererogatory, not obligatory.

Still others (mainly the Kantians in the audience, I expect) might contend there is no need to discuss cooperation specifically. They could claim that B has an obligation to try to rescue the woman. The fact that B alone cannot accomplish the task is irrelevant. Everyone there had this same obligation. Cooperation was the result of at least a sufficient number of them seeking to fulfill that obligation.

There are two problems with such a view, as I see it. First, it overstates our moral autonomy. (That’s a huge topic in itself, which I’ll set aside for now.) Second, it ignores the issue of motivation. If I can’t accomplish a goal on my own (like saving the woman), and no one will cooperate with me, I’m less motivated to attempt it by myself. Or considering in the other way around, by cooperating we can encourage each other to do or be what we’re supposed to. Third, I at least think that there is an extra obligation to cooperate. So if B stood by while others pushed the train off the woman, B will have failed in two different duties: to save her and to cooperate with others. The idea here is that at least in some cases (unlike the Japanese train example), one can be obligated to cooperate with others toward an end that she isn’t obligated to try to realize on her own.

We could also think of being cooperative as virtue. A cooperative person is disposed to cooperate with others on morally appropriate tasks at morally appropriate times. By conceiving of cooperation as a virtue is that it we can see why one should cooperate and when. Cooperation can increase one’s overall well-being. For instance, cooperating in an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma do well. (To be more specific, two tit-for-tat players will always cooperate and have a higher utility than defectors.) So consistently cooperating in the right circumstances seem likely to make one better off, even if sometimes one ends up cooperating in circumstances that costs. Cooperation can help oneself, at least in the long run. And that fact is can explain why people are motivated to cooperate. This isn’t to say that an individual cooperative act or being a cooperative person is guaranteed to lead to a better, happier life. Instead, it’s that being cooperative increases one’s probability of a better, happier life.