Human cooperation and reciprocity
Proponents of strong reciprocity (henceforth SR) often emphasize that whereas much seemingly altruistic behavior is ultimately selfish on standard evolutionary explanations of altruism, SR is genuinely altruistic. Proponents of SR furthermore hold that it is adaptive behavior. They argue that SR could not possibly have evolved via standard individualist pathways, such as compensating future fitness benefits, as in reciprocal altruism (RA), or fitness benefits accruing to relatives (kin selection), and that it therefore must have evolved via some other pathway, such as group selection. Some opponents of SR agree that SR is genuinely altruistic, but argue that it is maladaptive behavior (Burnham and Johnson 2005). Other opponents of SR agree that it might be adaptive behavior, but argue that if it is adaptive behavior it is not genuinely altruistic (West et al. 2007). A substantive part of this chapter is devoted to a critical scrutiny of this debate. I argue that it is absolutely essential to keep the notions of evolutionary and psychological altruism apart. Although both camps in the debate acknowledge this explicitly, I point out that the notions are sometimes conflated. Once we clearly distinguish between evolutionary and psychological altruism, the issue of whether SR is ultimately genuinely altruistic can be unpacked into two separate issues that in principle can be resolved clearly and independently of each other. I argue that the difference between SR and RA is much less clear-cut than SR’s opponents suggest. It is not clear that SR is evolutionarily and psychologically altruistic. This inconclusiveness need not undermine the case for SR, however. I argue that it is unwise for proponents of SR to try to differentiate it from standard explanations of human cooperation in terms of altruism and selfishness. It raises unnecessary suspicion and irritation in onlookers who are in principle sympathetic to the idea that SR covers a significant part of human cooperation. And it diverts attention from more important issues. At the end of the chapter I identify a few issues that I think are more important for SR’s cause than the issue of whether or not it is ultimately selfish.