Written by Elliot Temple, August 2nd, 2011

Why is cooperation valuable?

Effective cooperation creates mutual benefit.

The most important thing is not to fight with each other. Some cooperation is not worth some fights. If it's too hard or not working well then just don't do it. People going their separate ways is fine.

It's not good to add a mix of benefits and harm to one's life. But adding exclusively benefits is great.

One way cooperation creates mutual benefit is called comparative advantage.

The idea of comparative advantage is that if we each do what we're good at, and trade, then we'll get a better result than if we each have to do all tasks ourselves.

Cooperation also allows specialization. When people specialize at a particular task, they can do it better than non-specialists.

If Bob and Jane each want 100 widgets and 100 gadgets per month, and they each make their own, that will take a certain amount of work. But if Bob makes 200 widgets, and Jane makes 200 gadgets, then they can each focus on getting really good at making that one type of thing and then trade.

A real world example is iPads. Instead of every person who wants an iPad building his own, Apple and its associates build all of them and then trade. Specialization allows for factories and mass production.

Another example is dairy farms. Instead of everyone owning their own cow, some specialists own lots of cows and sell the milk. This is way more convenient and allows for people to have milk who live in apartment buildings that can't accommodate cows.

Or imagine if coal mining wasn't left to specialists. Everyone takes their turn in the mine once a month. That would require most people get stronger and spend a lot of time learning new skills.

Or imagine if book writing wasn't left to specialists. If one wanted a book he'd have to write it himself. If we didn't cooperative with others, we'd never get to read a book without already knowing the ending.

Cooperation in the form of trade makes life much better for everyone involved. It's deeply integrated into our lifestyles. We rely on it. I don't know how to milk a cow or create an iPad, or build a home or car, and I don't need to learn those things.

Why is it safe to rely on cooperation and trade? What if one day no dairy farmers want to sell me milk? Or what if the area with all the coal mines goes to war with the area where I live and refuses to sell us coal anymore?

If I couldn't get any stores to trade with me for a year, my life would be ruined. If no one at all cooperated with me, I would die. I am not self-sufficient. Most people in modern society are not even close to self-sufficient. Is that risky?

The reason it's safe is because our society is stable and peaceful. Stable peace, at least within a particular area, is a requirement before we can gain so much material wealth from trade and specialization. If we didn't have stable peace we never would have developed in the direction of relying so heavily on trade and cooperation.

How did we get a society like this? By liberal values such as freedom, individualism, tolerating others who are different, the rule of law, impartial justice, and trying to use reason.

Because a liberal lifestyle works much better than any other, once a society does it they can see the benefits and want to do more of it. Liberalism can gradually increase.

Peace is best for everyone. Truth seeking and reason lead to peace.

Freedom and tolerance help promote peace too. Instead of fighting with people who are different, one respects their freedom and leaves them alone. In a liberal society, people who don't like each other simply refrain from cooperating, rather than fighting.

Good ideas bring on benefits which can help cause further progress. Once people get started with a good approach to life and to thinking, the goodness itself helps keep them using that approach (or any even better approach they discover).

Trade is not the only kind of cooperation. Another important kind is sharing ideas.

To learn, we need to find mistakes and improve our ideas to no longer have those mistakes.

An explanation of why something is a mistake, which can help someone learn better, is called a criticism. Criticism is a fundamental part of learning.

It's hard to find all of one's own mistakes. People often have blind spots and weaknesses. They aren't completely self-sufficient at finding and criticizing all types of mistakes.

External criticism helps a lot. Someone else may understand something I don't that allows him to offer a criticism I didn't think of myself.

Cooperating to share ideas is not nearly as well refined in the world today as trade is. Stores are routine. Appreciation of criticism is not routine. Some people dislike criticism and don't want to share or receive any.

Thinking about how sharing ideas works, and why it's good, and what some people's objections to it are, can help us to do it better.

If we don't think about cooperating regarding ideas enough then it won't work well for us. We need above average skill for it to work well. With trade, even most people with below average skill do fine.

To see the value of sharing ideas, consider that we've only had one Einstein. Not everyone has to be an Einstein. He shared his physics breakthroughs so we don't all have to think of them ourselves.

Our culture is good at sharing a limited amount of ideas via books, radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, academic journals and the internet. And via parents and teachers sharing ideas with children. That makes the world a much better place. It means knowledge can build up over time instead of starting over every generation.

But more is possible. We can do better. Individual people can talk with each other, share ideas and criticism, and learn. Discussions can be common and mutually beneficial. But a lot of small scale discussion today doesn't work very well or doesn't happen in the first place.

A problem is that some people consider criticism scary or bad. A reason for this is they get personally attached to their current ideas.

Life is better when one is open minded and recognizes that he can be the same person -- except better -- if he changes his ideas, gradually, one at a time. One doesn't need to hold on to all his ideas including his mistakes.

Proposing ideas, even mistaken ideas, is a good and helpful thing to do. We need candidate ideas; we need guesses about what might be correct. For every good idea, many bad ideas will be thought of. Bad ideas are more common than good ones. That's OK as long as we use criticism to eliminate bad ideas.

Without criticism, nothing would get rid of bad ideas. They would stick around forever, or at least until the people with those ideas died.

Without criticism there is no way to tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea.

It's only when there is a lot of criticism that we can see the difference between good ideas and bad ideas: good ideas are the ones which don't get refuted by criticism. Good ideas are the ones which no one finds mistakes in.

Even good ideas don't last forever. As we learn more we get better at finding subtle mistakes and we set higher standards. What used to be a good idea gets less impressive until eventually we find something wrong with it and create an even better idea.

(Read more of Elliot Temple's writing at )