The Science and Ethics of Cooperation


By Michael Towsey
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications.]

The cooperative system is fundamental to the organization and structure of a Prout (the Progressive Utilization Theory) economy. It is an expression of economic democracy in action – cooperative enterprises give workers the right of capital ownership, collective management and all the associated benefits, such as profit sharing.[i] Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar, the propounder of Prout, goes further and argues that an egalitarian society is actually not possible without a commitment to the cooperative system.[ii] The commitment is not just to an economic order but also to a cooperative ethic and culture. This essay explores some of the scientific evidence that humans have a predisposition to cooperation and in particular to economic cooperation. The evidence comes from a new and exciting field of research known as neuro-economics. We then turn to those insights provided by sociological studies.


Neuro-economics is the study of the neuro-physiological underpinnings of economic decision making. The field is new and providing unexpected insights into human economic behavior. Classical economic theory requires individuals to make complex calculations to maximize their personal advantage or utility. Utility, however, is a strangely ambiguous concept. On the one hand it is given a numerical value which implies the counting of something but on the other it is entirely abstract and not anchored to anything in the real world that can be counted. The advent of neurophysiology led to the idea that utility was really a surrogate for some chemical currency inside the brain, with most interest focused on serotonin molecules because these are known to be responsible for the experience of pleasure.

It turns out that a wide range of molecules of emotion[iii] impinge on the mental cost-benefit calculations that are supposed to take place inside the brain and they have unexpected effects. For example, in a ‘sharing experiment’, person A was asked to share a sum of money with person B. These experiments demonstrated behavior inconsistent with neoclassical theory. People appear to put a high value on fairness. In a follow up experiment, persons A and B were placed in the same experimental scenario as before, but they were (unknowingly) given an intranasal administration of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that plays a key role in social attachment and affiliation in animals and causes a substantial increase in trust in humans. In these experiments the effect of oxytocin was to increase the amount of money that A gives B. The experimenters concluded that “oxytocin may be part of the human physiology that motivates cooperation.”[iv] It is worth adding that such hormone-mediated interactions are not confined to human relationships but are also likely to be involved in human-animal relationships.[v]

Oxytocin is not the only neurochemical to promote cooperation. Recent observations of bonobo monkeys in the jungles of the Congo reveal fascinating contrasts with chimpanzees.[vi] Bonobos are matriarchal and show little aggression compared to the patriarchal chimps. Chimps respond to strangers with aggression, while bonobos demonstrate curiosity. When under stress, chimp tribes degenerate into fighting while bonobos respond to stress by engaging in collective sexual activity. Scientists have concluded that bonobos demonstrate higher levels of trust both with each other and with strangers. Of most interest, however, from a neuro-economics point of view, is the ability of the monkeys to perform a simple task requiring cooperation in retrieving some bananas that are out of reach. Although both species are intelligent enough to work out a solution (for example, by one climbing on the shoulders of the other or by one holding a ladder for the other), the chimps fail because they cannot trust one another. On the other hand, bonobos have no trouble cooperating to retrieve the bananas.[vii]

It turns out that these differences can largely be correlated with a single gene – a so-called ‘social gene’ that acts via a neuropeptide called vasopressin. Bonobo monkeys have the social gene, chimpanzees do not. And of particular interest – humans have the same vasopressin gene as bonobos. Social capital can be defined in terms of trust and empathy and these behavioral traits oil the wheels of social and economic interaction by encouraging cooperation between strangers. We now know that oxytocin and vasopressin are the physiological underpinnings of trust and that they influence levels of cooperation.

Managing Social Capital

We must immediately dispel any notion that trust, empathy and cooperation are predominantly determined by genes. Genes represent potentialities. How those potentialities are expressed depends entirely on the choices people make in the context of their genetic endowment and social environment. It is therefore extremely interesting to learn that measures of trust vary greatly from country to country. In one survey,[viii] an aggregate measure of trustworthiness ranged from a low 3% in Brazil to 65% in Norway. In a ranking of some 42 countries, Australia came in 8th position just ahead of India, Switzerland and the USA (see Figure 1 in Zak[ix]). It is possible to measure other social and economic indicators in the same countries and determine how these correlate with trust. The data suggest that low aggregate trust is correlated with low levels of investment and with poverty. Zak also claims that governments can increase aggregate trust by adopting policies which promote education, civil liberties and communication and which decrease income inequality.

This conclusion is supported by a just-published, ground-breaking book which reviews 30 years of research into the adverse effect of income inequality on almost all social indicators. The title says it all – Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.[x] It does not matter if the average per capita GDP (the de facto measure of wellbeing in neoclassical economics) is very low or very high. It is the gap between rich and poor that is important.[xi] The effect appears to cross cultures because countries as diverse as Indonesia, Vietnam, Finland and Japan all have better indicators than the UK and USA. The rich in more equal countries are happier than the more rich in less equal countries.[xii] The evidence obliges us to turn the trickle-down-effect on its head – the rich enjoy a better life by increasing the income of the poor.

The differences revealed, even between rich market democracies, are striking. Almost every modern social and environmental problem – poor physical health, mental illness, lack of community life, violence, drug abuse, obesity, long working hours, school dropout rates, imprisonment, violence and teenage pregnancies – is worse in a less equal society.[xiii] As with the Zak study, trust and cooperation are found to decline with increasing inequality and the authors suggest that low trust is a key factor because low trust/high stress leads to many of the other poor outcomes. Ultimately the Spirit Level is an optimistic book. The good news is that it is easily within the ability of governments to manage levels of inequality and therefore levels of trust. Many of the other social problems respond accordingly, without requiring the expensive remedial programs that attempt to correct the negative effects of high inequality. To this extent, the early socialists and George Orwell had an accurate intuition – increasing material equality helps to solve many apparently difficult social problems.

In the end much of this is common sense, but somehow it has been ignored by governments around the world bent on promoting the neoliberal agenda. In particular, it is worth noting the negative consequences of deregulating markets. Neoliberals claim that regulation warps the efficiency advantages of a truely free market. However the efficiency of a market is also dependent on trust among its participants. Deregulation combined with a lack of trader ethics eventually destroys a market because dishonest behavior begins to dominate.

This is illustrated by an interesting experiment with a group of chimpanzees.[xiv]  The object was to determine if chimpanzees could learn to trade using money. Chimps in the wild trade services with one another but not, as in this experiment, goods for goods with money as an intermediary. The results demonstrated that the animals could learn to trade using simple tokens as a currency convertible into snacks – but only as long as a human referee remained to keep the trading honest. In the absence of human supervision, trades started going sour because the chimps did not always return tokens proffered by their peers. “Lack of trust,” trouble communicating and difficulty with mental scorekeeping were three explanations suggested for the breakdown in chimp trade. However another conclusion that one might draw from this experiment is that a market can be made to function adequately even if the participants have poor ethics, as long as it is well regulated. It would be interesting to repeat the same experiment with bonobos.

Contemporary economic theory places much stress on free market competition to achieve efficiency. Justification for the role of competition comes from biological theories of evolution which stress survival of the fittest. We now know much more about our closest primate cousins and have discovered that competition is only half the story. Some primates have a sense of fair play and an innate capacity for cooperative behavior. The evidence points to humans also having a genetic and physiological predisposition to cooperation and, given the will, businesses and governments can foster that predisposition to promote a cooperative economy. Far from being weaknesses, trust and cooperation are economic strengths.

The more we understand human cooperation and how to strengthen cooperation, honesty and trust, the more economically successful our society becomes.[xv]

The Ethics of Cooperation

The essence of the utopian argument (and of its naivety) is that a better society can be created without sustained individual and collective effort. It contrasts starkly with the pessimistic argument currently pervading crisis ridden capitalist societies which asserts that, no matter how humans struggle to create a better society, they will always be brought down by greed and selfishness. Both arguments are dangerous, the former because it does not accord with reality, the latter because it engenders hopelessness. Our vision of a cooperative society must not fall into either trap. Human beings have many potentialities from crude to subtle, from selfish to altruistic. It is of paramount importance to understand the science behind all these potentialities and to encourage the subtle and restrain the crude.

We have seen that a cooperative society must be built on trust and empathy because these are required to sustain cooperative relationships. It is extremely difficult to establish trust and empathy in a culture which actively encourages self-interest and large inequalities of wealth. On the other hand, a cooperative society can be built where there is some rational effort both by individuals to deal with personal selfishness and by society as a whole to promote social equality. To the extent that traditional socialists turn their backs on individual morality and conservatives refuse to acknowledge egalitarian struggle, the more difficult it becomes to establish a cooperative society. In this section, we deal with ethical struggle and in the next, with the egalitarian struggle.

Sarkar promotes two complementary ethical systems, cardinal human values and neo-ethics. They are discussed in turn.

Cardinal Human Principles

Sarkar places much importance on a high standard of morality in individual and collective life. Cooperative businesses require not just honest directors and managers but also a state administration that is run by honest public servants and politicians.[xvi] In other words, morality is the sine qua non of a cooperative society. A commonly accepted set of moral principles is required but here we come up against an obstacle. Conservatives are inclined to seek moral guidance from religious scripture and, in the worst case, impose dogmas which repel the rational mind. Traditional socialists, not wishing to submit to religious dogma, tend to reject all moral principles as relative. So what kind of moral code is required to sustain a cooperative society and how can one promote it? Sarkar argues for the concept of cardinal human values, values that go beyond any one culture or religion.

It is interesting to note the emergence of various international courts of law, driven by a gradual recognition that cardinal human values must take priority over local culture and custom. True, only the worst violations, such as crimes against humanity, reach the international courts today and admittedly often for political reasons, but nevertheless the gradual emergence of an internationally accepted set of moral values is of tremendous importance. Acts of violence, deception and theft perpetrated on innocent people cannot be justified in the national interest. By logical extension to individuals, acts of violence, deception and theft for personal gain are also morally reprehensible. Most cultures around the world accept these as moral principles – indeed it is hard to imagine a sustainable society without them.

Sarkar promotes a set of ten principles that encapsulate cardinal human values.[xvii] The first three are concerned with the avoidance of violence, deceitfulness and theft as described above. To act according to cardinal principles of morality, says Sarkar, is virtue and to act against them is sin. The central idea in virtue is “to serve the collective interest, to accelerate the speed of the collective body…” To retard the speed of the collective body is sin.[xviii] Note that the ‘speed of the collective body’ to which Sarkar refers is the collective movement from crude to subtle encapsulated in his definition of progress. Virtue and sin, good and bad, are therefore defined by reference to collective social progress and not in terms of prevailing religious ideas.

The cardinal human principles have five important characteristics: 1) they are a natural system of morality in the sense that, without them, the natural developmental sequence of expansion and subtlification of mind cannot occur; 2) they are not ends in themselves but the means to individual and collective progress; 3) in particular they provide the necessary foundation for spiritual development; 4) their practice builds trust and therefore the quality of cooperation in society; 5) they are egalitarian because they are of benefit to all – their practice, by definition, excludes group or class interest.

Of the ten principles, one is of particular importance because it encapsulates the others: non-objectification.[xix] Objectification is the use of people (or indeed anything animate and inanimate) as objects for one’s own purposes without regard for their well-being. Exploitation is defined in a similar way.[xx] This principle appears in Neohumanism as the distinction between utility value and existential value. To recognize the existential value of a person is to recognize that their joys and sorrows are as important to them as my joys and sorrows are to me. We may therefore describe non-objectification as the empathic principle. It requires an ability to put oneself into the mind of another – to expand one’s consciousness beyond its limited ego boundary.[xxi]

Environmentalism infused with the empathic principle becomes deep ecology,[xxii] whose significant feature is to acknowledge the existential value of the natural world in addition to its utility value for humans. Social capital is defined in terms of the trust and empathy inherent in social relationships. It is now clear that the building of social capital acquires a moral imperative.[xxiii]

The practical translation of ethical principles into good social outcomes is performed by a society’s legal system.[xxiv] The law defines crime and the corresponding punishments. The larger the gap between crime and sin (the latter defined as that which impedes social progress), the more problems a society will face. Put another way, social progress depends on reducing the gap between morality and legality. Of course differences in climate and local circumstances will require minor differences in the application of the law from place to place, but the intention of the law should always be to give expression to cardinal human principles.

Contemporary capitalist society offers many examples of a gap between morality and legality. Consider CEO salaries, concerning which the word ‘obscene’ appears time and again. It was used to describe the £10.9m payouts received by Scottish Power’s former chief executive and colleagues just three months after they warned customers about inflation-busting bill hikes.[xxv] And in Scotland again, Sir Goodwin, former boss of the Royal Bank of Scotland, had to have police protection after public anger over the announcement that he would receive a £650,000 annual pension entitlement on leaving the bank which collapsed under his stewardship. CEOs defend their astronomical incomes as not breaking any law and as justified by ‘market forces’.

There are at least two moral principles relevant to CEO salaries, contentment[xxvi] and non-acquisitiveness.[xxvii] To maintain contentment, one must struggle against greed. It requires, says Sarkar, “being contented with the earnings of normal labour”. How might we give these two moral principles legal expression? Sarkar’s proposal is to provide a guaranteed minimum income (GMI), sufficient to cover the basic requirements of life, and then to set the maximum remuneration as a fixed ratio to the GMI. This policy is already part of cooperative ethics and is practised by cooperative businesses around the world.

Another gap between morality and legality in contemporary capitalist society concerns the waste of material resources. The relevant cardinal principle is non-acquisitiveness or the avoidance of superfluous consumption. Material goods should be acquired only to the extent required for a fruitful life. Note that this definition implies a legitimacy to consume something beyond basic needs, in contrast to Marx’s ‘needs slogan’ that limits individual consumption to the basic requirements.

The justification for placing a moral constraint on material consumption is that material resources are finite. One person’s inconsiderate use of finite resources disturbs the welfare of others and upsets environmental balance. From a social perspective, therefore, this principle offers the moral justification to pursue economic efficiency. As we have mentioned earlier, those who argue for productive efficiency do have a valid moral argument. But that same argument must also extend to efficiency of consumption, the issue which so worries environmentalists. Profligate consumption of fossil fuels (because capitalism considers Nature to be free for the taking) has brought planet earth to a dire situation. The green slogan, reduce, reuse and recycle has a moral imperative.


The Cardinal Human Principles define virtuous conduct for individuals. By contrast, Neo-ethics[xxviii] is more concerned with the ethics of groups, that is, social groupings whose identity is defined by race, language, gender, economic class and so on. Neo-ethics is not an alternative to the Cardinal Human Principles – the two are complementary. As the name implies, Neo-ethics is the ethics associated with Neohumanism.

The purpose of Neohumanism is to expand the circle of those who are included in the cooperative embrace. The existence of a circle, however, implies two groups, those on the inside and those on the outside. Within the circle there is cooperation and outside the circle is the other, those with whom there is not necessarily felt a willingness to cooperate. Groups are inevitable in society and they cannot simply be wished away. The problem to be addressed by Neo-ethics is the pathological tendency for some groups to coalesce around the desire to exercise power over the ‘other’.

Sarkar labels this problem imperialism, a term he uses quite generally to refer to the endeavour of any group to wield power over another. The imperialist urge is a psychic ailment “rooted deep in the human psyche”.

Goaded by this psychic ailment, a superpower forces its own selfish national interests on other weaker states to establish its suzerainty politically, militarily, etc. An imperialist power wants to dominate and exploit other socio-politico-economic units as an expansion, perpetration and consolidation of its vested interests; a powerful linguistic group suppresses other minority linguistic groups; the so-called upper castes subjugate the so-called lower castes in society; and opportunistic males curtail the rights of women in various ways. In all these cases, the same inherent psychological malady of imperialism prevails.[xxix]

Whether expressed as capitalism, nationalism, caste-imperialism, male chauvinism or lingualism, imperialism is anti-human. “It runs counter to the spirit of Neohumanism and the ethics of human life… it thwarts human progress and creates global wars and all sorts of divisive and destructive forces in society”. Imperialists “cultivate a psychology based on slavery, inferiority complex, pseudo-culture and psycho-economic exploitation”.

Concerning the problem of imperialism, socialists in the 19th century, both utopian and scientific, were quite naive. They appeared to believe that the imposition of material and social equality would somehow obliterate groups and therefore obliterate the group psychology giving rise to imperialism. But the imperialist impulse runs deep. George Orwell, in Animal Farm, identified it as the source of what went wrong with the socialist revolution but still apparently believed in the healing power of egalitarianism.

Psychologists recognize a natural sequence of human development which gives rise to increasing intellectual subtlety, empathy and moral perceptivity. This constitutes the starting point for Prout’s concept of progress. Unfortunately, for many different reasons, the developmental sequence is sometimes frustrated, in which case the psychologist’s job is to remove the impediment and to encourage healthy growth to resume. Sarkar views the imperialist tendency as a psychic ailment, that is, as a failure to develop to full maturity. It arises when a person or group comes under the grip of materialism.

Healthy development requires of individuals and groups a continual effort to push the envelope of progress defined as increasing the significance of the subtle in individual and collective life and reducing the significance of the crude.[xxx] Imperialism can be understood as a problem of frustrated or arrested development. Therefore Sarkar defines two principles of Neo-ethics. The first states that spirituality, being that which ultimately drives all progress and all development, “must be accepted as the supreme desideratum in human life”. The second principle concerns maintaining balance in life.

Dynamism is the first and last word of human existence. Human life cannot stand still, so it will move either in the direction of subtlety (progress) or in the direction of materialism (regress). All scientific and intellectual discoveries represent progress only to the extent that they encourage the flow of life from crude to subtle. The first principle of Neo-ethics commits human life to progress so defined. The second principle requires that in order to accommodate progress, the structure of human society (including its economic structure) must be continually adjusted.

We are passing through an era when human aspirations are becoming more and more subtle, but the most powerful of our political and economic institutions are still mired in the dysfunctional materialism of previous centuries. The choice is rather stark – imperialism or cooperation – but there is a choice.

The neurobiology of ethics

Since the acceptance of ethical principles is essential to sustain a cooperative society, it is clear that training in ethical decision making cannot be left to chance. It is encouraging to find that courses on business ethics are now multiplying in universities around the world, but something more than reading books on the subject is required. The learning of ethics requires exposure to real moral dilemmas because, as recent research has revealed, much more than the logical brain is involved.

Brain scans have opened a huge field of research into what parts of the brain are involved during different kinds of activity. In one recent study,[xxxi] neuroscientists wanted to discover what parts of the brain were associated with states of mind such as empathy, compassion, altruism, emotional stability, self-understanding and pro-social attitudes. They found that pondering a situation calling for altruism or compassion activated a brain region known as the medial prefrontal cortex. However, moral decision-making involved the joint activity of several distinct parts of the brain – the rational cortex (dorso­lateral prefrontal), which plays a role in sustaining attention and working memory, the social-empathic cortex (medial prefrontal), the conflict detection cortex (“sixth sense” anterior cingulated) and the limbic system (a part of the brain usually associated with primitive emotions such as sex, fear and anger). The authors concluded that the neurobiology of wisdom may involve an optimal balance between the more primitive brain regions and the newest ones. For those teaching ethics in MBA courses, the conclusion is clear. If the goal is to help students acquire ethical muscle, then they will need to be put in situations which exercise all these different parts of the brain at the same time.

It turns out that all decision making involves the emotional parts of the brain. Even decisions which are not apparently emotionally or morally charged, still engage parts of the brain associated with emotion. Far from being opposites, emotion and rationality are interdependent. Neuro-physiologist, Antonio Damasio[xxxii], has shown that people who lose the ability to perceive or experience emotions as a result of a brain injury, also find it hard or impossible to make decisions.


A cooperative society can be built where there is some reasonable effort to do so. That effort involves two parts, the first of which was discussed in the previous section, the personal struggle with selfishness. We now turn to the collective struggle to establish a cooperative society, where the focus is on egalitarianism.

The communist attempt to impose material equality was a disastrous failure. However, we have also reviewed some of the accumulating evidence that more equal societies perform better on virtually all social indicators than less equal societies. Even the rich are happier. People appear to be deeply sensitive, even subconsciously so, to differences in social status and relationships. The greater the differences, the more tension people experience. The increased trust, cooperation and well-being that accompany greater equality are associated with a reduction in social stress.

The Balance of Equality

So the question arises – if 100% equality is both impossible and undesirable, and yet equal societies are happier, what should be the balance of equality? Those on the left and right of politics take different positions on this question because they attach different values to the achievement of equality over other goals such as productive efficiency. There is a legitimate policy debate here because both equality and efficiency have a moral dimension. The moral requirement for productive efficiency places a legitimate constraint on the virtue of income equality. If talent and hard work are not rewarded, both productivity and cooperation suffer.

The Proutist solution has two parts: first, to set the maximum income as a fixed ratio to the minimum income and second, to divide the Gross Domestic Product into two parts, one part to guarantee the minimum requirements of life to all and the other to reward effort and talent. As a community accumulates more wealth, the quantity and quality of the minimum requirements can be increased.

The commitment to egalitarianism is evident in three respects. First is the commitment to provide the minimum requirements of all humans, animals and plants. This corresponds to Marx’s dictum – to each according to need. Second is the commitment to increase purchasing capacity by increasing the quality and availability of the minimum requirements.

Third is the commitment to reduce income inequality by progressively reducing the gap between the maximum and the minimum income.

After the needs of all have been met, Sarkar proposes to reward those who have demonstrated talent and effort. Fairness and the desirability to maintain productivity justify such an approach.

Rewarding talent and effort can be interpreted as the meritocratic component of Prout because, quite obviously, those so rewarded will rise in social position. Many socialists oppose the meritocratic concept because, as the word implies, it can lead to the entrenchment of a class that monopolizes access to merit, thereby perpetuating its own power and privilege. Sarkar is clear that the necessity to reward talent should not be at the expense of needs (however they are defined in any particular age) and he also advocates checks and balances on public power. But the positive outcomes are too obvious to ignore: work satisfaction, work place efficiency, the possibility for self-improvement and so on. The productivity increase so achieved creates more wealth which can be used to increase the standard of ‘needs’. However the egalitarian versus meritocratic impulses are always likely to be in political conflict – to hope otherwise is to hope for the discredited socialist utopia. Rather than ignore or suppress political tensions, it is sensible to recognize them and provide a forum in which they can be expressed constructively.

Ultimately the degree of egalitarianism in a particular community and the rate at which egalitarian indicators can be increased is a matter of culture and collective social consciousness. These do not change easily, which is why the sudden imposition of equality will always fail if culture cannot sustain it.

The egalitarian principle in Neohumanism is referred to as the Principle of Social Equality. It is a social mentality as much as an economic state. Those who wish to create a better society, says Sarkar, will have to “stage a fight against all crude forces, a pauseless struggle against inequality and cowardliness.” He then adds curiously that “complete one hundred percent equality is an impossibility”, so for those wishing to create a better society, “Where is the opportunity for them to have rest?”[xxxiii] This is the way of the world – we must struggle for social equality while recognising that complete equality is impossible due to the relentless dynamism of nature.

Political leanings

Those who believe that the left-right polarization of traditional politics will find no place to draw energy in a cooperative society presumably believe that policy debates with egalitarian implications, for example, concerning income ratios and minimum requirements, will be resolved by rational argument. However, the evidence suggests that the psychological factors which incline a person to favour a more conservative versus a more egalitarian position on such issues are not going to disappear even in a more cooperative society.

Recent research has shown that where persons position themselves on the political spectrum has physiological and genetic correlates. According to a U.S. study published in Science,[xxxiv] political views are an integral part of ones physiology. Forty-six volunteers were asked about their views on a range of political issues before measuring their physiological responses (interpreted as levels of fear) to a range of non-political stimuli, for example, sudden loud noises and frightening images (including pictures of a man with a large spider on his face and an open wound with maggots). “Those individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control, whereas individuals displaying measurably higher physiological reactions to those same stimuli were more likely to favor defence spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War.” The researchers concluded that “the degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats.”

A number of studies[xxxv] suggest that political orientation has a genetic component. A study of 30,000 twins from Virginia, USA, found that identical twins are more likely than non-identical twins to give the same answers to political questions. The explanation appears to lie in other independent studies which show that some personality traits are highly heritable and that political leaning depends on those traits. For example, conscientiousness, openness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism are believed to be basic components of personality and they are known to be highly heritable. The first three are correlated with political persuasion. Republican voters in the USA score more highly on conscientiousness but Democrat voters score more highly on openness and extroversion.

There is much irony here for socialists, for they strongly support policies that stress the importance of nurture and yet their policy preferences (so the evidence suggests) reflect the influence of nature.

From a Darwinian perspective, the health of a species depends on the existence of ‘hidden’ genetic variability within its populations. A genetically-determined trait may be advantageous in one environment but not in another. The success of any species depends on maintaining diverse genetic resources. We may assume that the diversity of human personalities (and the consequent diversity of political views) serves an important purpose for human society as a whole but it also means that debates about egalitarianism run deep and will be with us for a long time to come.

The Future of Cooperation – Psycho-economics

Contemporary economics is divided into two disciplines: microeconomics and macroeconomics. Sarkar proposes dividing economics into four disciplines: people’s economics, general economics, commercial economics and psycho-economics. Contemporary economics is primarily devoted to commercial interests. People’s economics, by contrast, is concerned with the provision of the minimum requirements of life using local resources, and psycho-economics is concerned with satisfying subtler human aspirations.

Sarkar divides psycho-economy into two branches. The first investigates the psychology, behaviours and institutional arrangements which make people more susceptible to economic exploitation. “The first and foremost duty of psycho-economics is to wage a tireless fight against all degenerating and dehumanizing economic trends in society.” The second branch of psycho-economy hints at the subsequent development of neuro-economics and beyond.

Psycho-economics will surely develop in directions that we cannot yet imagine, but it nevertheless has practical relevance in today’s world. In developed economies (by definition, those which can provide the minimum requirements of life to all), its most obvious expression will be cultivation of the fine arts[xxxvi] – not just to provide entertainment but to engage the individual and collective minds with more subtle feelings and thoughts. If building a cooperative society requires a constant struggle against individual selfishness and narrow social dogmas, then the fine arts provide us with the inspiration to make that struggle because they can take one beyond limited ego and personal concerns. The fine arts have the potential to engender feelings of love, awe and respect for all the different peoples and living things in this world. They overcome barriers and build bridges of affection.

The entire aesthetics is the only charming entity in human life. Had there been no aesthetics, human life would have been just like a desert. A slight touch of aesthetics in this anxiety-ridden life of human beings is just like an oasis in a desert. Art, architecture, literature, music, – everything had its origin, had its starting point – where? Just at the common point of aesthetics and mystics.[xxxvii]

Earlier it was noted that the struggle to create an egalitarian society can succeed only as fast as culture and collective social consciousness are prepared to accommodate it. We now go a step further and argue that education and the fine arts provide the keys to changing culture and in combination they are the most powerful force for social improvement. As an example we can turn to the success of El Sistema, Venezuela’s 32-year-old program of social action through music. This program has been so successful that it is now being emulated around the world. It is estimated that a million Venezuelan children have participated in El Sistema and currently one quarter million Venezuelan teenagers and children, most from impoverished backgrounds, are being filled with an “affluence of the spirit”[xxxviii] through the intensive study of music and participation in orchestras, choirs and ensembles. The goal of the program is to help disadvantaged children become fully participating members of society. The rationale is that the many skills required to play in an orchestra or sing in a choir can be translated to the wider social setting.

When you work in the kind of ensemble musical activity that El Sistema fosters, you are essentially developing into a social being, a cooperative being, a non-violent being, someone who has the empathy to want to reach out and help others…[xxxix]

Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema, was asked why he made the unlikely choice of music for disadvantaged children rather than the more obvious choice of sports, especially soccer. Abreu acknowledged that sport has the virtue of being invigorating, motivating and promoting physical health. But disadvantaged youths have had the message drummed into them throughout their lives, ‘You are a loser’. The problem with competitive sports is that 50 percent or more of them will continue to get the message reinforced, ‘you are a loser’.

This is one problem that we do not encounter with playing in a symphony orchestra because a symphony orchestra is a rare and unique organization, whose only purpose and only reason for being is to be in agreement with itself. We are a community and we all win simply by participating in it.[xl]

A note of caution is probably in order here. The fine arts are essential for human wellbeing but they do not promise utopia. Hitler and Stalin attempted to co-opt artists and musicians in the service of their tyranny. Those who did not succumb were killed or sent to prison camps. The American music critic, Alex Ross, has described “the awful warping effect that happened, in classical music in particular” as a result of the engagement of Nazi Germany with the fine arts. “You can see the danger of artists becoming too involved with politics and being too impressed with politicians who take an interest in art.”[xli]

The message is clear. Politicians must not be allowed to use the arts for their own ends and yet it is their duty to create a social and economic environment in which the arts can flourish. The vindication of this approach can be seen in the El Sistema project.

I would love to be able to say that the problems of gang violence and poverty [in Venezuela] have gone away completely but what I can say [about Abreu’s system] is that over the years, with a million children having gone through this system, those who have experienced it are among the most brilliant, poised, self-assured, curious, engaged young leaders of the future that I have ever met. I think that is about as good a sign of a system that works and frees people from the shackles that they were… born into and might have been fettered with for the rest of their lives, as any could possibly be.[xlii]


A healthy human society can only be founded on a social theory that recognizes humans as multidimensional beings, that is, as having metaphysical and spiritual aspirations in addition to their physical aspirations. Given the history of utopian visions gone wrong, it is important to guard against naivety – a cooperative society will not be established without struggle and without a commitment to cardinal human values and Neo-ethics. Human beings are both selfish and cooperative – our struggle is to encourage the latter in as many ways as possible and to control the former in as many ways as possible.

Cooperation must not be allowed to become another dogma. Coordinated cooperation will require a good scientific understanding of the physiological, psychological and environmental factors which encourage cooperation and those which do not. The research to date offers good grounds for optimism. Human beings have a strong genetic and physiological foundation on which to build a better society and there is every reason to suppose that a cooperative society can be built given any reasonable effort in that direction.

Dr. Michael Towsey is currently a Research Fellow in bioinformatics at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane., and a faculty member at Prout College. His Ph.D. from the University of Queensland was in the field of machine learning. His previous degrees were in biology and agriculture. He has worked at universities and IT companies in New Zealand, Australia, the United Arab Emirates and Germany. He has presented papers on the philosophy of P. R. Sarkar to many international conferences. In 2003, he was engaged by the national oil company of Venezuela, PDVSA, to conduct a training seminar on Prout’s cooperative economic system and the role it can play in the development of Venezuela. A student of the philosophical works of P. R. Sarkar for the past 30 years, he has published a number of works in the field of philosophy and economics, including Taxation for Sustainable Communities, Self-reliant Regional Development, A Sociology for the New Age, and Eternal Dance of Macrocosm.


[i] Dada Maheshvarananda. After Capitalism – Prout’s Vision for a New World, Proutist Universal Publications, ISBN: 1-877762-06-7, 1st edition 2003.
[ii] Sarkar, P.R. Human Society Part 2, Chapter: Shúdra Revolution and Sadvipra Society, 1st edition 1967. Electronic Edition version 7, 2006
[iii] This is the catchy title of a book by Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion: The science behind mind-body medicine, pub Scribner, ISBN 0-684-84634-9, 1997.
[iv] Zak, Paul, R. Kurzban and W. Matzner. The Neurobiology of Trust. Annals of the New York Acadamy of Sciences, 2004, 1032: pp224-227. See also URL2 < <> >.
[v] Douglas, Catherine (2009) Cows with names produce more milk. Newcastle University, England. This study revealed that cows given personal names yield significantly more milk than cows identified just by numbers.
[vi] Newby, Jonica. Making love not war. Catalyst, ABC TV, 20th Sept 2007. <>
[vii] The reader may ask if experiments with monkeys have any relevance to human social behaviour because our social conditioning can sublimate or repress physiological tendencies. But this is exactly the point. It is difficult in humans to know the extent to which subtle and altruistic behaviour is ‘natural’ because our social conditioning is so pervasive. Monkey experiments point to the natural physiological foundations of human behaviour presumably without the same degree of social conditioning. But there is an extremely important caveat. The information so obtained must be extrapolated to humans with much caution. A large body of experimental work on the ‘economic’ behaviour of chimpanzees turns out not to be so relevant to humans because chimps lack the all important ‘trust’ gene (producing vasopressin). On the other hand, comparisons between chimps and bonobos appear to tell us a lot.
[viii] Zak, Paul. Trust. Capco Institute Journal of Financial Transformation. 7: pp13-21, 2003.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Published: Allen Lane, 05 Mar 2009. ISBN: 9781846140396
[xi] Inequality was measured as the ratio of the average income of the richest 20% to that of the poorest 20%. Japan was the most equal nation in the study with a ratio of 3.5. Australia was well down the list along with Britain at 7.0. The USA had even higher inequality.
[xii] See a review of The Spirit Level at the Penguin web site,,,9781846140396,00.html <,,9781846140396,00.html> .
[xiii] There is a curious exception to this statement – rates of suicide tend to be higher in countries with more equality. In an interview on ABC Radio, the authors Wilkinson and Pickett offered an interesting explanation – that in unequal societies people tend to blame others if their lives go wrong, whereas in more equal societies people are more likely to blame themselves. In unequal societies, violence is directed outwards; in equal societies it is directed inwards. ABC, Radio National, Saturday Extra, 6th June 2009, 7:30am. <>
[xiv] Brosnan, Sarah F. & Beran, Michael J. Bartering behavior between conspecifics in chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes. Journal of Comparative Psychology. May, 2009. See also a report at
[xv] Gunnthorsdottir, Anna. Notes and Ideas – a behavioural economist nominates the five books that can explain the games people play. The Australian Literary Review. Issue 1, Volume 1, p29, Sept 5, 2006.
[xvi] Sarkar, P.R. Human Society Part 2, Last chapter: Shúdra Revolution and Sadvipra Society, Op. Cit., 1st edition 1967.
[xvii] The ten principles are known as yama and niyama. The terminology is Sanskrit because they have their origins in the ancient practice of yoga. See Sarkar, P. R. (1957) A Guide to Human Conduct, Electronic Edition, v7. Sarkar appears to use the terms cardinal human values and cardinal human principles interchangeably.
[xviii] Sarkar, P. R. Talks on Prout: Section Pa’pa and Pun’ya [Sin and Virtue], in Prout in a Nutshell, v15. It should be noted that the English word ‘sin’ is a translation of the Sanskrit ‘papa’. It does not have a religious connotation.
[xix] In the original Sanskrit, this principle is known as brahmacarya.
[xx] See the Wikipedia entry on exploitation,
[xxi] A moral person refrains from hurting another, not for fear of punishment but because he/she experiences disquiet about the pain inflicted on the victim. Empathy stops what anger, greed or passion might like to pursue. In other words empathy, not punishment, guides the moral person in good conduct.
[xxii] Deep ecology was developed by Aerne Naess and shows the influence of Mahatma Ghandi’s brand of Hindu philosophy.
[xxiii] The role of empathy in traditional socialist philosophy is filled by solidarity, but only appears to manifest when one follows the correct political line.
[xxiv] Fitzgerald, Jennifer. Rekindling the Wisdom Tradition, in Transcending Boundaries, Gurukula Press, Australia, 1999.
[xxv] The word obscene was used by Scottish National Party energy spokesman Richard Lochhead.
[xxvi] In the original Sanskrit, this principle is known as santosa. Human desires know no limit and if some effort is not made to control them, much social harm results. Sarkar would consider the excessive salaries pursued by CEOs in contemporary times to be a moral malady. “Millionaires want to become multimillionaires, because they are not satisfied with their million. Ask the millionaires if they are happy with their money. They will say, ‘Where is the money? I am somehow pulling on.’ This answer indicates their ignorance of aparigraha [non-acquisitiveness]. But such feelings have another adverse effect on body and mind. Out of excessive fondness for physical or mental pleasures people become mad to earn money and amass wealth. As money becomes the be-all and end-all of life, the mind gets crudified.” To maintain contentment, says Sarkar, “one has to make a special type of mental effort to keep aloof from external allurements” and to avoid coming “under the sway of excessive greed”.
[xxvii] In the original Sanskrit, this principle is known as aparigraha. It concerns the avoidance of superfluous consumption.
[xxviii] Sarkar introduced Neo-ethics late in his life (1987).
[xxix] Sarkar, P.R. The Neo-Ethics of Multi-Lateral Salvation, 1st edition 1987, Electronic Edition, v7.
[xxx] We may conclude that any attempt to establish a socialist society with a materialistic philosophy such as Marxism is bound to fail. The union of mind and matter that is supposed to usher in a classless society, can on the contrary only lead to imperialism. The history of the USSR confirms such an outcome.
[xxxi] Jeste, Dilip and Thomas W. Meeks. A seat of wisdom in the brain? Archives of General Psychiatry, April 6, 2009.
[xxxii] Damasio, Antonio. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, 1st edition 1994; Penguin paperback reprint 2005: ISBN 0-14-303622-X
[xxxiii] Sarkar, P.R. Tantra and Its Effect on Society, Op Cit.
[xxxiv] Douglas R. Oxley, Kevin B. Smith, John Alford, Matthew Hibbing, Jennifer Miller, Mario Scalora, Peter Hatemi, John Hibbing. Political Attitudes Vary with Physiological Traits. Science v321 (5896), pp1667-1670, 2008. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1157627]
[xxxv] Giles, Jim. Born that way: Your political leanings are imprinted in your genes. New Scientist, 2 February 2008, p29.
[xxxvi] The author is indebted to Firdaus Ghista for the following train of thought.
[xxxvii] Sarkar, P. R. Aesthetics and Mysticism, published in Ánanda Vacanámrtam, Part 34, Ananda Marga Publications, 1980.
[xxxviii] <> Simon Rattle, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, has called El Sistema “the most important thing happening in classical music in the world today”.
[xxxix] Critendon, Stefen. Who stopped the music?, Background Briefing, ABC, Sunday 19 July 2009. The quote is from Brian Levine, managing director of the Toronto based Glen Gould foundation, which has just issued its prestigious award to Jose Antonio Abreu, founder of the El Sistema program. < <> > and < <> >
[xl] Ibid.
[xli] These comments were made by Alex Ross when he was interviewed on the ABC, Radio National, The Book Show, 25th May 2009, 8pm – 9pm. The reader is referred to Ross’s highly acclaimed book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th century. Pub Fourth Estate. (2007) ISBN 9780374249397
[xlii] Brian Levine in interview with Stefen Critendon, Who stopped the music?, Background Briefing, ABC, Op. Cit.

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