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Promoting the Common Good using punishment, reward, and leadership

By Paul Ewans

Paul is a Trustee of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust

It is often only possible to promote the Common Good if we work together. But many of us are reluctant to cooperate with others even when this will benefit our own local community. How can we persuade such people to help us achieve common goals?

An example of successful local cooperation occurred recently in Uganda when heavy rains washed away a bridge used by children attending the Kanungu Humanist Primary School. The children were unable to get home at the end of the day, so the school Director Robert Magara hired trucks to take them back to their village. He then mobilised volunteers from the local community to carry logs out of the forest and down the hill to the river where they were used to make a new bridge. The common good was thus served by people coming together in a cooperative venture. But the success of the project depended on someone taking a leadership role - as such projects often do.

Cooperation is a way people improve their situation through coordinated joint action to secure common benefits. Humans are much more cooperative than most other species, and we are especially notable for our willingness to cooperate with strangers. Psychologists recognise cooperative-ness as a dimension of the ‘agreeableness’ character trait, though it seems that our tendency to cooperate with others is both partly innate and partly the result of socialisation and culture. Children can be taught to be more cooperative, and we are more likely to cooperate with those who speak our language.

The Free Rider problem

Most of our cooperative activity is unrelated to the common good. Parents cooperate in looking after their children, and children play cooperative games with each other. Many adult relationships are based on reciprocity, with each partner or friend doing favours to the other in turn. But some things cannot be achieved by one or two people by themselves, either because the task is too big or because it requires several people to fulfil different roles. In many of these cases a number of people come together to benefit the community as a whole, and this immediately raises the problem of free riders. Why would someone help to promote the common good at some cost to themselves when they can get the benefits for free? If the community comes together to build flood defences, my home will be protected whether I help fill sandbags or not. So how can we persuade free riders to become co-operators? Appeals to people’s better nature are unlikely to work. Fortunately, systems of rewards and punishments are often effective. The psychologist Nichola Raihani gives a striking illustration of this in her book The Social Instinct: What Nature Can Teach Us About Working Together (2021). In the 18th and 19th centuries, owners of merchant vessels appointed ship’s captains and gave them both a financial stake in the business and absolute authority over the ship’s crew who had no stake in the ship or its cargo. The treatment of the crew was thus often brutal, and mutinies were common. But on pirate ships the captains were democratically elected, had supreme authority only in the heat of battle, and could be dismissed by the crew at any other time. Moreover, all the crew had a financial stake in the enterprise with plunder being distributed by an elected quartermaster in accordance with a system of previously agreed shares. The arrangements on both types of ship were effective ways of dealing with free riders, one by punishment and the other by reward. But these were special cases, because crew members were unable to leave their ships while they were at sea. In everyday life, the rewards for being a co-operator are largely intangible. Being a member of a cooperative group is rewarding in itself, while people who cooperate tend to like each other and enjoy better social relationships. Co-operators also benefit from a sense of belonging and shared experience. And perhaps most importantly of all, co-operators acquire status and a reputation which makes them attractive to potential partners.

"...the best way of encouraging cooperation for the common good is to take the initiative and be the leader whom others will follow."

Punishment works as a means of control because it penalises the free riders without harming the co-operators so that cooperating becomes advisable. The danger, however, is that punishment can turn minor disputes into serious feuds. This is why societies control who may punish offences and to what extent. Ironically, people tend to enjoy punishing others, and those who gain a reputation as a punisher are viewed favourably because they are doing something which benefits the community. Even so, the best way of encouraging cooperation for the common good is to take the initiative and be the leader whom others will follow. Cooperation generally does not happen spontaneously - someone has to take the first step. But leadership should be modest and self-effacing. As Lao Tzu is reported to have said: ‘When the best leader’s work is done, the people say, ‘We did it ourselves’’.

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