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Why Cooperation Beats Isolationism, Aligns with Christianity

Does cooperation create a sense of solidarity and moral obligation toward one’s partners?

A recent World Bank working paper suggests that it does.

The paper shares findings from an experiment in which participants were organized into groups of three.

Some sets of three worked on a task alone without help from other group members, while other sets collaborated with the members of their group.

Independent participants received financial compensation upon completion, while collaborative participants only received compensation if each team member finished their work.

One participant in each group was chosen at random to lose their earnings, and an impartial observer was given the ability to redistribute earnings to them from another randomly assigned participant in the experiment.

Observers were more likely to redistribute funds to the unlucky participant (and in higher amounts) when both participants were in the same group and had collaborated on the assignment.

“The findings may contribute to a better understanding of the often-observed asymmetry in the willingness to help fellow citizens and foreigners: this asymmetry may arise from people believing that special moral obligations exist within, but not across, nations because co-nationals cooperate to a much greater extent than people from different nations,” the report stated.

“However, the results also suggest that one route for advocates of global justice may be to make salient the cooperation that already exists across societies (in the form of linked markets in goods, services, capital and labor), which likely would lead people to view that they have stronger moral obligations towards individuals from other societies.”

The more we cooperate with others, the more we are likely to help. The more we recognize the web of relationships connecting the world, the greater the scope of our moral obligation and sense of solidarity.

While this wasn’t a study about religious faith, expanding our circle of concern sounds very Christian.

In its noblest expressions, Christianity helps us realize the connectedness we have to all creation (“make salient the cooperation that already exists across societies”) – that what happens to the earth and all of its inhabitants, no matter the physical proximity to me, should be within my scope of concern.

This means that nativism, tribalism and nationalism – and any ideology that promotes one group over another, thus, narrowing our sense of solidarity and moral obligation – stands in sharp contrast to Christian faith.

An ever-widening compassion and concern for others has long been a hallmark of true religious conviction, and a leading influence in the ideas and assertions of Christian thinkers from biblical times to now.

From Deuteronomy 15:11’s imperative to “open your hand to the poor and needy” and Leviticus 19:9-10’s command to leave portions of the harvest “for the poor and alien,” to Jesus’ identification in Matthew 25 with those in need and 1 John 3:17’s inquiry about whether God’s love can abide in someone refusing to help others, the Bible urges, and in many cases demands, that we remove human-made walls and borders constraining our sense of solidarity with others.

From John Donne’s “no [one] is an island” and Emil Brunner’s “human life is, in its essence, responsible existence” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” and Glen Stassen’s “we survive by working together,” the best of our faith tradition has echoed and strived to adhere to these biblical commands.

The uninhibited and unqualified exercise of “my rights” is set forth by some as the ultimate goal of humanity, representing the highest achievement of society and governance.

A sense of communal responsibility and awareness of how individual actions affect others, for better or worse, is a much-neglected consideration in a nation that seems to promote individual freedoms over the common good. Sadly, this seems to hold true even among many Christians in the West.

For all of the good that expansive freedom brings – and it is certainly vital to promote, preserve and protect human rights and freedoms for all people – how we exercise our rights and live out our freedoms should be guided (even tempered, at times) by a larger responsibility to our local and global community.

The world is much “smaller” now than it once was, with myriad international trade agreements and ever-expanding internet access making us more interdependent than ever.

We can no longer be isolationists (whether as individuals or nations) who only think of themselves and only seek what is best for themselves because our actions truly affect the world.

An ever-growing sense of solidarity with, and moral obligation to, others is vital for our collective future.

I hope goodwill people of faith can be a vanguard toward a world in which the common good is a central, leading consideration in our individual and collective actions.

Zach Dawes

Zach Dawes is managing editor at EthicsDaily.com.