Photo by NASA on Unsplash

By Dr Paul Vorster

When Robert Oppenheimer observed the first nuclear detonation, he famously quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, stating: “Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Oppenheimer realised that unlocking the secret of the atom, a form of high technology in the modern age, had incredible repercussions. Humankind now had the ability to not only wipe itself out, but to eradicate every other lifeform on the planet. 

Since that utterance by Oppenheimer in 1945 the world has ushered in much more high technology, including the nuclear fission, personal computing, the internet, genetic engineering, mobile technology, wireless technology, machine learning, and the anticipated advent of a general artificial intelligence. 

This technological boom is in part a testament to human cooperation and specialisation. Since the detonation of the first atomic bomb, more and more specialised professions emerged in both the sciences and humanities. The more information we unlock, the more we need individuals focused solely on understanding such technologies and making advances. 

Just consider the sheer number of professions, careers, and skills that must exist in order to make our world run effectively. Think carefully about this. Our society has become much more specialised. People study for years to become doctors, nurses, airline pilots, engineers, and scientists (to name a few). As human beings we are inherently reliant on others for our electricity, water, healthcare, financial income, shelter, and food. While we could provide some of these things independently – depending on your specialisation – it is almost impossible to provide them all. Although we like to think that we can interact independently in the world, we are by no means independent. 

Rather, human beings are a highly interdependent species which is becoming even more interdependent with the advent of modern communications technology. Whether our interdependence brought about communications technology or vice versa is a good question. 

Often, we think of humans as self-serving (i.e., man is a wolf to man), but as Frans de Waal (the famous primate expert) would reiterate, that would be insulting to the wolf since they are – in truth – highly cooperative animals. It is interesting then that group species tend to develop cooperative structures and cooperation requires trust. Humans are quite cooperative, even with those they have never met. We become outraged when people are not treated fairly or decently (just check social media platforms). We stand up for causes, and we worry about people we see on our televisions or online; people we have never met. This empathetic behaviour towards our fellow humans is not an accident. It could be argued that our gregarious natures are a built-in component that compelled us to cooperate, and thereby improve our odds of survival as a group rather than deal with life alone. We noticed long ago that working together is not only a clever idea, but essential to our survival. It is also much easier, more efficient, and personally rewarding. The development of language further facilitated cooperation. 

We often take language for granted. It is interesting that language has enabled us to communicate more precisely and accurately and to share our minds with others (something that is still a little tricky). It helped us to interact more effectively, which allowed for more efficient communication and knowledge sharing. It facilitated further cooperation.

But cooperation has not just resulted in better chances for survival or specialisation, it has also made humans thrive. Our very civilisation is a testament to cooperation, reciprocal altruism, and mutual beneficence. What we could call ‘ethics’ is an offshoot of this. It has to do with ensuring mutual beneficence and cooperation. Without trust, the sheer scale of trying to cooperate becomes an impossible task. We could argue that trust is the ingredient required for effective cooperation. 

Historically humankind often cooperated in a limited manner only (i.e., within a tribe, clan, or village). Those considered outsiders were often maligned in countless wars, disagreements, and conflicts, but also merged and integrated into one another. As time progressed, we could argue that today we are a contemporary global village. Even ideas of nationalism within countries are beginning to wane with people now referring increasingly to themselves as citizens of the world instead of a country. We have – in essence – become joined at the hip as a global, interdependent community. 

But interdependence – although allowing for large scale interaction and cooperation – has a weakness. Interdependent states rely on one another for meeting critical supply chains and ensuring the world order. This is can only be accomplished if a global ordering mechanism based on trust and cooperation exists. The current war in Ukraine is an example of how breaking the global order has dire consequences. We have seen the impact of supply shortages, runaway inflation, and an economic slowdown. This is all due to a single leader deciding to rebel against the presiding world order by invading a neighbouring country.  

A hundred years ago the impact of a war would have been limited to the regions directly involved, leaving many other independent states unscathed or unaffected (excluding the world wars, of course). In the modern world, a war thousands of kilometers away directly impacts everyone. A regional conflict now has global repercussions. 

Consequently, we should be acting in this vastly connected world with a different premise. This premise is that there are no enemies in the modern world; the only enemy is war itself. As Oppenheimer alluded, we now have the power to annihilate everything on this planet. With that power, we need to continually find ways to ensure that trust in the world remains; that we cooperate towards mutual survival and growth. The alternative rings in a sobering reality: If our cooperation in an interdependent world should break down, we are doomed. 

Human cooperation and trust have created our sprawling civilisation. Distrust and discord can ruin it. The only thing standing in the way of a global breakdown of trust is to regain, rebuild, and enhance it at all costs. This can only be done if we look at the world not as one ruled by economy or politics, but one defined by an ethical imperative to do what is good for the ‘self’ and the ‘other’.

Dr Paul Vorster is a Senior Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute. He holds a Doctors Degree in Industrial and Organisational Psychology from the University of Johannesburg.