What is morality? And are there any universal moral values? Scholars have debated these questions for millennia. But now, thanks to science, we have the answers.

Converging lines of evidence – from game theory, ethology, psychology, and anthropology – suggest that morality is a collection of tools for promoting cooperation1.

For 50 million years humans and their ancestors have lived in social groups. During this time natural selection equipped them with a range of adaptations for realizing the enormous benefits of cooperation that social life affords. More recently, humans have built on these benevolent biological foundations with cultural innovations – norms, rules, institutions – that further bolster cooperation. Together, these biological and cultural mechanisms provide the motivation for social, cooperative and altruistic behavior; and they provide the criteria by which we evaluate the behavior of others. And, according to the theory of ‘morality as cooperation’, it is precisely this collection of cooperative traits that constitute human morality.

What’s more, the theory leads us to expect that, because there are many types of cooperation, there will be many types of morality. Kin selection explains why we feel a special duty of care for our families, and why we abhor incest. Mutualism explains why we form groups and coalitions (there is strength and safety in numbers), and hence why we value unity, solidarity, and loyalty. Social exchange explains why we trust others, reciprocate favors, feel guilt and gratitude, make amends, and forgive. And conflict resolution explains: why we engage in costly displays of prowess such as bravery and generosity; why we defer to our superiors; why we divide disputed resources fairly; and why we recognize prior possession.

Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon.

And, as predicted by the theory, these seven moral rules appear to be universal across cultures:

  1. love your family
  2. help your group
  3. return favors
  4. be brave
  5. defer to authority
  6. be fair
  7. respect others’ property

My colleagues and I analyzed ethnographic accounts of ethics from 60 societies (comprising over 600,000 words from over 600 sources)2. We found that these seven cooperative behaviors were always considered morally good. We found examples of most of these morals in most societies. Crucially, there were no counter-examples – no societies in which any of these behaviors were considered morally bad. And we observed these morals with equal frequency across continents; they were not the exclusive preserve of ‘the West’ or any other region.

For example, among the Amhara, “flouting kinship obligation is regarded as a shameful deviation, indicating an evil character”. In Korea, there exists an “egalitarian community ethic [of] mutual assistance and cooperation among neighbors [and] strong in-group solidarity”. “Reciprocity is observed in every stage of Garo life [and] has a very high place in the Garo social structure of values”. Among the Maasai, “Those who cling to warrior virtues are still highly respected”, and “the uncompromising ideal of supreme warriorhood [involves] ascetic commitment to self-sacrifice…in the heat of battle, as a supreme display of courageous loyalty”. The Bemba exhibit “a deep sense of respect for elders’ authority”. The Kapauku “idea of justice” is called “uta-uta, half-half…[the meaning of which] comes very close to what we call equity”. And among the Tarahumara, “respect for the property of others is the keystone of all interpersonal relations”.

‘Morality as cooperation’ does not predict that moral values will be identical across cultures. On the contrary, the theory predicts ‘variation on a theme’: moral values will reflect the value of different types of cooperation under different social and ecological conditions. Taking amoxil to improve erection for a European is something that can be discussed with other people, but in other cultures impotence and treatment cannot be discussed with anyone. And certainly, it was our impression that these societies did indeed vary in how they prioritized or ranked the seven moral values. With further research, perhaps gathering new data on moral values in contemporary societies, we shall be able to explore the causes of this variation.

And so there is a common core of universal moral principles. Morality is always and everywhere a cooperative phenomenon. And everyone agrees that cooperating, promoting the common good, is the right thing to do. Appreciating this fundamental fact about human nature could help promote mutual understanding between people of different cultures, and so help to make the world a better place.


  1. Curry, O.S., Morality as Cooperation: A Problem-Centred Approach, in The Evolution of Morality, T.K. Shackelford and R.D. Hansen, Editors. 2016, Springer International Publishing. p. 27-51.
  2. Curry, O. S., Mullins, D. A., & Whitehouse, H. (forthcoming). Is it good to cooperate? Testing the theory of morality-as-cooperation in 60 societies. Current Anthropology. (https://osf.io/9546r/)

This article is from TVOL’s project titled “This View of Morality: Can an Evolutionary Perspective Reveal a Universal Morality?” You can download a PDF of the project [here], comment on this article below, or comment on the project as a whole in the Summary and Overview.

Published On: May 17, 2018

Oliver Scott Curry

Oliver Scott Curry

Dr Oliver Scott Curry is a Senior Researcher, and Director of the Oxford Morals Project, at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford. His research investigates the nature, content and structure of human morality, using a range of techniques from philosophy, experimental and social psychology and comparative anthropology.



  • Mark Sloan says:

    I’ve enjoyed your work since reading your dissertation, which now seems a long time ago.
    Our approaches appear to be complimentary and mutually illuminating. Your approach here could be called a “bottom up” empirical search for human cultural moral norm universals. Mine is a “top down” perspective derived from human independent phenomenon – specifically the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.
    Regarding possible differences, I see the most useful definition of a cultural moral norm as something like “a cultural norm whose violation is commonly thought to deserve punishment” (though people may not actually be punished). Do you have a different preferred definition?
    Using my definition of “moral norm” leads me to question if kin altruism (which does not require social punishment to be evolutionarily stable) is best thought of as part of morality or as in some closely related category of solutions to cooperation problems.

    • Hello Mark, thanks for your comments and your kind words. The theory of ‘morality as cooperation’ (MAC) is ‘top down’ too, but from higher-up. MAC starts with nonzerosum games in general, and proceeds to identify many different specific problems of cooperation — not only social dilemmas, but also coordination problems, assurance games, hawk-dove games and so on. Incorporating all the many different types of cooperation makes for a broader and more powerful theory that explains more moral phenomena – not just trust and reciprocity, but also love, loyalty, bravery, deference, fairness, property rights and so on. MAC derives predictions from this underlying theory of morality, and tests them empirically, in this case using ethnographic data. By contrast, your approach focusses on only one of these problems — ‘the’ problem of social dilemmas. Why restrict yourself to ‘a’ problem, when there are many?

    • Morals are solutions to problems of cooperation. They come in lots of different shapes and sizes – traits, instincts, intuitions, virtues, values, norms, rules, conventions, institutions, and so on. Some moral violations are punished, but not all. For example, people are praised for performing ‘supererogatory’ acts of bravery, but not punished for not doing so. (Which is exactly what a hawkish costly-signaling approach would predict.)

    • Now, about kinship. The main question is whether kin selection can explain how and why people care about their families. It can. A secondary question is whether people regard such kin altruism as morally good. The answer is yes, and the evidence is overwhelming.

      First, scholars says so. For example, the moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick argued that “duties arising out of comparatively permanent relationships not voluntarily chosen, such as Kindred” were one of the four main types of morality (Sidgwick, 1874). Edvard Westermarck’s classic cross-cultural survey of ethics concluded: “There is one duty so universal and obvious that it is seldom mentioned: the mother’s duty to rear her children…Another duty…is incumbent on the married man: the protection and support of his family” (Westermarck, 1906). The anthropologist May Edel and her philosopher husband Abraham Edel concurred: “the moral obligation for a mother to take care of her children…is a universal imperative” (Edel & Edel, 1959/1968). And in Confucian ethics, “Duty to the family trumped all other duties” (Fukuyama, 1996). Oh, and “the horror of incest is well nigh universal in the human race” (Westermarck, 1906).

      Second, ethnographers say so. In our 60-culture study, we found evidence of kin-related morals in 78% of societies. I quoted the Amhara (above), but there are obviously other examples. Among the Tiv, “The ethics of kinship are more compelling than the ethics of mere prestige and always take precedence; ideally, one must always sacrifice prestige or hope of gain to aid a kinsman” (Bohannan, 1968). Among the Hokkien: “Filial piety and fraternal benevolence transcended the span of a single lifetime, it was thought, and led to the veneration of remoter ancestors and the sense of solidarity with more distant kinsmen – the lineage spirit as defined by Confucian moralists” (Meskill, 1979). Among the Ifagao: “‘local’ or ‘geographic’ (as opposed to ‘blood’) solidarity, or the ‘tie of propinquity’, is ordinarily very weak as compared to kinship solidarity, and is often in opposition to it” (Barton, 1938). Among the Saramaka: “the greatest value is placed on ‘living well,’ conceived of almost exclusively in terms of material fulfillment of kinship (and other) normative obligations” (Price, 1975). And among the Inuit: “The foremost virtues therefore are . . . loyal co-operation with one’s kin” (Jenness, 1922).

      And third, survey respondents say so. A survey of family values involving student samples from 30 countries (Georgas and et al. 2006, Byrne and van de Vijver 2014) and responses to items in the World Values Survey, conducted in over 65 societies (Inglehart and Baker 2000), indicate that ‘helping kin’ is widely considered to be morally good. And data collected with our own MAC Questionnaire suggest that kin altruism is (i) a distinct moral domain, and (ii) considered just as relevant to making moral decisions as other widely-accepted moral domains (loyalty, reciprocity, bravery, deference, fairness and property rights) [1].

      I mean, I could go on.

      Scepticism about family values seems to be a W.E.I.R.D. phenomena — perhaps because kin altruism has become less valuable relative to other forms of cooperative behaviour. But even in ‘the West’, people think it’s bad for a parent to neglect their kids!


      1. Curry, O. S., Chesters, M. J., & Van Lissa, C. J. (under review). Mapping Morality with a Compass: Testing the theory of “morality as cooperation” with a new questionnaire. Preprint: osf.io/w5ad8

      • Mark Sloan says:


        Thanks for your careful reply and supporting information.

        Of course, kin altruism is important to human (and to all animal!) cooperation and we could define kin altruism as part of morality. The question is if doing so is the most useful definition for understanding morality as a matter of science, resolving moral disputes, and refining cultural moral codes to best meet human needs and preferences.

        I understand our two proposed choices for defining what is ‘moral’ to be 1) “all solutions, including kin altruism and mutualism, to cooperation problems” (all solutions to non-zero-sum games) and 2) the subset of cooperation strategies that are “solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma”.

        Here are some pros and cons that convince me that defining moral behavior as “all solutions to non-zero-sum games” has serious drawbacks:

        Pros –
        1) Keeps in mind the importance of kin altruism and mutualism for increasing the benefits of cooperation.
        2) ?

        Cons –
        1) Contradicts our shared moral sense about what is morally admirable. Classifies as ‘moral’ a) acting in one’s self-interest by mutualism and b) the cooperative behavior of bees and ants due to kin altruism (thus acting in their genetic self-interests).
        2) Confuses moral thinking by classifying self-interested behaviors such as mutualism and participation in money economies and rule of law as moral (which can be a problem because money economies and rule of law can be hyper-efficient, perhaps then hyper-moral?, means of increasing cooperation by self-interest alone.)
        3) Provides no obvious means of distinguishing ‘immoral’ behaviors that increase the overall benefits of cooperation by exploiting subgroups. The benefits of cooperation can be readily increased by exploiting, or ‘harming’, sub-groups.
        4) Contradicts the understanding of cultural moral norms as norms whose violation deserves punishment. (Mutualism and kin altruism do not require punishment to be evolutionarily stable.) How would you usefully distinguish moral norms from regular cultural norms if not all moral violations deserve punishment?
        5) Takes focus off the key question involved in moral disputes: “When, by who, and in what way should people be punished, forgiven, or ignored when they violate moral norms?”. This question is the central focus in the cultural implementation of morality as solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

        In contrast, defining morality as solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma is fully in agreement with known facts about our moral sense and cultural moral norms.

        Regarding the existence of kin-related morals all around the world, these can differ widely. I would classify them as cultural moral norms about relations with kin which are obviously shaped by our biology regarding kin altruism and the need for all cultures to provide for the nurture of children.

        In addition to some WEIRD people more recently deemphasizing obligations to family, I remember that attitude is also present in Plato’s dialogs. Why this is true in these specific cases is an interesting tale; one I argue is best explained by understanding morality as solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. That perspective also explains how we might refine cultural moral norms about close kin to better meet human needs and preferences.

        • Yes, the options are (1) morals are solutions to many different non-zero-sum games, and (2) morals are solutions to only one of these non-zero-sum games.

          Here are some pros and cons that convince me that Option 1 (‘Morality as Cooperation’, MAC) has serious advantages.

          Pros –

          1) ‘Morality as Cooperation’ (MAC) makes a broader range of predictions about ‘our shared moral sense’ which, as I’ve shown, are supported by extensive ethnographic evidence. Thus MAC generates new ‘known facts’ about our moral sense and cultural moral norms. This leads to a greater understanding and appreciation of morals relating not only to kin altruism and mutualism, but also those relating to conflict resolution, like hawkish heroism, dovish deference, fair division, and respect for possession.

          2) MAC clarifies moral thinking by making clear that all morality must be evolutionarily stable if it is to persist, and hence is “self-interested” in this sense. (This includes coordination and mutualism, which explains the moral value of unity, solidarity, conformity etc.) If your theory of morality excludes self-interest, then it must exclude all behaviour, including your own preferred type of cooperation. What is reciprocity but long-term self-interest in an iterated dilemma (which is actually a type of coordination game)?

          3) MAC provides an obvious criterion for distinguishing good and bad inter-group behaviour (eg ‘behaviors that increase the overall benefits of cooperation by exploiting subgroups’). That criterion is… surprise, surprise… cooperation. If Group A advances its interests by being uncooperative to Group B, then taking the interests of both groups into account – ‘the greater good’ – and applying the cooperative criterion, we may conclude that Group A is in the wrong.

          4) MAC can explain why some ‘moral violations do not deserve punishment’, as in the case of supererogatory acts. And MAC distinguishes (i) moral norms from (ii) regular cultural norms on the grounds that the former (i) solve problems of cooperation, whereas the latter (ii) do not (eg are prudential).

          5) MAC provides a broader range of theories to explain ‘whether, when, by who, and in what way should people be punished, forgiven, or ignored when they violate moral norms’. In fact, MAC provides a broader framework in which to understand why moral disputes arise in the first place. People value different types of cooperation, sometimes they come into conflict – should I help my ailing mother, or go to war to defend my country? – thereby giving rise to moral dilemmas and disagreements.

          Cons – 
          1) ?

          By contrast, Option 2 – focussing on one problem and ignoring the rest – is arbitrary, unnecessarily restrictive, and contradicted by ‘known facts’ about what people consider to be moral all around the world. The prisoners dilemma is not the only game, and reciprocity is not the only moral!

          • ps kin altruism may require social punishment to be evolutionarily stable https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker_policing

          • Mark Sloan says:

            Hi Oliver,

            You have given me a lot to think about!

            Starting simple might help. My understanding is that cultural moral norms can be distinguished from other kinds of norms because violators of moral norms are commonly thought to deserve punishment (though people may not actually be punished). And similarly, our moral sense’s judgments are distinguished from our other judgments by an innate motivation to punish violators. This motivation to punish violators is the criterion I used in assembling the data set of known ‘facts’ about morality by which I could test my hypotheses about the nature of morality. (Though motivated to punish moral norm violators, in actual practice people may just ignore or forgive moral norm violators and ‘punishment’ is often just avoidance.)

            What criteria did you use to select the data set for testing hypotheses about morality?

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks for this bold statement of universal morality! If we equate morality with cooperation, then it immediately extends beyond humans to all cooperative species on this or any other planet. In a sense, I am comfortable with this ultra-general definition of morality. It explains, for example, why people so often treat single organisms (as a harmonious society of cells) and social insect colonies (as a harmonious society of individual insects) as moral ideals for human societies to emulate. If cooperation is the main criterion for morality, then these societies are MORE moral than human societies!

    There are also reasons to distinguish human moral systems from the mechanisms of cooperation in other species. One possibility is that human moral systems are “mindful”, whereas the mechanisms of cooperation in other species are “mindless”. For example, our cells don’t think when they play their roles in the economy of our bodies. They merely respond to their local circumstances. All of the “thinking” has been done by the process of between-individual selection.

    As soon as we use mental criteria to define morality, then the seven items on your list quality as moral to different degrees. In his book “The Evolution of Morality”, Richard Joyce discounts altruism toward kin as moral because it is too instinctive (Mark Sloan makes the same point in his comment). For Joyce, morality requires moral obligation–the choice to be moral with consequences if you don’t. If you’re programmed to be nice, you’re not moral.

    Fortunately, I think it is possible to have our cake and eat it too, which is where Tinbergen’s Four Questions–the focus of my commentary–comes in. The “Function” question can be centered on cooperation, while the “Mechanism” and “Development” questions can deal with mental criteria, and so on.

    • My pleasure — thanks for the invitation!

      According to the theory of morality-as-cooperation, the moral criterion is whether something promotes cooperation (the common good) or not. This criterion can be applied to phenomena that are anatomical (fortitude), psychological (character traits, emotions, decision rules, complex cognitions), behavioural (actions, omissions), or cultural (laws).

      This includes the cooperative traits that humans have in common with other animals, as well as the more cognitively-sophisticated “mindful” cooperative traits (theory of mind, language, culture) in which we excel. (I’m happy to use the term ‘moral’ for what humans do, and use ‘proto-moral’ for what other animals do, but not much turns on this distinction.)

      Restricting the criterion to only “mindful” phenomena would seem to preclude the possibility of virtue ethics, moral instincts, moral emotions, moral intuitions (intuitive moral judgements, ‘flashes of approval’), ingrained habits and other automatic processes. Would you discount a person’s bravery if they ran into a burning building ‘without thinking’?

    • “My conviction as yet remains unchanged, that a man who (for instance) jumps into a river to save a life without a second’s reflexion (either from an innate tendency or from one gained by habit) is deservedly more honoured than a man who acts deliberately and is conscious for however short a time that the risk and sacrifice give him some inward satisfaction.” – Charles Darwin https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/learning/universities/darwin-and-human-nature/moral-nature

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  • From a comment I have posted on Massimo Pigliucci’s blog about this:

    There are several things wrong with that list of seven allegedly universal moral items.

    “Help your group”? As Massimo has already noted, xenophobia is part and parcel of evolutionary human nature. We transcend it more and more, but not perfectly.

    “return favors” — again, to whom? Reciprocal altruism may be moral, but to whom?

    “be brave”? May have moral universality, but it’s not a huge value. And, what exactly does it mean? It’s vague.

    “defer to authority” — often IMmoral as Nazis who said “just following orders” showed.

    “be fair” — What does this even mean? Reflects problems with different schools of ethics, esp. utilitarianism, and my previous critique of Rawls.

    “respect others’ property” — NOT universal. Stereotypes of “The Gods Must Be Crazy” aside, there are still hunter-gatherer folks with little to no conception of property rights. Plus, per the economic theory of a gent born 200 years ago earlier this month, there may be plenty of good reasons NOT to respect others’ property.

    So, these folks are flat wrong on 2 of the 7 and kind of writing pablum at the other five.

    It appears you’re making prescriptive ethical assertions if anything else. That’s … the field of philosophy.

    • Angel says:

      pretty interesting i think the difference here can be done in therms of morality and ethics . Moraliy as a group of implicit rules to contro behaivor in social groups. Ethics as the thinking about wich rules to follow and why
      Morality can be found in humans and comlex social animals . Ethics is a humman thing because only hummans (as far as i know) can think and act in a moral way considering the well being of those outside their moral group sorry my writting in english is not good . Aniway what do you think about my comment?

  • But if existence precedes essence, then humans can be what they want to be.

  • Angel says:

    i have a question and i very interested in your answer if you have and answer . Thesebasis of marality are really universal? I mean your team has found out those ones in evry human society? I want to know because the differencce between a universal phenomenon and a general one is big . Sorry about my writting writting in english is not my strenght

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  • For what it is worth, six months after the original posting: I take issue with Oliver Scott Curry on this description of morality. Morality is not a collection of cooperative traits. Morality is a system of collective behaviour that makes human forms of cooperation possible. I agree with Mark Sloan that mutualism and kin altruism are suspect here, because they are already evolutionarily stable. These behaviours exist in other animals like social insects. Why are human forms of cooperation so different from other animals? Humans have a moral system and other animals don’t. In all human societies people are not allowed to get away with murder, (with the exception of active warfare). Dominant chimpanzees can kill the infants of subdominants with impunity. The human moral system is a way of regulating behaviour that involves deep collective participation. When we see someone doing a wrong we will feel it in our guts, we will be highly motivated by our feelings to judge the actions, to seek the righting of the wrong, to share the information about the wrong and to act collectively to punish the wrongdoer. This has been attenuated in modern society because a lot of the jobs of morality are done by established social institutions such as the police and the law courts. Nonetheless the emotions are still there when we witness wrongs. They are their because they help us to perceive and judge actions morally, and to take action to right wrongs. If people can get away with murder without punishment, human culture breaks down. To paraphrase Mark Sloan, stopping exploitation makes cooperation possible. The Human moral system is a dynamics that necessarily involves collective participation, that’s why morality can change over time, because people come to feel differently about different actions. But the basic structure always remains: bad deeds should not go unpunished. Collective adherence to rules and to punishing infractions is what distinguishes us from other animals. It is not evolutionarily stable, just the opposite, it has to be in place or human society falls apart. Without it, all human forms of cooperation are crowded out by cheating and bullying and we fall back into the Darwinian game.

    • Mark Sloan says:

      Hi Charles,

      While your comments seem addressed to Oliver, I’d like to reply. First, thanks for your supportive remarks on my perspective on morality as solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma.

      However, I see Oliver’s and my essays as complimentary. The seven moral rules found around the world are empirically gathered data describing human solutions to the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. My perspective describes the ultimate source of our morality in our physical universe as suggested by game theory – the cooperation/exploitation dilemma. Fortunately, the two perspectives seem to meet in the middle in a mutually confirming way.

      Regarding differences, Oliver refers to this perspective as “morality as cooperation”. Of late I have preferred a change to “morality as cooperation strategies” to emphasize that these strategies include, and must include, refusing to cooperate with, and even punishing, exploiters.

      (The “Avoiding harm” proposals for a moral universal in other essays in this set are also complimentary in that “harm” is a kind of exploitation that reduces the benefits of cooperation.)

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  • Leonard Berman says:

    Was the desire behind the cultural institutions which molded morality a desire to encourage cooperation or a desire to preserve power? Perhaps a morality emphasizing sharing rather than authority and property rights?

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  • B Morpheus says:

    To Mark Sloan: Do you mean complimentary or complementary ?

    To David Sloan Wilson: I totally agree with your comments on the
    list. What horror to think that a child should return the favour to a paedophile who gave the child a toy … What horror ! There are some very serious flaws in that list.

  • Steve Cohen says:

    There are probably many issues raised by each of the seven ‘universal’ moral principles cited here. One principle that is significantly missing is the old favorite “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (or any of the similar versions of this idea). But I would single one of your seven principles for discussion: defer to authority. If authority is unfair, then this would conflict with the other principle, be fair. It seems to me that deferring to authority is too broad a statement since the practices of authority can vary so widely. Adherence to practical rules which smooth the necessary and inevitable interactions in any social group might be a better way of expressing this principle. But these are quite complex ideas, as the history of moral philosophy shows.

    • Mark Sloan says:

      Hi Steve,

      Oliver might reply that versions of the Golden Rule are excellent heuristics (usually reliable, but fallible rules of thumb) for his observed “help your group” universal. I would put it that versions of the Golden Rule are excellent heuristics for initiating indirect reciprocity a powerful cooperation strategy for solving the problem of how to “help your group” (by increasing cooperation) without being exploited.

      His observed “defer to authority” is a factual claim. This is what he observed was universally moral. Asking the question why it appears to be universal, we come to another cooperation problem human morality must solve. Reciprocity strategies are good for solving cooperation problems in general, but how do we decide what we will cooperate to do and when will we do it? Reciprocity strategies tell us nothing directly about that. Social hierarchies can perform that function very well and for large groups of people, appear to be necessary for organizing cooperation. Hence respect for authority is a universal moral norm.

      Can people in hierarchies be exploited (treated unfairly)? Sure. The morality of hierarchies is to me an area ripe for exploration in the science of morality. That is, how do we obtain the increased benefits of cooperation hierarchies enable without that cooperation being destroyed by exploitation?

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