David Rand and colleagues pose the question: “Are we intuitively cooperative, with reflection upon the logic of self-interest causing us to rein in our cooperative urges and instead act selfishly?” (Nature 489, 427–430; 2012). In answering affirmatively, they confirm an observation made 125 years ago by the Republican Senator for California, Leland Stanford.
Stanford had introduced a bill to foster worker cooperatives in 1886, and was interviewed by The Cincinnati Enquirer. When Stanford broached the issue of women's rights, the reporter asked him, “Do you not think women will go off on sentimental issues if they undertake the business of government and break up the organizations by which men work out large ends?” Stanford replied, “Oh! It is not sentiment that we have to fear so much as we suppose. A man's sentiments are generally just and right, while it is second selfish thought which makes him trim and adopt some other view. The best reforms are worked out when sentiment operates, as it does in women, with the indignation of righteousness.” (See go.nature.com/i6b91d.)
Stanford's discernment of rapid, pro-social sentiment and slower, selfish calculation is but one part of a larger body of thought on the potentials for cooperation in the economy, which we may find worth revisiting today.