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There are many great Questions and Answers on Workplace stackexchange that deal with the question of whether or not to share valuable knowledge/skills with others:

The arguments are obviously made in support of sharing one's knowledge/skills at the workplace, in the Answers and Comments. While most arguments are pertaining to the workplace environment or corporate culture or employer-employee relationship, many of them are either kind of universal/philosophical or give way to one if some thought is given. Some examples:

  • What goes around comes around. (by Kent A. in the second Question in the list)
  • Corporate environment(or the World at large) is not a Zero Sum Game. Your colleagues are your coworkers, and not rivals for some scarce resource like promotion or job security. (by EleventhDoctor in the first Question in the list)
  • By teaching others, you organize your own knowledge. By teaching others, you will solidify what you already know. (by JessieArr in the second Question in the list)
  • Knowledge is the only thing that increases when you share it. (by Fixed Point in the first Question in the list)
  • You should take the fact, that the people around you are getting to be as good as you, as a challenge for you to keep getting better than they are. (by Vietnhi Phuvan in the last Question in the list)
  • If you're the only person that knows how to do X, you will be the only person that will ever do X, whenever X is needed. (by Kent A. in the second Question in the list)

All the arguments(not just the ones mentioned above) are counterintuitive but very compelling and convincing to make one believe that there is indeed an universal argument for sharing valuable knowledge/skills. Yet, when I see world/life around me, I see several cases where such arguments/advice, is not followed and seems impractical/unwise. Some examples:

  • Take the case of trade/business/recipe formula secrets, which the companies like Pepsi, Coca Cola, McDonalds, etc. take extra ordinary measures from becoming exposed. And the stocks of most of these companies are still rising.
  • The cooks who claim their lineage to some royal cook to Kings/Nawabs/Mughals, pre 18th century India, and never share their food recipes with anyone and carefully pass it down from generation to generation.
  • Global Warming and Climate Change has shown as that Earth resources are indeed a Zero Sum Game. It's not just good enough for the poor and developing world to raise their standards of living, but also for the rich and developed world to bring down theirs.

All this raises doubt in me. One can counter argue that all this is still short term - that Pepsi, Coca Cola are doing themselves great long term harm by creating circumstances whereby they are stuck doing just one thing, and that the World will move on and is still moving on; that rising stocks are not a very good measure in this regard, and we should be comparing their growth with comparable sized companies over a long period of time(I have not done that much research); that food recipes are created every other day all over the World, and one who remains stuck with centuries old recipes and becomes complacent and therefore doesn't innovate, will see his/her worth going down.

But I am still not confident enough to arrive at a conclusion. Can an universal argument, indeed be made for sharing one's valuable knowledge/skills? And if not, broadly, when is the argument not applicable?

Thanks

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    There can be no universal argument because the conclusion is not universally true. To take an extreme example, sharing a bomb making recipe with a terrorist is not a good idea either short or long term. Some of the "universal" examples you give already have built-in restrictions, such as the game being positive sum, others just highlight the benefits without any mention of the costs, let alone cost/benefit analysis. And on top of it, the latter depends on one's non-universal values, if they happen to put little value on long term benefits arguments appealing to them will not hold much sway.
    – Conifold
    Jan 24 at 4:05
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Philosophically, it depends on your ethical stance. Kant would look for an ethic that can be applied by all people at all times, so he would say yes, because the net benefits outweigh the negatives. Using Rawl's theory of justice, where we imagine our situations are randomly shuffled, we might recognise it as unfair to prevent access to some tactics, but fair for some others to be kept secret, say where a group has put a lot of effort or energy into developing something.

The modern patent system attempts to strike a balance, whereby truly new original ideas are recognised, written down & archived, granted sole use of for typically two decades, then enter the public domain. This has greatly helped the global economy move forward - the story of Arkwright's first cotton mills, and the eventual spread of the technology is an interesting case study, which drove the industrial revolution.

The USA has consistently sought to increase the benefits to intellectual property holders like music copyright holders, ignoring the benefits of public domain material - this benefits corporations, over song writers who's own lifetime this was limited to. China is somewhat at the other end of the spectrum, largely ignoring copyright and patents. This will increase secrecy, and reduce investment for instance in translating works into Chinese when they will just be pirated. In the modern world, new standards are needed, like open source for non-profit use, but revenue goes into a shared pot where profit is made, like Wikipedia uses.

Game theory can help us understand that there may be multiple stable solutions, and we can see these in different communities. In the Prisoners Dilemma, we have an outcome where everyone defects & loses, or no one defects with a marginal win, or one defects for a big win and everyone else loses. We likely find a balance of behaviours, and an emergent culture that seeks to add costs to defection. Subcultures that change very rapidly, like computer coding, have far more to gain from open source sharing, and will likely develop a culture that heaps social penalties on companies that violate norms. High tech engineering, or pharmaceuticals, where a very high upfront cost is involved that needs a long payback, will assume 'defection', unless specific legal consequences apply; and trade deals and trade blocks that open up markets will depend on these.

In general sharing benefits the community, not sharing benefits specific individuals or small groups. Where external leverage can be applied to support a mutually beneficial game-theoretic state - that is highly beneficial for a community. Typically this depends a lot on informal norms & peer group culture. But if conditions, like the benefits of 'defection' become too great, we use 'hard' backstops, like legal recourse. Different communities, and countries and regions, choose different balances; and do so dynamically, ecologically.

Philosophical declarations like Kant's or Rawl's, push for a mutually beneficial stable state I would argue: a minimal defection state. I find Confucianism an interesting case, which I would describe as principally focused on dealing with the problems of succession crisis'. We have got substantially better at dealing with this in politics, it is the major benefit of having elections, & term limits. Russia is stable now, but Putin's political exit will be a major issue, like Mugabe's has been for Zimbabwe. Succession is still a major issue in business, where an unusual individual has led a business to success - Steve Jobs, Elon Musk. It is in shareholder interests to prepare for such a transition, and require that a leader share their knowledge, techniques, and practices. Some individuals can gain power and leverage during such a succession, but far more will lose. So it is up to a fair & just & prosperous society, to find mechanisms that promote the collective interest, either by rewards (shareholders voting for bonuses if conditions are met) or penalties (social rejection of someone 'illegitimate' seizing power).

My personal answer, is that benefits & penalties are a bad way to choose how to behave, ethically. I'd draw a parallel to why we are polite: it cannot be purely about obliging others to be polite, it has to be about who you want to be, and what kind of culture you want to contribute to creating, or else we would only be polite to people we expect to see again. But we also don't choose excessive politeness, that has it's own costs.

Each culture, each interaction, is a new 'game', and teaches us about other players, and the game. There can't be one piece of blanket advice. A new 'player' might need to be more ruthless while getting established, or might need to build a cooperative network in the same condition. But, in the long run, we all benefit most from cooperation, & should seek to promote it, and build cultures that support it.

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On one hand:

  1. Sharing is prohibitive in the context of the rat race.
  2. Recently, our lives began resembling the latter even more than usual.

On the other hand:

  1. There has never been a rational reason for us to be in disagreement, much less for ending up in a conflict or competing
  2. At the same time, there seems to be a concerted effort to paint humanity as being inherently flawed, human life as absurd, full of suffering, and in desperate need to be brought to end quickly and humanely -- which is nuts, I know
  3. Participating in a rat race is undignifying, accepting it as a norm means failing as a human being.

That all.

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