Thursday, December 09, 2021

Empathy and Altruism


Altruism has more of an evolutionary advantage than selfishness. Scientists say they have proved that doing good things for no personal gain can have an evolutionary advantage in the long run. Altruism is real and developed because it confers an evolutionary advantage that is ultimately greater than the benefits of selfishness.

If you have two groups of people, one of whom was very altruistic and another group that was more selfish, it’s the altruistic, more social guys, who are better able to survive the bad winter or the drought…But if it’s always better to cheat, why doesn’t everybody cheat? The answer is it brings you bad luck, in a sense…altruistic behaviour is favoured by chance when the benefits of cheating are sufficiently small compared to a, how well the population would do without any cheats, and b, the typical size of random fluctuations in the population.”

Research suggests if society goes down a more selfish route, then it’s going to be less able to do well and survive the harsh realities of the world we live in. Take the behaviour of the banks leading up to the 2008 financial crisis … people were able to cash in on bad decisions before the big event that triggered the crash in the system. The bankers were partly influenced by the desire to get annual bonuses. That short-term thinking means they are not exposed yet to the random fluctuations that would drive the increase in altruism. 

Rats display human-like empathy and will unselfishly go to the aid of a distressed fellow rodent, research has shown. Rats opened a door to free trapped cage-mates. No reward was needed. There was no other reason to take this action, except to terminate the distress of the trapped rats. Rats still prioritised their cage-mates when offered the option of ''freeing'' chocolate chips. They could been lured away by the distraction and have eaten the entire chocolate stash if they wanted to, and they did not.

Empathy requires an ability to understand others. Economic inequality, however, by radically separating the rich from the poor and shrinking the middle class, literally physically isolates us from each other and provides few opportunities for connection or understanding. If you spend your time in limos and gated communities and first-class travel, you aren't likely ever to meet poor people who aren't there to serve you; outside that context, you won't know how to relate to them. And then, if you know nothing about someone's real situation, it's easy to caricature it as being defined by bad choices and laziness, rather than understand the constraints and limits the economy itself imposes. Seeing yourself doing so well and others doing poorly tends to bolster ideas that "you deserve your wealth," simply because guilt otherwise becomes uncomfortable, even unbearable.

In reality, self esteem doesn't come from thinking positive or telling yourself that you are special or worthy--though telling kids they are rotten and selfish can surely destroy it. And, sadly, you can be optimistic all you like in an economy with 20% unemployment and still not get a job through no fault of your own.

If the split into "us" v"them," "haves" v"have nots," continues the empathy decline will undoubtedly continue and it will be a meaner, nastier world in which ideas about humans being selfish and competitive rather than caring become a self fulfilling prophecy by crushing the tendency toward kindness with which we are all born.

Averting a planetary-scale destruction demands global cooperation, becoming more efficient in using energy, increasing the efficiency of existing means of food production and distribution, and enhancing efforts to manage our biodiversity and ecosystem systems. Humanity has not done anything really important to stave off the worst because the social structures for doing something just aren’t there. We all have to summon the political will to radically change the way we live. If we can do that, we might have a chance to avert disaster.  A socialist's task is to tell it as it, is as much as one can bear, and then all the rest, whether we can bear it or not. To proclaim hard-to-hear truths.

The economic system assumes you care only about yourself yet we become fully human only through embracing our humanity when care for each other and care for the larger living world. Our chance of saving ourselves depends on enough people willing to act. We must throw everything into the endeavour to remake the world into what we say we want it to be.

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