Thee or Me? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of Thee or Me we addressed the question of why people sometimes act altruistically and at other times selfishly.  We agreed that human behaviour is a complex interaction of both nature and nurture, but we saw that we are not born equal in this respect, some people finding it harder to be good. On the nurture side, we also saw how you can crowd-in and crowd-out people’s civic virtues and we therefore suggested one ought to appeal to people’s better selves, but we should also not be naïve, lest we become suckers.

In Part 2 we will see what light evolutionary psychology can shed on these questions.  Then we’ll turn our attention to how we can be better, how we can build character, and why we should cultivate compassion.

Why are we so disappointed when people are selfish?  Is it not a miracle that we in fact cooperate so well?  Isn’t it wrong to expect selflessness in a creature formed by natural selection?  And shouldn’t we expect a species born of ‘selfish genes’ or ‘the survival of the fittest’ to in fact be selfish?

I will argue not so. That in fact, mis-readings of these ideas have led to various forms of ‘social Darwinism’ – a highly individualist, winner-takes-all view of human nature.

No, I think the crowning glory of homo sapiens is our ability to cooperate. There is little doubt it is THE thing which enabled us to survive and thrive as a species. In our gradual descent from the trees into the savannah in the African Rift Valley we had to learn how to cooperate (or else be picked off by predators).

These selfish views of human nature ignore our deep social wiring, especially our inbuilt tendencies to kindness and compassion.  Known in evolutionary psychology as reciprocal altruism, we come hard-wired to love and care for those close to us. To understand this, we first need to understand the kind of world we were designed for.

So, what was it like 200,000 years ago?  In a word: dangerous!  How did we survive on the Savannah: by cooperating!  The genes that have been passed down to us were in people that balanced self-interest with reciprocal altruism.  These genes existed in people that knew how to live and flourish for their entire lifetime in the social context of a small village.

Imagine what that was like: frequent hunger, exposure to nature in all its forms, including apex predators, disease and conflict with other tribes.  Constant intimate contact with those around you.  Nowhere to hide or be anonymous. The margins for survival were extremely tight and villages couldn’t tolerate too much internal conflict, nor carry the weight of someone who didn’t contribute. 

So we learned how to contribute as well as take; and how to navigate village politics.  In short, advanced social awareness and skills were selected for.  Antisocial humans tended to not pass on their genes as the village excluded them. And no one survived alone in this stone age environment.

An adaptive problem that emerges from this tension is how can I extract maximum benefit from co-operation with minimum cost? One answer is deception (deceit of others and self-deception).  I can free ride on others’ contributions!  So, each of us is tempted to gain the benefit of the other’s altruism without reciprocating. 

This is the reason it is called reciprocal altruism and not just altruism. While it is not the case that we are consciously expecting reciprocation when we are kind to others, it is the case that further down the track when we are in need and that person doesn’t reciprocate, our ‘cheater detection’ mechanisms are activated. We feel intense emotions of anger and betrayal.

The very worst outcome in the village is to be a ‘sucker’: to cooperate and have a partner who ‘cheats’ and who takes advantage of your altruism. So, we are designed to have very powerful negative emotions around these issues of betrayal. 

In these terms Civil society is a high-wire act of this highly skilled dynamic balance.  It is an ongoing extraordinary achievement and our most valuable as we manage, by and large, to remain basically civil. 

But when we do detect cheating that affects us, or when those in our ‘tribe’ behave unfairly towards us, we experience moral outrage fed by our empathic circuitry. 

This empathic circuitry propels us into both sympathy and antipathy: “I’ve been good, caring and sacrificing for others and look what you’ve done!”; “we’ve been generous, and you are selfish, evil, dishonest” “You deserve to be publicly punished”. The social contract needs to be enforced; the social fabric repaired.

But even that is not the end of our moral complexity. It is often the case that there is a less virtuous side to altruistic action: virtue signaling.  This term is a pejorative for the conspicuous expression of moral positions in order to attain higher status in the eyes of others.  

Examples abound in contemporary culture: ‘being woke’ and ‘cancel culture’ spring to mind.  Whether to reduce self-guilt, or to display virtue by, for example, white people publicly identifying their own ‘white privilege’ as a self-marker of ‘wokeness’.  Such virtue signalling creates in-groups and out-groups; ‘us’ and ‘them’ and at times replicates the very types of discrimination it claims to oppose.

Thus, people are ‘cancelled’ who do not agree in all respects with the current politically correct narrative.   I hasten to add I believe we all have mixed motives most, if not all the time, and are often unaware of this.  Alongside this virtue signalling often exists a very genuine concern and compassion for those who suffer inequality. 

Thus, being human is an incurably messy business with this complex mix of self-interest, empathy-driven altruism, self-and-other deception, and virtue signaling.  What to do with it all?   How to engage wisely with everyday life?  

A proposed solution, of sorts, is to pause with this knowledge of our hard-wired contradictions in front of mind.  Ongoing humility and self-skepticism seem to be required. 

We should proceed with caution in the full knowledge of our biases, checking our intuitions and feelings with as rational and as impartial analysis as we can.  This is the basis for the development of character.  As the saying goes, adversity builds character and we need to expose ourselves to our own biases and contradictions.  It is uncomfortable but leads to a more adaptable and more more virtuous mind.

This kind of objective self-skepticism is also an important brake on our empathic biases that lead to as much prejudice as they do to caring.  Just knowing that our empathy is frequently biased should give us pause!

Another solution is to stridently protect the separation of powers, especially of the judiciary, to protect our interests by providing more independent and more impartial judgement.

Likewise, we should also strongly support independent, high-quality journalism and academic freedom to protect at all costs the inestimable value of facts, reasoning and science in helping us denounce ignorance, deception and prejudice.

A third answer is to recognise the wisdom inherent in cooperation.  In the long run we all benefit by engaging in non-zero-sum games. The win-win nature of fair trade and cooperation builds peace rather than conquest, trust rather than enmity.

Finally, how do we overcome our distrust, dislike, or enmity of the other?  How do we overcome our favoritism to kin and friend?  And how do we appropriately limit our natural desire for self-interest?

The ‘answer’ is compassion, the conscious intention to alleviate suffering in others; and to do this with the positive emotions of kindness and caring.  Empathy alone cannot achieve this.  Empathy is often blind, partial and biased towards our own people.

There is always wisdom in compassion because it understands that your wellbeing will support my wellbeing. There is also practicality, as the generation of compassion negates our negative emotions and thereby opens our minds and our hearts.