Thee or Me? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of Thee or Me? I touched on the ethical and moral complexities of this Covid period, particularly the stunning contrast between those acting in altruistic fashion and those acting selfishly. In this second part, let’s explore some of the complexities and ambiguities of being human.

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.   For a fascinating account, see William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap where he describes how, in our gradual descent from the trees into the savannah in the African Rift Valley, we had to learn how to cooperate (or be picked off by predators).

The first thing to say is that being human entails having mixed motives.  We’ve already discussed the universal tension between self-interest and altruism.  I think this is ineradicable.  It is our lot in life.  As in the Buddha’s dictum to follow the ‘middle path’ between desire and aversion, we need each of us to find the middle path between altruism and self-interest. 

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!  I can cheat or be unfair. For a comprehensively brilliant treatment of this read The Folly of Fools by Robert Trivers.  

So, each of us can gain from cooperating but each is tempted to gain the benefit of the partner’s altruism without reciprocating.  The very worst in social terms is to be a ‘sucker’: to cooperate and have a partner who ‘cheats’ and who takes advantage of your altruism.  In our ancestral past this would have been very costly, even life threatening, and so we are designed to have very powerful negative emotions around these issues of betrayal. 

Evolutionary psychologists have suggested there has been a kind of ‘arms race’ between mental mechanisms that support cheaters and social loafers on one hand, and the evolved psychological mechanisms that can detect cheating and social loafing, on the other. 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. 

How this plays out in each of us is determined by both personality and by circumstances.  Those who score higher on the personality trait of agreeableness will tend towards altruism, those low on agreeableness, towards self-interest.  Beyond that of course are the totality of environmental circumstances, past and present, that add to the equation.

Nonetheless, this highlights the question of fairness or equity.  Relative to our natural history, our lives are now incredibly interdependent on a scale unimaginable to our ancestors.  Our everyday experience is structured and defined by a myriad of daily trades and deals with other people.   Generally, we produce only a tiny fraction of the goods and services we utilise (think clothes, food, technology, housing etc.).  The system works remarkably well, if you think about it: how patterns of trust (and legal sanction) are the glue that allows us to use credit cards to purchase online items from complete strangers on the other side of the planet.

But when we detect cheating that affects us, or when those in our ‘tribe’ behave unfairly towards us, we experience moral outrage fed by deep implicit cost benefit analysis and empathic circuitry.  This empathic and anti-empathic response 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 trustworthy and you are selfish, evil, dishonest” (add your adjectives here!).  “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 the moral complexity.  For example, in addition to publicly-displayed outrage and resentment in response to the imposed restrictions under Covid-19, we’ve also witnessed a global outpouring of intense emotion related to the Black Lives Matter movement and the disgusting murder of George Floyd.  I’ll make clear my position here: this latter is a valid response to institutionalized, abhorrent and systematic inequality and I support all efforts to create a level playing field for all.  This is empathic outrage writ large – sentiments which I share. 

But there is another less virtuous side to this collective action: virtue signaling.  This term is a pejorative for the conspicuous expression of moral values in order to attain higher status in the ‘village’.  In evolutionary psychology it is considered a natural behaviour which may have either beneficial or detrimental effects. 

Examples abound in contemporary cultural discourse and behavior: ‘being woke’ and ‘cancel culture’ spring to mind.  Whether to assuage 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 mimics the types of absolutist morality it ostensibly opposes.  Thus, people are ‘cancelled’.   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 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 altruistic intention, 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 in front of mind.  Ongoing humility and self-skepticism seem necessary.  As proposed in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, 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 kind of objective self-skepticism is an important brake on the hard-wired biases towards a socially harmful self-interest. 

Another is to protect the separation of powers, especially of the judiciary, to protect our interests by providing this type of impartiality.  We should promote independent, high quality journalism and academic freedom to protect at all costs the reality and inestimable value of facts, reasoning and science in helping us denounce ignorance, deception and the despotic impulse.  We should respect and listen to experts. 

A third is recognizing the wisdom inherent in cooperation.  In the long run we all benefit by engaging in non-zero-sum games as implied by the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma we visited in Part 1.  The best statement of this idea is found in Robert Wright’s Nonzero – the idea that understands civilization’s progress as an arrow running through history: an arrow of cooperation. The win-win nature of trade builds peace rather than conquest; the benefits of cooperation build trust rather than enmity.

Finally, how do we overcome our distrust, dislike, 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.  The latter is often blind, partial, and innumerate (see Paul Bloom’s provocatively insightful Against Empathy).  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 the mind.