Post No.: 0645
Selfishness and conflict are destructive in communities, and seem incredibly short-sighted. Even from a ‘selfish gene’ perspective, each person is reportedly ~99.0-99.9% genetically similar to the next person, thus – even though that other ~0.1-1.0% can make a meaningful difference to people’s individual health – to spite that sheer amount that’s related and in common just for that relatively tiny bit that might not be doesn’t make sense when we think about it more deeply, in my little opinion.
Nature overall understands this. With perhaps every single species – although violence does happen – violent events are far less prevalent than cooperative or peaceful behaviours on a daily basis. Violence occurs routinely between species, mainly as predators hunt prey for food or parasites seek hosts, but not so much within species. Only a relatively few animals go to war amongst themselves, and none like humans do. And it’s not like the majority of the human population is normally at war at any one time either. Even the majority of people in war-torn countries are typically non-combatants.
So the competition is less frequently between individuals but between species e.g. humans against harmful viruses. But, like the news or movies, nature documentaries like to focus on the action events rather than the ‘non-event’ peaceful moments – even though these ‘non-events’ by far make up the majority of what happens in the lives of animals. If you just take a snapshot of a natural wildlife scene – perhaps outside your window – most creatures aren’t fighting within their own species but just minding their own businesses. Fighting is quite energy-expensive and personally risky hence is a last rather than first resort i.e. one can stand to lose one’s own life. (There are usually no true winners in war.)
The arguably smartest species are those whose individuals work together for their greater good, and humans are such a species, especially because it takes a village to raise a child. One alternative strategy is to dump vast numbers of offspring into the environment without the biological parents or anyone else tending to them, where most of these offspring will die almost immediately but some will make it to bear the next generation. But humans obviously aren’t such a species because each human child is vulnerable, precious and must be tended to and raised by others, and for many years too, in order for them to just survive. Therefore people’s instinctive strategy shouldn’t be to think selfishly and individualistically because literally no human makes it alone.
Even in war – a soldier has a team, a command, and didn’t invent or make his/her own equipment or weapons, grow (all of) his/her own food, raise him/herself or teach him/herself what he/she had learnt in school, etc.. And for those who don’t wish to cooperate with others, they risk being defeated by those who will for their own group’s collective good. A cohesive army will generally overcome an individualistic individual or divided group.
Humans aren’t harem animals where the ‘alpha males’ compete violently for the mating rights of all of the females in their social group. Humans normally form pair bonds. Even rutting beasts rut only for overall a small amount of time during their total lives – the rest of the time they overwhelmingly cooperate with each other by respecting their boundaries and thus show consideration to each other. Obviously, again, nature documentaries like to focus on the moments of conflict and drama – even if those who capture the footage must camp for many days until they manage to get these interesting shots! So it’d be like waiting all day to catch someone going to the toilet then assuming they’re always on the toilet once they do(!) This can skew the picture of what their typical day-to-day behaviour in life is like overall; like how selfish crimes are disproportionately reported in the media compared to everyday acts of kindness, including amongst strangers.
Even at the cellular level, some cells evolved to cooperate as multi-cellular life and increased the chances of their survival and propagation. (There are tons of single-celled microorganism species and they’re incredibly successful in their own right but I think you and I would rather be complex multi-cellular organisms!) Cooperation is intrinsic in natural ecosystems and is how life works at all levels; including ‘you’ working in harmony with your own skin and gut microbiota.
We are all in fact fundamentally interdependent rather than individual – energy is never destroyed nor created from nothing in a closed system (like this furry universe) but is constantly being transferred and transformed from one body or form to another. We’re all inherently interconnected – not just with each other but also with the wider environment and everything in it. Everything co-evolved with everything else in the same habitats. That’s how thriving yet sustainable natural ecosystems and life works, at a fundamental level as well as practically.
The physical and chemical elements that make up your entire body are 100% recycled parts, and you’ll continually exchange them every time you breathe or touch anything, for instance. Individualism is thus too naïve a perspective and attitude to take when everyone and everything ultimately affects each other in a system like this world. If we’re selfish and fail to work in harmony because we fail to care about others – it’ll eventually bite us in the bum e.g. if we fail to consider the health of our gut bacteria because we only care about satisfying our own desire for unhealthy foods and drinks, it’ll eventually impact on our own health; or if we only care about maximising the luxury in our own lifestyles, it’ll harm the planet and finite resources we all share. We must be aware that we all live in a collective ecosystem that can only be sustainable if we collectively give as much as we take.
Species frequently actively cooperate with other species through mutualistic symbiosis too. They don’t even have to share >90% of their DNA with each other either e.g. dogs and pet humans. Woof!
Ants in colonies cooperate intensely as eusocial species – they’re more successful than humans according to number, and disputably by biomass too. Socialism strongly arguably exists in nature far more than capitalism. Gorillas and walruses – species of animals with true alpha males and harems – aren’t as successful by a long way by probably any measure. The mycorrhizal network or ‘wood wide web’ of trees in a forest reveal that even plants sometimes work together by sharing resources and by warning their neighbours of threats.
Cheating is risky because it can lead to reputational costs. A selfish person may get so far and achieve short-term gains – but in most contexts where people continually re-interact with others, team players go further in the long run. No businessperson makes it alone – they’re nothing without the other employees in their organisation, or certainly their customers, thus good businesspeople must fundamentally think about the needs of others.
If greed and selfishness were good and constitute the major part of our instincts borne from evolution – then why do the overwhelming majority of movies (as decided by free market forces) portray people with these traits losing in the end, with the audience feeling good and right with the world about that? Happy endings are states of peace and community rather than friction and lonely individualism. It shows that we far more instinctively, borne from evolution, desire and revere selfless heroism and generosity. People are biologically endowed to be kind, compassionate, driven to cooperate and belong to meaningful communities – and tapping into and nurturing these innate capacities elicits measurable happy feelings.
Thus most people know that it’s immoral to be selfish or greedy. And this is why political opinion polls can sometimes be misleading – some people publicly report to pollsters that they’ll be voting for a more ‘us’ party when they’re really going to be privately voting for a more ‘me’ party. (This is dubbed the ‘shy Tory factor’ in UK politics. Relatedly, if greed really was morally good then a Prime Minister shouldn’t be ashamed to publicly stand by that declaration rather than retract it after making such a statement when they forgot they were being recorded!)
It can be far easier to be selfish than considerate though. It certainly takes a larger degree of cognitive capacity to consider other people’s feelings instead of just our own e.g. to employ theory of mind to wonder if one’s actions are too loud when someone in another room is trying to sleep. Theory of mind develops as children’s brains develop. It’s easier for one’s brain to think of just oneself than to think of lots of other people as well. It’s also easier to think of just one’s immediate interests compared to the long-term, big-picture or temporally deferred interests. More educated people also tend to be more compassionate because they understand that other people may be the way they are because of their current circumstances or background. However, those who can empathise with others and are more educated logically shouldn’t get on a high horse over those with lower cognitive capacities.
A selfish few can evidently cause so much harm or inefficiency for everyone else in a community. This has been a significant theme during the pandemic – most people across the world are/were behaving cooperatively but a selfish or inconsiderate relative few cause/caused consternation for everybody else in their local communities, and in turn the global community in this highly-interconnected modern world.
Life and civilisation would be so much more efficient if only we could trust everyone to not act selfishly e.g. when public infrastructure (or anything) gets vandalised, this inconveniences so many and costs a lot to repair. Airport procedures would be so much quicker without the need for extensive security measures – probably over 99.999% of passengers are peaceful but we need these security measures in case of those 0.001%. So if only we could trust everyone in society, we would save lots of money and time collectively, life would be better overall, and we could do so much more. We’d need fewer regulations or bureaucracy and we’d have more freedom. That’s one reason why people say, “This is why we can’t have nice things!”
We perhaps should have some sympathy for the (non-profligate) poor who steal to survive though; so rather than punish them, we should empathise with their situation. Well poverty could be solved if wealth was better redistributed throughout society rather than selfishly hoarded by some – not enough to disincentivise contributing back to society but enough to not leave anyone in desperation. Yet not all societal ills are committed out of desperation but out of opportunistic greed or just senseless gratuitousness or other selfish motives.
From a game theory perspective – although a handful of free-riders can exploit the general kindness and cooperation of others – not everyone can be selfish free-riders otherwise civilisation would collapse. Apart from the stable state of total extinction(!) – an equilibrium of a majority being cooperative and a minority being selfish or free-riders is sustainable. This is why kindness and cooperation must be the dominant strategy for a civilisation. We must collectively be constantly wary of free-riders though.
Really, the only reason how some selfish free-riders manage to obtain and keep a lot for themselves is because others have been too kindly lenient on them! Cooperation doesn’t mean the absence of every kind of conflict – it means a set of rules for negotiating conflicts in a way that resolves, rather than prolongs or escalates, them. Being kind shouldn’t mean being soft. Cooperative people ought to cut off or punish selfish individuals who are trying to exploit their kindness – those who take, and can give but would rather not. Because the majority of a population cannot be selfish free-riders without civilisational collapse – the majority should aim to tackle any free-riders (e.g. tax dodgers) rather than be seduced by, or neglect to tackle, them, due to the diffusion of responsibility.