I think credulity and “magical thinking” are more of a problem, actually, than outright conscious selfishness. You could argue that credulity and “magical thinking” are also a form of selfishness, and maybe use the street scene from The Matrix to illustrate their collective danger. As Neo says, they are teachers, lawyers, etc., “nice people,” but they are dangerous because they are caught in the Matrix and are reacting “in good faith” to a set of false premises.
In the case of global warming and the damage it will cause, people are frogs in the pan, happy to sit in the pan and believe they are “good, solid people” because the pay their taxes to their politicians who would tell them if there were any real danger to their grandchildren. Credulity.
In E.O. Wilson’s “Social Conquest of the Earth.” his view seems to be that (a) group selection, not kin selection/inclusive fitness is the best model to understand the evolution of altruism; and (b) group selection operates in tandem with individual selection, creating, in effect, “chimeras” of us, in which some of our genetic predisposition is to promote individual benefit and some is to promote group benefit, even if at our own expense.
Assuming this is correct, the implication (pace Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature,” e.g.) that within a wide range, we can all be selfish bastards and we can all be altruistic heros.
The question then is not what we “are.” The question is what circumstances can or will impel us to act in our group interest. Simple cognitive knowledge that the interest exists – even that it is important – is not enough in most people, most of the time, to incite such action. How to handle that motivational gap (arising, I’d wager, from the chimerical nature of our altruism) is the real question, it seems to me. Chris S.
fact, I think this is the unique thing about Western civic culture, which has now spread around the earth, versus tribal culture.
Part of this is simply the sheer size of modern groups, and their anonymity. One of my good friends is an older guy who grew up in the bombed-out areas of Northern England after WWII. He says the rule was so little mobility that every individual person was known immediately by his or her lifetime reputation. Your actions stayed with you, and it was hard to be anonymous. Compare that to today’s society, where you can easily do ruthless things, and then disappear into the general maelstrom.
A tribe, by virtue of its size, holds you much more strongly to certain standards of conduct. You can’t play the failed CEO’s game of pretending you did not know something or had exploited others accidentally.
I think the whole notion of living just for ourselves is itself a “failed experiment” and we are the unwitting “failed CEOs” of that experimental social enterprise. But this selfish way of life is so entrenched that we will not be able to see it for what it is until too late. A sudden flash of wisdom is not going to save us from disaster. But disaster may give us a sudden flash of wisdom.
I fear that generations from now, people will look back on us and see our generation as more evil than Adolf Hitler. Not only will our actions eventually lead to a probable large drop in human population, but the “Library of Alexandria” of plants and animals is burning senselessly to the ground, while we stand around dancing in the flames and proclaiming our greatness. Not to mention the changes to the chemistry of the atmosphere, the sea levels, and our fine radioactive waste dumps.
I think unselfish action toward humanity (not part of it) would be an improvement. Of course no one can be fully unselfish, but we should consider “the good of the whole” in every decision we make. This is both a unifying and an unselfish concept. Compassion without judgement, and assisting those who struggle rather than looking down on them in disdain, would be an improvement. Much of the selfishness comes from our concept of social hierarchy. Those who are selfish usually glory in their perceived social advantage over someone else, so they have a vested interest (they believe) in keeping someone else down.
We humans are in an exponential spiral; we are 7 billion ground apes exponentially rampaging out of control. It is similar to a stampede or locust swarm, where each individual is compelled to surge forwards to keep up with or pass the guy ahead of them and to keep from being trampled or eaten by the guy behind. There have been occurrences of this in the past, and it could be said that in prior centuries milder forms of this have existed, punctuated by periods of collective insanity, such as the last world wars. We are now in an extreme situation that might be called some form of controlled insanity. However, given that we have complete lunatics rising to run this country, similar developments in other countries, Iran is likely to get nuclear weapon in the next 5 years and so forth, I think the controls on this are going to fly apart.
The coming collapse is, which is probably just a much larger episode of collective insanity as seen in the past, is going to be the ultimate blow out. This may manifest itself particularly when we pass the oil peak out (another 5-10 years), Iran has the bomb and there is a mini-nuclear standoff in the Middle East, China starts to militarily expand into the Pacific, there are more sociopaths assuming positions of power and the big one is when climate heating starts to seriously reduce the carrying capacity of human beings on this planet. These events may quickly unfold in the next 10 to 20 years.