Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Selfishness vs. Altruism

If there is a human moral to be drawn, it is that we must teach our children altruism , for we cannot expect it to be part of their biological nature (Dawkins, R., Selfish Gene, p. 139)

This quote by Richard Dawkins from the book 'The Selfish Gene' really makes me think. I think about the idea that our brothers, sisters, and parents are 50% related to us and that we are 100% related to ourselves due to our individual genetic constitution. Our selfish genes help us to survive and benefit from our close relatives without always considering their well-being. We do, however, take into account that our parents and siblings are 50% related to us and that it matters how they are affected by our actions. Their survival matters because they share 50% of their genes with us, but it only matters up to a point.

In the wild, if the life of an animal such as a baby bird is put at risk by a predator or sibling it will be in its best interest to deter that risk onto another species or another sibling. It would not be in its best interest to put its parents at risk since they are the primary caregivers that provide food, shelter, and safety to their offspring since that is in their best interest. In contrast, a sibling could incur that risk because its survival has no benefit to the baby bird besides the 50% genetic relation. It is even so that if a sibling bird thinks that it is not getting enough food from its parents, it may steal food from its other siblings or cheat for more food from its parents by loudly calling out to attract predators. This can be seen in many different species of organisms such as insects and humans.

When this notion is applied to human behavior many similarities can be seen. In nature there are many selfish human beings that interact daily. In society, humans regard selfishness as an emotion or a personality trait that many different individuals convey, even themselves at times. Selfishness also exists within the family just as it does within other species in nature and brothers and sisters compete for love, care, and money from their parents. If a child feels like he/she is not being treated fairly, they may act selfishly such as tell a lie or pretend to be sick in order to gain favour from their parents. If parents do not moderate these acts of selfishness through discipline and practicing altruism the other siblings may begin to feel emotions of jealousy and greed which can cause conflict in a family unit. The parents themselves may also feel emotions of guilt and worry which could effect the well-being of all of their children.

Altruism, the act of helping others or doing good without reward, is a behaviour among different species of organisms including humans that helps to counteract selfishness within a family, group or society. Although in the wild selfishness can be regarded as being beneficial for survival, so can altruism in a civilized society. Today it has become ever more important to be altruistic to people in order to gain trust and cooperation in a society where selfishness exists at many levels of government, economy, and business.

How is it then that humans can learn to be altruistic to non-relatives? In the wild it is uncommon to see an organism showing altruism to a fellow group member of the same species which has no relation to it. However, it is natural to see a parent showing altruism to its children or an older group leader showing altruism to its pack of relatives and non-relatives. Mutual symbioses or cooperation does also exist between different species in order to benefit both species. So altruism does exist in nature but it more commonly occurs between a parent and their offspring which is a genetic relation.

Altruism is favoured in a democratic society of related and unrelated human beings because people understand that they all carry the same rights and freedoms as one another and that it is effective to work in concert in order to grow as a functional and stable society. When people show altruism towards each other they are trying to set a standard of respect and loyalty. In this type of environment different people can trust one another and information can be transparent. Selfish acts can be distinguished from acts of altruism and selfish individuals are encouraged to learn from their mistakes. However, in a multi-government and interconnected society where powerful players such as pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, and governing bodies are operating, many selfish acts are overlooked. These parties take advantage of the end-users of society in order to profit and grow in power. They also show little or no care for the environment which is home to billions and billions of living organisms. Due to a lack of organization and accountability at the government level there is much bureaucracy which creates opportunities for powerful players to take advantage of the system. Altruism can combat these selfish acts but it takes a large cooperative group of people and an honest and transparent government.

Although selfishness works quite well among different species of organisms in the wild, it is not wholly accepted by human beings in a civilized society. In such a society, altruism, equality and being a good citizen are social ideals that teach human beings to be good to one another. It is also reasonable to act in one's best interest but to consider the well-being of others whether or not they are family. This is so because human beings are capable of understanding another person's suffering and emotional state which is not practiced among animals in the wild. This capability, through our own selfish nature, stems from understanding our own emotional state and how it effects us. And democracy and justice have enabled humans to act on this understanding in a positive way in order to reduce suffering of others through the emotions of empathy and sympathy.

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