Question

Are we selfish?

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What are “morals”? I think the most common answer would be consideration for the feelings of others. Caring about other people enough to look past our small selves and understand their pains. However, for it truly to be “moral” that caring must be fully genuine and can’t come from any selfish goals.

Helping someone so they will pay you, for example, is not necessarily “moral,” but helping a person in need with no expectation of something in return is. Yet all evidence of the evolution of morals would point to their origin as self-centered plans which coincidentally lead you to help others. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. This is the basis of all modern law, which demands individuals to be kind to one another in order that people are kind to them.

Laws telling people not to kill other people, while morally sound, are rooted more in people’s desire to not be killed than in people’s desire not to kill. I would suggest that throughout history, this idea that humans and animals are driven by their own selfish goals seems not entirely false. But there is one situation in which animals and early humans put someone else’s life above their own; kin. People and animals have always protected and loved their children, and anyone else in their family. If someone is of our own we want nothing more than their happiness. This desire to protect and care for extends to anyone we can consider family, and that is something we can choose in our lives. If we get to know someone well enough we can easily see our similarities and consider them family.

In fact, we know enough about other people that most people assume everyone on Earth to be, in some way, their relative. I believe this, and not an increase or shift in “morality” over the years, is the cause of what we call “morals”. Creatures of all kinds on this Earth are programmed to care for not only themselves but their descendants. Because of this, they have to care for their partner with whom they can produce descendants, and so we were given the ability to love. We are able to experience love for partners, children, parents, and also for friends. As natural selection has run its course those who cared for their children have clearly won out across many species, and so love and compassion came into being not because of innate morality but because of efficacy.  As we become increasingly globalized and aware of other people, it has become impossible to ignore the fallacies in the idea that your family, skin color or place of origin have any effect on whether or not you should be able to love or care about someone as kin.

We understand the similarities and are unafraid of the differences between ourselves and other people. We believe that at everyone’s core we are the same. Thus we think of ourselves as the most morally advanced population to have existed, when indeed we have merely gotten smart enough that the barriers we perceived between one another lose their legitimacy. We can now see a wounded child and feel their pain as though they were our niece or nephew, no matter what they look like or if we know them because we know underneath they are just a human. This has been a slow process and is by no means complete.

We are coming out of a time where slaves in this country were an incredibly common phenomenon, which was made possible because white people didn’t see black people as family, English people didn’t see Irish people as family and Europeans couldn’t see the Native Americans as family. These sentiments can still linger in many communities, causing continued oppression of many groups. This is obviously terrible, but before we go and point fingers at idiotic bigots of the past, consider their ability to understand. If they do not believe they are looking at someone in their global family or another truly sentient being they are no different than us as we guiltlessly maltreat the Earth and so many animals. The only difference is we have made much-needed progress in who we consider our own. We have not, however, made progress in extending our kinship to the Earth we live on. It is not an entirely different thing than bigotry at all; still a complete lack of understanding.

If someone doesn’t regard the Earth with respect it is not because they are morally flawed but because they can’t comprehend the Earth as a true being. They know right from wrong just as well as any of us; they don’t. We don’t know what is right but merely know the protection of our family, be it our actual family, our friends, or the Earth itself. This protection we always assume to be right. If asked to shoot one child or 10 deer, the choice is obvious; but it isn’t objectively right. It only becomes wrong if it harms another family member of ours, and that definition of family is whatever we make it. Therefore, it is hard to feel the same way about the mass killing of humans or cows; we can now consider all other humans family, but we do not extend that affection to all cows. This is the reason that during wartime one of the biggest tactics used is to demonize the opponent. If we do not do this we consider them family, so we tell ourselves that they are bad and they will hurt our people if we don’t hurt them first. So are we selfish amoral beings? Of course. But we are also lucky enough to have our family included in ourselves, and gifted with an ability to consciously decide who our family is. To me, that’s moral enough.

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