Why must we fight the good fight? Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
Altruism has always been difficult, so why did humans evolve to make room for it? Perhaps because selfishness offers dwindling returns, and would have made us a short-lived species.
Dealing with teenage offspring can be exasperating, because they come up with the darndest questions: “Why should I be good when being bad appears to be more beneficial?”
One must then attempt to untangle deep issues of history, philosophy and evolutionary biology, in order to answer that question convincingly and correctly. In today’s world of power-crazy tech billionaires and an oversupply of despots, can one even fault the youngster for asking?
Thankfully, science has shown, over and over, that in the long run, it is more beneficial for the individual to be good. One such batch of studies comes to us from Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, and founder-director of the Greater Good Science Center, founded in 2001. For decades, he and his team of researchers have been studying the origins and evolution of good in human beings. In one such project, they studied the brains of people who engaged in acts of altruism, and discovered that such acts activate the same circuits that respond to receiving a gift. When people volunteer for social service, the researchers found, the feel-good hormone oxytocin is released. Evidence collected over years also has it that people who engage in acts of altruism live longer.
Keltner distils some of these findings in his book, Born to be Good (2009), which I am hoping my young ones can take time away from their Reels in order to read.
The whys are not all clear yet. But other contemporary studies support the Center’s findings. Humans do good because it makes them feel good.
Where does the desire to do good come from? It is an evolved trait. Altruism is the willingness to do something that confers an advantage on others, even if the outcome may result in a disadvantage for oneself.
There is a school of thought that argues that all altruism is really forms of self-interest in disguise. The writer and philosopher Ayn Rand believed that any behaviour that benefits others is ultimately motivated by a desire for personal gain, whether material, emotional or psychological. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins proposed that all behaviour was ultimately motivated by the desire to pass on one’s genes. Since this meant that humans had to (and have to) sometimes simulate altruism, he argues, that is what we learnt to do.
These arguments fail to explain genuine altruism. Why do whistle-blowers expose corruption at great personal cost? Or protesters fight for a cause when it can, and often does, cost them years or more behind bars?
Perhaps one of the most compelling arguments against Rand and Dawkins emerges from the pages of Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue (1996). While Ridley concedes that self-interest is a strong motivator, he believes that individuals figured out early on that it felt better to cooperate, and yielded better results for the group. And so it is that we evolved to be kind, empathetic, even selfless.
How do we know that this was an evolution, and not just a different kind of pack behaviour? Because many anthropologists date civilisation not to the first settlements or agriculture or art, but to the first healed femur. At some point, a group of prehistoric humans decided they would no longer leave the seriously wounded behind. They would find the time and resources to care for them, even though there was no material benefit involved. In fact, it presented a far greater risk to do so. Ridley calls this “reciprocal altruism”.
In this form of cooperation, individuals help each other with the expectation that the favour will be returned, if needed. From that idea, we can trace the evolution of ideas of community, and wider social progress. It is the foundation on which technologies, cultures and even economic frameworks continue to be built.
For the young ones who believe “good” is the old way and doing what suits one best is the need of today, I would argue that that is not adapting, it’s succumbing to a series of short-term goals guaranteed to provide dwindling levels of satisfaction. It has always been difficult to be good. It has always been tempting, and often more immediately beneficial, to be selfish. We would have been a short-lived species if we’d all sought only to please ourselves.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)