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Have We Become Less Humanitarian?

Guest Editor John Faupel


When Isaac Newton conceived of his Third Law of Motion, which states: ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’, he probably wasn’t thinking about its social implications at all. Nevertheless, this idea is of fundamental significance to the way we respond emotionally to each other all the time. Any relationship that is based on initial feelings of trust, or what is more commonly called ‘goodwill’, usually results in cooperation and can develop into life-long friendships. On the other hand, feelings of distrust and suspicion can result in competition or ‘neighbours from hell’ and, in the case of whole societies or nation states that can’t understand each other, into wars and hell for millions. So, as surely as every physical ‘action has an equal and opposite reaction’, so too do all our emotional reactions.  
    This is because there are conflicting interests in all of us between our personal needs and our social needs; in other words between egoism and altruism. For reasons of self-preservation, everyone is primarily concerned about their own needs but, because we’re a gregarious species, we can’t help being concerned about the needs of others too. The level of balance in our social encounters is being tried and tested all the time, so whatever transpires from them rests on a knife-edge and can go either way. At one time, our ancestors didn’t need to think about how they should, or should not behave towards one another because their personal needs were almost synonymous with their social needs; a communal feeling of unity was all that was required to maintain this balance between egoism and altruism. Evolution had ordained that: ‘united they stood, divided they fell’ and was found to be a safer bet to survival than: ‘divided they stood, united they fell’.
    Cooperating with each other helped our ancestors iron out their differences and maintain a reasonable level of social stability, without reference to any prescribed rules or regulations, so naturally was encouraged, whereas competition only seemed to hinder it, so was avoided whenever possible. To quote David Hume’s analogy: when “two men pull on the oars of a boat”, they do so “without any promise or contract”. Only when they accommodate to the needs of each other can they avoid any “inconveniences of transgression” and arrive at their mutually acceptable destination safely [Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751, Appx. III].  
    Charles Darwin must have recognised this social-control mechanism at work when he wrote: “members of the same tribe would have approved of behaviour, which appeared to them to be for the general good, and would reprobate behaviour which appeared evil. … It is therefore, hardly possible to exaggerate the importance during rude times of the love of praise and the dread of blame” [The Descent of Man, 1871, Ch 5]. There is however, a world of difference between the “love of praise and dread of blame” conveyed at a personal level, unilaterally between “primitive man at that very remote period”, and when it became conveyed impersonally downwards, by force of law, at a much later period. At those “rude times” it kept everyone in balance with one another because the survival of the whole community was always going to be more important than any individual within it, whereas, at a much later period, the whole community were became forced to accept that the love of an authority who administered the law was now more important than any individual within it.  
This is because there is also a world of difference between ‘leaders’ who inspire others to follow, and ‘authorities’ who enforce them to do so. Leadership grows naturally with age and experience, and is concerned with keeping everyone, including themselves, in balance with one another, without any reference to clearly defined goals or objectives. Such practices were, at one time universal and are still common among the few remaining small, autonomous communities that exist in the more remote regions of the world. However, when certain self-centred leaders, who are biased towards egoism rather than altruism, begin to see those who follow them as a sign of their sublimation and idolatry, it changes the whole chemistry of their brain with increased dopamine levels. But dopamine is an aphrodisiac, so those kinds of personality-types can easily take advantage of this perceived imbalance by exercising their power of control over them.  
Putting themselves first has become the most basic requirement of psychopaths because they are incapable of recognising the needs of others - in fact feeding their egos is their only need. In common parlance, ‘power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. As Edmund Burke realised: “Those who have been once intoxicated with power, and have derived any kind of emolument from it, even though but for one year, can never willingly abandon it”. And amongst the most conspicuous examples in history, the twentieth century alone has cursed us with Hitler, who from 1939-45 might have caused as many as 20 million deaths, Stalin, who from 1924-53 ordered the execution of possibly twice as many, and Mao Zedong, whose ‘Great Leap Forward’ from 1958-62, could have caused the deaths of as many as 45 million. Although: “these inhumane acts may have originated in the minds of a single person, they could only have been carried out on such a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed [their] orders” [Milgrim, S: Introduction to his Obedience experiment, 1963]. But this transformation - from leadership to authority, has also brought about one of, “the most widely accepted and universal follies of the world, namely the care for reputation and glory” [Michael de Motaigne, Essays, Book I, 1580, Ch. 4].
    Thus, when egoism began to overrule altruism, all those more cooperative feelings of friendship and trust, which had kept communities in balance and harmony with one another for millennia, became overruled by all those more competitive feelings of suspicion and distrust, which aided people’s needs for their own survival. This meant intuitions about how people instinctively felt they ought to behave, gradually became overruled by impositions about how they consciously thought they should behave, with the word ‘ought’ being the motif acquired unilaterally from personal council, and the word ‘should’ being the motif imposed from above by authorised obligation. 
    This change in the way we now relate to one another probably had its genesis in a very understandable respect our ancient ancestors had for the all-powerful forces of nature, but when these became mythologized with folkloric tales about spirits and gods, whom it was assumed control these forces, the worship of them, followed by the apotheosis of man, began in earnest. When the Egyptian pharaoh Raneb, 2900 BC, for example, claimed his reign was ‘the will of the gods’, and Gilgamesh, 2500 BC, that “the great gods have called me … I am the salvation-bearing shepherd”, and Hamarabi, 1700 BC, who claimed he had been granted ‘care of humankind’, and later, when Jesus Christ was born and ‘the word was made flesh’ [John, 1.14] and ‘god became man’, we have never really recovered from believing in these myths.  
    The consequence of claiming this power to control over others, usually took the form of: “thou shalt …” or “thou shalt not …” and is still with us. But these commandments often had to be reinforced by superficially appealing aphorisms, such as the Golden Rule, for example, namely that ‘one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself’, and in its negative form: ‘one should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated’. Careful examination of these egocentric claims, however, reveal them to be myopic views of human nature, bereft of feelings for others who may feel differently, and would only make sense if everyone felt the same as those who authorised them, since they amount to nothing more than a cryptic claim that: ‘what’s good for me must be good for you’ and ‘what’s bad for me must be bad for you too’, or even: ‘whom-so-ever is not with me is against me’ [Mark 9:40]; in other words: ‘you’ll do as I say, not what you say’.  
    Confucius had long ago recognised this danger by questioning the absence of any need for reciprocity contained within its rule. It might have won votes amongst the less discerning members of society, especially if they were going to be punished for not accepting it. And, indeed, some of the earliest punishments for disobedience were among the cruellest in history: ‘having one’s ‘eyes gouged out’ or ‘thrown into the fire’, or ‘decapitated’, for example, to say nothing of eternal torment after death. As a result, some of the bloodiest battles in history have been fought over competing beliefs, each hell-bent on promoting their own mass mind-bending bigotry for a following. As George Bernard Shaw conclusively put it, “the Golden Rule is that there are no golden rules”. 
    So the conflicting needs of egoism and altruism in all of us can only be maintained in balance by an acceptance that the experiences of others will result in feelings and thoughts that might differ from our own, as illustrated by the nursery rhyme about: ‘Jack Sprat, who would eat no fat’, and ‘his wife, who would eat no lean’, and evidently, because they were both willing to accept each other’s differences, ‘they licked the platter clean’. In fact, all harmonious partnerships can only be maintained by common feelings of empathy towards one another, which is defined as ‘the ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond with an appropriate emotion’. Most harmonious partnerships therefore, can only be sustained in balance and flourish, not because they try to treat each other as they themselves would want to be treated but more because they try to treat each other in ways they feel their partners might want to be treated. This implies a mutual respect for each other’s differences - gender being perhaps the most widespread, and yet possibly the least appreciated case in question.
    So when that cryptic apotheosis, claimed by certain individuals took place all those thousands of years ago and ‘god became man’, the leaders of small communities that had inspired others to follow, became over-ruled and monopolised by authorities of larger societies that enforced then to do so. This transference in social behaviour, from ‘tradition’ to ‘imposition’, has made us focus less upon our own instinctive feelings of approval or disapproval of each other, and more upon the thoughts of approval or disapproval, prescribed by laws imposed upon us.  
The authoritative effect of being in control however has created the subservient effect of being controlled, and this contrived way of polarising people at all levels of society has had the effect of unwittingly finding ourselves drawn into a kind of master-slave relationship. It can still be seen in Judo-Christian folklore, as expressed in some of the Testament manuscripts, such as: ‘Happy is the man who fears the Lord, who is only too willing to follow his orders’ [Psalm 112:1]; or ‘Blessed are those who obey the word of God’ [Luke 11:28]; and ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’ [Luke, 13]; and so on.  
    Although Christianity appears to have originated in the Middle East, it subsequently became more influential throughout Europe, by zealous evangelists; for example: ‘Go ye out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in’ [Luke, 23], and ‘Go ye into the world and preach the gospel to every creature’ [Luke 16:15]. Then in the fifteenth century AD, when these doctrinal beliefs became more secular, this master-slave relationship was transposed into the ‘the divine right of kings’ and subsequently appeared ‘out of the barrel of a gun’, spread rapidly by means of colonial land-grabs throughout the World. Although this contrived way of polarising people may have had its origins in the concept of a divine creator, its implications of reward for obedience to laws administered by those with the power to do so, coupled with suffering for disobeying them, have found their way into most retributive justice systems throughout the world and are still how members of societies are controlled everywhere. 
    Under all master-slave relationships for example, one person's gain implies another person's loss, so “there are two kinds of slaves: the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy” [Ivan Illich]. And even today, when an enterprise makes a profit, it’s thought to be a ‘good thing’ by today’s standards, but perhaps we should ask ourselves: good for whom? If it’s ‘good’ for its owners, it’s bad for its customers because they paid too much for its products and services. On the other hand, had we not been thus conditioned in the first place, it would have been a ‘good thing’ to charge just enough to break-even and maintain equality and balance all round. Yet, there is much anecdotal evidence that greed, dominance, bullying, exploitation, serfdom and slavery were, and still are, all essential by-products for the maintenance of this imbalance. In fact, the power of control a person exercises over others now seems to be the measure of the respect we have for them’; alas, kindness, compassion, care, compatibility, empathy, and indeed humanity don’t seem to have much to do with our evaluation of each other’s worth unilaterally any more.  

We still seem to believe in the ‘the ascent of man’ and that we are superior to all other species, so surely we must be in charge of our destinies. But is it any more valid, believing a man is superior to a butterfly because he is cleverer, than believing a butterfly is superior to a man because it is more beautiful? It has been suggested that our unashamed vanity has been dealt three serious blows. The first was cosmological, dealt by Copernicus in 1543, who showed that we were not at the center of the universe; the second was biological, dealt by Darwin in 1859, who showed that we were just one small branch of the evolutionary tree of life; and the third was psychological, dealt by Freud in 1900, who showed that the unconscious mind had a far greater influence on us than we had ever thought possible. To these might be added yet a fourth blow to our vanity. It is a blow that is gradually being exposed by the inquiry into what makes us feel and think and act the way we do and how much our heredity and environmental experiences influence our behavior. Perhaps we’re not quite as in charge of our destinies as we thought we were. Most of us think we learn from our experiences but perhaps we can do so only retrospectively and that this process is less about learning than conditioning.


Open Books will publish The Rise of the Mutant Ego in spring 2017.