Friday, October 25, 2013

Evolution, Empathy, and Ethics

The idea that humanity is at its worst is strangely prevalent in today's world. By nearly every measurable standard available we are actually at our best but that doesn't stop the media and a slew of pessimists from raining on humanity's parade.

These doom-and-gloom types are fond of listing the massacres of the 20th century along with "the erosion of traditional morality," especially in today's youth, as proof positive of humanity's eminent fall. I normally counter these points with the usual rhetoric--that Hitler was no more evil than Genghis Khan, that the "traditional" morals of imperial Rome would put Miley Cyrus to shame--but today I'd like to concede to the Debbie Downers.

Humans may be enjoying the highest quality of life in recorded history but that doesn’t mean we should settle. There are many areas in which we can and should improve. Greed, irrational thinking, selfishness, and a lack of foresight are widespread. We’re obsessed with hoarding power, controlling others, and imposing our views on our neighbors.

It’s not really our fault. We were never meant to live in over-populated cities, surrounded by strangers. We started off in tribal groups and would have stayed that way if not for our big, sexy brains and one of its byproducts, empathy. Great apes are also capable of empathy but thanks to our self-awareness, memory of the past, and imagination, we humans take it to the next level. We can literally experience the suffering of others, especially when faced with poignant illustrations of their pain.

Without empathy, coexistence in large groups would be impossible. The move from small tribe to city-state to kingdom to empire is impossible without the ability to imagine the plight of others. Civilized humans realized the importance of empathy early on. Starting around 600BCE, philosophers and spiritual leaders in different parts of the world attempted to codify empathy into a rule or maxim. The results are known collectively as the Golden Rule.

One of the best known versions of the Golden Rule is attributed to the man himself, Jesus H.G. Christ: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31)

Or as we typically hear it: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Until now the Golden Rule has only applied for members of your particular group. "Love thy neighbor" originally meant just that: your countryman. If you were an Israelite living in Biblical times, you didn’t love your Assyrian, Roman, or Persian neighbors.

Globalization and a growing understanding of the human organism are helping to dismantle the myth of individuality. Take a step back, behold the whole of humanity, and it becomes clear that you are merely a component in a greater whole, a cog in some marvelously complicated wheel. We are all interconnected. Furthermore, our similarities far outweigh our differences. At the core, humanity is shockingly simple. We all need food water, and shelter. We all seek happiness while avoiding suffering.

If humans could reach some basic agreement--an agreement that transcends culture, religion, and ethnicity--our differences would become inconsequential. Free from conflict, we could actually learn from each other. Every ideology has some value. As for what that basic agreement ought to be, I see nothing better than the Golden Rule. It's found in every major religion as well as secular humanist philosophy It's simple and effective and promotes the good treatment of others.

The Golden Rule isn’t the end-all, be-all. It's less a commandment and more a rule of thumb. It doesn’t resolve every conflict but if everyone applies it regardless of race, creed, or ideology, it will help us find peaceful resolutions to our problems.

Noticeable change wont happen overnight, nor will it happen without resistance. The current power-structure benefits a small percentage of the population and unfortunately, this minority happens to control most of the wealth. Our division over petty differences only benefits the ruling class. Is it any wonder they work so hard at reinforcing outdated stereotypes? That they cherry-pick from scripture in an attempt to appeal to our superstitious hearts? These are charlatans, nothing more. Do not let them fool you.

I said previously that it was my goal to infect people with new ways of thinking. If I could choose only one idea to convey to you, it would be the Golden Rule. Imagine a world where everyone followed this simple guideline. Ideally speaking, there would be no murder, no theft, no rape. I don't expect that to happen but for every convert, for every person who consciously applies the Golden Rule to his or her life, there comes a trickle-down effect. You promote the Golden Rule by using it. You infect people with it, and they do the same to others.

And why stop at the Golden Rule? Why not take the next step? Karl Popper wrote: "The golden rule is a good standard which is further improved by doing unto others, wherever reasonable, as they want to be done by." In other words, do not only abstain from doing ill to others but also seek to do good in their lives, whenever possible.

Try it for a month. Keep an eye out for those in need and offer your help. Give kind words and encouragement instead of criticism and judgment. Learn to cultivate positive thought and fixate on the good qualities of those around you. If you don't notice a difference, feel free to stop.

Few feelings rival that of helping a stranger without expectation for reciprocity. That is the very spirit of charity and no matter your opinion on the state of humanity, the world can always use more of that.