Human Nature and Apathy

Many people, myself included, lament the fact that our species is so apathetic to the widespread suffering that is plentifully around us. However tragic, such indifference is both natural and expected. Our minds were not evolved for absorbing the sheer amount of stimulus that exists in the world.

Only very recently have most humans become regularly exposed to the overwhelming amount of people, events, and information that exists and multiplies all around us. There is a limit to how much we can think about or emotionally react to, and that’s why our immediate suffering — our trivial “first world problems” — is felt far more strongly that the more horrible but distant misery that exists out there. Telling someone that others have it worse is admirable but futile because our brains feel the personal circumstances more substantively and intimately than abstract ones.

It’s for this reason that society will obsess more about individual negative events highlighted in news versus the bigger but nameless and faceless statistics of human poverty. In fact, this is the same reason you’re more likely to donate to an individual suffering person than to broader charitable in general — look up Paul Slovik’s “psychic numbing” phenomenon. In some sense, this may even be a merciful defense mechanism — imagine if all the tremendous suffering in the world was equally impactful. We’d likely succumb to severe depression and misanthropy, or become very withdrawn.

Of course, I’m not saying this excuses callousness or apathy. We can still love and care for one another beyond our closest loved ones. We don’t need to be deeply affected by all the human suffering in the world in order to be troubled by it and seek to alleviate it. Empathy and social responsibility are intrinsic to our species. We must simply adapt to the existence of this new global community and expand our circle of compassion and consideration to be far wider. It’s difficult but not impossible, in my opinion.

What are your thoughts?

Why Be Good?

You do not need a reason to be a good person. Certainly there are causes and origins of our goodness – mirror neuronsneurological factors that facilitate empathy, and so on – but we do not need motives. One can be good for the very sake of it, independent of self-interest or (divine) command.

As a nonbeliever, I am often challenged on this position. Why should kindness and compassion matter to me? What is the incentive to be good? Where do I get my sense of morality, ethics, and integrity? Either I derive some benefit from it, or it is imbued in me by a higher power.

To be frank, I don’t know why I care about being good. When I lost my faith years ago, it never occurred to me to reconsider my commitment to being a decent person It’s not as if losing religion made me lose my moral compass – it remained separate, and if anything improved, long after I departed from my religious convictions. I am far from alone in this experience, and as far as empirical evidence has shown, most nonreligious people are as decent as anyone of faith.

Skeptics and cynics will no doubt chaff at this claim, believing that I am in fact benefiting from having moral concerns: more people will like me, well-needed favors will be reciprocated, and my body will release hormones that will make me feel good. Indeed, these factors may very well account for the evolutionary origins of altruism and empathy, which are the bedrocks of morality and virtue. We’re a social species, and we need these biological developments to promote bonding and group survival. Society has become larger and more complex, and therefore these factors have been extended to a much wider circle, encompassing not only kin and close friends, but complete strangers, even on the other side of the world.

But what does any of this mean? Is human goodness really reduced to being nothing more than an evolutionary advantage? Baring any evidence that it’s been implanted in us by God (be it directly or through interventions in our evolution), scientific findings increasingly suggest it.

But so what? To my knowledge, the exact origins of moral behavior remain unclear, but even if it were deterministic, that doesn’t lessen the beauty and value of compassion towards others. Human nature is a fickle and often abstract concept, and we’ve long shown a capacity for both monstrous evil and immense selflessness. We don’t have to be good, even if we seem to have natural inclinations for it. We’re just as liable to benefit from duplicitous – appearing to be good – than we are from doing the real thing. I won’t pretend I’m any different: I can be highly questionable in my character, my treatment of others, and my ethical conduct. There’s not a person who has ever lived that hasn’t demonstrated some dark aspect of their nature – no one is wholly innocent, even when they try.

Yet despite the unsavory elements of each of our characters, many of us still manage to do good things without compunction. Emmanuel Levinas, one of my favorite philosophers, noted how most people will automatically pick up something a stranger dropped in front of them and return it to them. They do not pause to rationalize whether or not they should commit to this favor, or if there is good reason to – it’s just something we’re taught to do by the wider society around us. The Golden Rule is nearly universal, and while humans differ as to what we define as fair and just, it’s clear that we humans have an intrinsic desire to promote cooperation, honesty, and goodness, whether or not it’s to our benefit.

The grayness and complexity of human behavior doesn’t make me cynical or doubtful about the existence of selfless good. If anything, it’s a cause for even more admiration. The course of human history, grim as it may be, is largely an account of steady progress: though many times feckless, uneven, and hardly linear, we’ve improved considerably since were first emerged as a species. More people live better lives than ever, and we have a more developed sense of morality and ethics than ever before, relative to historical standards. We have concepts of human rights that were pretty much non-existent through most historical societies (women’s rights, freedom of expression, etc).

Of course, “we” doesn’t pertain to all humans, and even within largely “developed” societies we see systemic or individual lapses in human decency. I don’t want to make light of the tremendous suffering, selfishness, and injustice that still bedevils most of my fellow denizens. Just because many humans have come a long way, doesn’t mean we should be complacent.

But my overall point, to bring back to the original subject matter, is that we as individuals can – and are often – good for goodness sake. We can rationalize it or attribute whatever reasons or motives we want, but I’ve seen enough of my brief but rich time on this Earth to know that there is tremendous good in most people. Our moral and ethical faculties are developing every generation, and perhaps someday, it won’t be long until altruism becomes the accepted norm of human conduct, however distant the prospect is. In the meantime, we should strike to expand our circle of compassion to encompass more people, and commit to normalizing the notion of goodness for its own sake by setting the examples ourselves.

Random Acts of Kindness

Ultimately, most people just want someone to talk to, someone that will listen to them and care. It’s amazing how many issues can be solved or mitigated by a simple exchange of dialogue or the offering of a sympathetic ear. How many people of sound mind can truly claim to be devoid of this universal need? Discounting certain behavioral or mental conditions, even the most asocial among us require some means of interaction, no matter how indirect or passive: chatting online, playing multiplayer video games, or even blogging.

There have been many instances where giving someone a nice call to hello, or even posting a friendly comment on someone’s Facebook profile, can help raise spirits or provide momentary but valuable comfort. Sometimes, it can even save a life: people on the brink of suicide have been pulled back with nothing more than a well-timed greeting or polite gesture. By my personal experience alone, I can recall having helped others in these simple ways, as well as having been aided by these methods in turn.

Even when undertaken by a complete stranger, a gesture of kindness can have incalculable value – in fact, I’d argue it’d be of even greater impact, since the thought of someone who doesn’t know us caring about our well-being is tremendously inspiring and reassuring. Why should someone with nothing to gain from helping you, choose to do so anyway? The fact that would restores hope like few other things. The love of another person, no matter what their relation to you, or lack thereof, is a beautiful and highly-sought after thing. Few things validate our existence more profoundly than the acknowledgement and affection of others.

Never underestimate the value of something as seemingly insignificant as a hug, compliment, or friendly greeting. Never hesitate to check-up on old friends and acquaintances, even by text or email. Such expressions of concern, no matter how minute they appear or what form they take, can really make someone’s day. In the aggregate, they can even change your entire outlook and personality for the better.

I consider myself proof of that. I wouldn’t be as content with myself or my life if it wasn’t for the immense kindness of strangers and friends. Their collective goodwill and concern has driven me to give back to this world. The reciprocation of goodness – the “paying-it-forward” of good deeds in turn – is perhaps the most valuable outcome of an individual random act of kindness. Overtime, such deeds could have vaster implications for the well-being of society than we can ever imagine, although helping just one person have just one good day is worthy enough.

A Touching Story of Compassion

Once again, time is still short and my resources are limited, but that won’t stop me from sharing whatever I can in the meantime (quick update: it may be another week until my laptop is repaired and I can start posting more voluminously and regularly).

Earlier today, a friend of mine informed me of fairly old but still relevant story from NPR about an interesting and rare fear of human compassion. It was inspiring enough that I immediately felt compared to post and reflect on. It’s brief, so I’ll copy and paste the entire transcript here. Anyone that wants to listen could click this link.

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.

But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.

He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”

Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.

“You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,” Diaz says.

Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.

“The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”

“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. “He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”

Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”

“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.

Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.

The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.

When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”

The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.”

Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”

Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”

“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

Needless to say, the fact that this happened 3 years ago isn’t important (indeed, I wouldn’t share it otherwise). Such seemingly rare stories are well worth reading and knowing about no matter the time or place of their occurrence. Good is good regardless of the context. I just wonder what I would do in this man’s situation.

Would I have freaked out and ran? Would I have cursed and yelled and damned that petty criminal? Would I have gone home downtrodden and misanthropic, feeling like I’ve lost a lot of hope in humanity once I gave my wallet up (as we’re apt to do when we’ve been trespassed by others)? What would you have done? Where does this sort of human kindness and empathy come from? Why did the mugger reciprocate it and show himself to be receptive to such kind words, when he ultimately had nothing to gain from it?

I know this is a common, if not cliche, gripe, but it always pains me to see what little attention we give to touching tales like this. It’s not just an issue with mass media either, which is in any case merely responding to demand: we humans seem to have a innate morbid curiosity towards tragedy, conflict, and fright – basically, to negative narratives.

I hardly have the time to reflect on the sociological, psychological, or even scientific reasons as for why this is – thought it’d no doubt be interesting – but I think it’s very important to keep all this in mind the next time we find ourselves saturated with news of death, destruction, incompetence, and numerous other manifestations of human failing and misery. Underneath it all is an unseen world where good deeds like this transpire all the time, never to get much attention (which if anything, makes them all the more beautiful).

We could argue which side of the story is more predominate – I’m sure most people find wrongness and evil to prevail far more than good – but in a world as perpetually confusing, overwhelming, scary as ours, any simple expression of humanity’s best qualities is a well needed respite, a flicker of light in the darkness if you will.


Fiat Justitia, et Pereat Mundus

The phrase is Latin for “Let there be justice, though the world perish.” I first encountered this phrase during my highly influential Theories of International Relations course. The concept entails that justice should transcend and take precedence over our very existence – if destroying a civilization or society is imperative to the pursuit of justice, then so be it. It implies that a world without justice should not exist. There must be justice, even f the human race must be extinguished to achieve it. In a morbid and perhaps twisted way, eliminating humanity would indeed by extension eliminate injustice: after all, injustice is a creation of man, as no such concept as justice or injustice exists in nature. Only when you eliminate humanity does injustice and evil cease to exist (on the other hand, if humans didn’t exist, neither would numerous other, more favorable, concepts, such as reason, self-awareness, morality, and so on).

It’s easy to argue that we live in a corrupt and miserable world, and sometimes this fact honestly saddens me. Despite my general optimism and contentment in life, I am well aware of this fact, and find myself contending with internal struggles concerning my view of humanity and the world around me. In fact, a major contribution to my bouts of depression and melancholy is the nihilistic perception that the world I live in is ultimately meaningless. Evil, sadness, misery, and injustice is endless and ubiquitous throughout every human institution, endeavor, and society. Even as I write,  numerous horrific things are happening to people all over the world, things I’ve had the fortune of studying as opposed to enduring.

What is most difficult to accept is that such negative characteristics of reality will always exist by some significant measure. As the Latin phrase I quoted strongly suggests, humanity’s existence will always be burdened by evil. Poverty, crime, terrorism, war, genocide and other social and moral evils will always confound, destroy, and bedevil us for as long as we live.

The chaos and senselessness of this world can be mind-blowing. Sadness, suffering, and death can often befall any of us at random; we’re all equally susceptible. There can be little innocence in a world where no one is safe, whatever their good deeds or intentions: children, good and well-meaning people, bystanders, civilians – these are often victims of the terrible tragedies I read about on a daily basis.

On the flip side, we see murderers escape justice, dictators subject their people to misery until old-age, and evil persevere unabated in numerous places where the rule of law has either broken down or been co-opted. . Liars and cheats get what they want and keep it. People live undeserved lives of luxury and gluttony for nothing, while those that struggle and try to earn an honest living die from disease or starvation.

Once again, where is the justice and order? Where is the reason? It is no wonder that religious people argue for the existence of an afterlife and a just and good God – how could they comprehend that such terrible things could happen without any justice or reason? I don’t blame them.  What if none of this mattered, since chaos and injustice are the norm? It is argued that God has a plan for all of us, and such a claim is no doubt made to make sense of this all. But does that plan include millions dying without a chance? It is no wonder that my faith has eroded; though many other reasons contributed to my lack of belief, it was the incompatibility of  an omni-benevolent being with a world rampant with evil that added to my doubts.

Many people often ask me – as I ask myself – how I can remain happy and optimistic hen the world around me is filled with so much hypocrisy, corruption, and immorality? How could I ever be happy if this is the nature of reality that I must accept for as long as I live? I am forced to endure the fact that I am powerless to stop the many evils and injustices that seem to taunt me, and equally powerless to prevent them from befalling me and my loved ones. Unsurprisingly, others that contend with depression cite this reality as a key reason for their melancholy. Notice how many philosophers, artists and intellectuals—those most attuned, informed, and analytical of the world around them—are generally the most cynical, melancholy, or despairing? There is a correlation between how much we know about this world and how much we are saddened. The notion of ignorance being bliss has held true for this long for a reason.

We are defined by this struggle. Like all living things we exist only to survive and continue our existence. This, in addition to all my previous observations, is what often leaves me struggling with my own innate optimism. I’ve always been pleased with myself for being able to know of these terrible things so intimately, and yet at the same time maintain that ultimately the world is a beautiful place and worth saving, even if cannot be. I feel there is enough justice, good-will, and goodness in our reality to make up for all the darker aspects. In such a jaded and  cynical society, especially as of late, society needs its optimists and hopefuls, even if they are deemed as fools. Maybe I’m romanticizing it too much, but the way I see it, me and my ilk are just fulfilling the natural balance of things.

As much as humanity is mired by great evils and terrors it too must be blessed with progression and morality. If our race is truly as crooked and evil as many would believe, it would’ve destroyed itself long ago. Constant chaos and injustice cannot sustain itself – it takes reason, good-will, and creativity to transcend our awful proclivities.  History has shown that if societies fail to develop and grow beyond their primal or selfish natures, they collapse into themselves. We have so far reach a point of mixed results, with much of the having come a long way to establish societies that are freer and more progressive than before, while an even bigger proportion struggle to overcome the usual obstacles of our existence.

The world is currently at a cusp: it comes precariously close, as recent events have shown, to destruction, while bearing great potential to fix our planet, solve our social ills, and improve our societies. I feel we have the potential and means to persevere, as we’re apt do in such circumstances, but need the creativity and will. I think the injustices of the world, rather than inhibit my faith in it, should do what all obstacles must: give me motivation. I can’t let myself be dogged and tied down by these negativities. I can’t just sit there and lament the erosion of the value of life. If the nihilists were true in their belief that human existence lacks any inherent value, why do they themselves continue to live? Obviously they, like most of us, see something worth living for, even if it is cynicism and materialism.

My struggle with these nihilistic and misanthropic pondering is just a test of my will. I see it as something to keep me going and prevent me from ever doubting the beauty of this existence. I embrace any challenge as just that: an examination of my will to fulfill my dreams. The world need not perish in the name of justice, for if it did, than so would the beauty of art, reason, logic, morality, and justice. I would rather live in an unjust world, with some shinning light, than no such world—and thus no such light—at all. I know that’s easy to resign myself to from the comfort of my home, but I figure I might as well make the most of my fortunate life. I hope I can remember that for as long as I live.