Why is "what's best for everyone" better than "what's only best for me (and my friends / family)"?

Does it need explaining or justifying at all? 

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"WHERE does evolution say we should be empathic?"

Unseen  -  that's a very good question, and it's kind of what I'm working on now. 

Short answer: empathy has evolved, therefore evolution says we should be empathic.  Perhaps this is just a version of the naturalistic fallacy - that what is natural is good. 

A more relevant question would be, why did it evolve? 

Social animals are exquisitely tuned to what their fellow animals are doing and feeling.  This makes good sense for social animals since they rely on the other members of their herd / flock / tribe to sense danger, for example. 

Mirror neurons have been discovered, so far, in the brains of humans, monkeys, birds and whales.  The function of these is to mimic within the brain of a subject, what another member of its group is doing or feeling.  For example, if a monkey watches me pick up a piece of food with my hand, then in that monkey's brain, the part that controls picking up food with its hand will fire in response.  The monkey's brain mirrors what the monkey is watching me do. 

It has been observed among animals and humans that emotional states appear to be contagious. 

As I currently understand it, from my scanty research, it is believed that generalized (ie. towards non-kin) compassion and empathy started life as the parent-child bond.  Because of group dynamics, it was found advantageous to spread this behaviour to include non-related individuals as part of a strategy of cooperation. 

It is increasingly becoming clear that cooperation is a successful strategy for social animals to use.  It is also believed that cooperation is in fact fundamental to the success of life on planet Earth. 

All sort of "things that have evolved" have fallen by the wayside. Simply because some creatures feel empathy doesn't necessarily give it survival value. Feeling empathy can certainly be dysfunctional. Feeling empathy toward someone incapable of empathy seems like a bad strategy.

To be sure, cooperation is functional among a group with similar interests in working toward a shared goal. Without the commonality of interests and goals, there's no reason to suppose it's much more than a waste of energy and time.

"All sort of "things that have evolved" have fallen by the wayside."

But empathy is still very much with us, hard-wired into our brains, and widespread among social mammals at least.  Therefore it would appear still to be useful.  

"Feeling empathy can certainly be dysfunctional. Feeling empathy toward someone incapable of empathy seems like a bad strategy."

Yes, this is a good point.  Nature isn't "perfect".  We can do destructive things based on creative impulses.  However, "someone incapable of empathy" - eg. a psychopath, for example, is a statistical outlier, there is something wrong with this person, they are very far from normal.  This kind of person is a special case.  There are also autistic people.  Certainly, if you have an autistic child, it is a good strategy to feel empathy for this child so that you can take care of him/her.  The reason it is called "good" is that, as Richard Dawkins points out, we have a biological imperative to care for our offspring because they carry our genes.  

Most people who appear not to show empathy are just grumpy.  In reality, empathy happens in our brains whether we like it or not.  Apart from psychopaths and autistic people: a person who appears not to show empathy is a person with emotional problems.  If you know what to look for, you can read them like a book, and will understand their problems and be able to unlock their humanity.  

It seems that the ability to empathize is strongly influenced by a person's experiences in life.  This would make sense, and I personally have found that this is true.  How can our mirror neurons fire in sympathy if we don't recognize anything to sympathize with?  After we do recognize it, our mirror neurons light up like a Christmas tree.  

Short answer:  empathy fosters cooperation, and cooperation helps us to survive.  

"...a group with similar interests in working toward a shared goal."

Presumably, individual survival. 

I just found this in "Wild Justice" -

"Animals have various means of maintaining social order, including direct negotiation, third-party mediation, and reconciliation, all manifestations of what Frans de Waal calls community concern or “the stake each individual has in promoting those characteristics of the community or group that increase the benefits derived from living in it by that individual or its kin.”  Community concern begins to look suspiciously like morality: those behaviors (deceiving, cheating) that tear the social fabric are “wrong” and those that create the kind of community in which individuals thrive are “right”.”

I think that quote is just so much horseshit. Just because a behavior resembles a human behavior doesn't mean it's the same. Also, the processes of negotiation, mediation, and reconciliation depend so much on verbal communication that any resemblance between animals and humans are most likely to be just surface resemblances.


I'm 50/50 with you on this one.  To play devil's advocate, who's to say our verbal language skills evolved before our other social behaviors - such as negotiation, mediation, etc, etc.  Language may have changed how we go about these things, but at the root I gravitate towards viewing the difference between us and other animals as being on of margins, not categories.

@Heather - there are studies (don't ask for a link, as it would take hours to dig up the ones I read) that indicate that the reason we have the power of speech and our closest relatives do not, is that when Humans left Eden, i.e., the rain forest, and struck out for the African veldt, we changed our posture to fully upright, repositioning our centers of gravity and posture, to the extent that our heads moved up and back from a very short, forward-thrusting neck-base, allowing room for a speech apparatus to evolve. If so, I would have to suspect that to get that far, we would have already developed some essential, non-verbal, social skills.

@Mr. Opteryx

Sounds about right.  I've seen several others that talk about a mutation that severely weakened our jaw muscles, thus lowering the point where they attach.  That allowed for greater brain case expansion as well as more delicate jaw action - both necessary for speech to develop.  That weaker jaw also left us relying more on group numbers for survival.  Just so many bizarre turns along the way.

Unseen is the only one required to call me Mr. Opteryx - (except for Wholely TV Set, with whom he appears to share many qualities) - feel free to call me Arch.

Greater brain case expansion was also mentioned in the articles I read, as well as the fact to which your article seems to allude - that because we became omnivorous, we didn't require the heavy duty grinding abilities of a strong lower jaw, as are found in the gorilla, and to a lesser extent, in the chimp.

If you know anything about bone growth, pressure causes bone to grow - a broken leg, for example, doesn't require that the patient have his leg sliced open in order to ascertain that the two separated bones perfectly match - even if they don't, the parts that touch will knit, the pressure of walking will strengthen them, and the parts of bone that get no pressure, will ultimately atrophy and be absorbed back into the body (the main reason astronauts lose bone mass in space).

So it would be with a less-than-normally used jawbone - it would atrophy until it reached a size that equaled the amount of pressure applied to it . A smaller jaw bone mass, combined with a (then) recently-acquired upright posture (to better see predators moving in the tall grasses of the veldt), would allow room for significant evolutionary changes in the area of the neck and jaw.

I think the social behaviors described depend upon a fairly well-developed ability to conceptualize and engage in abstract thought, which I think comes with language or if it doesn't come with language requires language to really flower into the sort of ability humans have to negotiate, arbitrate, etc.

Unseen  -  everything I've read says that language is the reason why our morality is so complex compared with those of other species (which are themselves rich and complex). 

So, the more complex the language (English being #1) the more moral people are? So, people with simpler languages are more cutthroat, more sociopathic, more likely to cheat?


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