The Political Exploitation of Empathy and Altruism

Empathy and altruism are two qualities that humans believe our species to possess to a significant degree. While both qualities certainly play a vital role in the socialisation of our species, neither is actually evident in normal human behaviour to anything like the extent that...

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Empathy and altruism are two qualities that humans believe our species to possess to a significant degree. While both qualities certainly play a vital role in the socialisation of our species, neither is actually evident in normal human behaviour to anything like the extent that human moralising implies is the case. In other words, we are not nearly as inherently empathetic or altruistic  a species as we believe ourselves to be. In fact, to be frank, the empirical evidence suggests that the vast majority of people is largely indifferent to the welfare of all other humans who are not either genetically or emotionally related to them.

Our illusion that we are significantly empathetic and altruistic as a species presumably rests upon the fact that some people are indeed both very empathetic and altruistic. By casual extrapolation, this rare human anomaly allows us falsely to ascribe the same virtues to our species as a whole.

There is sound reason for our very limited empathy and altruism. Humans are all naturally self-interested creatures, each programmed biologically to attend first to their own needs in the battle for survival. (A mother’s concern for her children also equates emotionally to self-interest). Our empathy and altruism clearly diminish in intensity the further that their potential beneficiaries lie from our personal egos. While we do (almost) anything for those in need close to us, we do virtually nothing for those beyond our immediate circle.

As social creatures, we are to a small degree concerned about the welfare of those in our own community who lie outside our immediate circle. This concern is of necessity limited, however, as the practical cost of it in a world of finite resources, that are difficult to acquire, might well be counter-productive to our own survival and that of our family. In general, humans have effectively no regard for the interests or welfare of the individuals who exist beyond their cultural community. From an evolutionary standpoint, the emotions of empathy, and particularly altruism, really apply only to family and close friends. For anyone beyond the inner-circle, there is effectively little more than sentiment.

The observations above raise the question as to exactly why humans should choose to delude themselves as to how empathetic and altruistic the species is. What is the purpose in doing so? After all, each individual probably does not regard him or herself as particularly empathetic or altruistic. In fact, on the contrary, they are more likely to experience feelings of personal guilt at their frequent failure to adequately assist those fellow humans who are obviously in need of assistance. So, the question then becomes, why do the members of a species that only practices empathy and altruism to a very limited, but biologically appropriate extent, believe that the species as a whole is, and should indeed be, far more empathetic and altruistic than it actually is?

The most likely answer to this important, but ignored, question is, “because they have been convinced that it is true, by those who benefit from them doing so, and who possess sufficient moral authority over them to obtain their compliance”.

Throughout human history, until the anomalous advent of modern Liberal Democracy, the majority of the population in each society was invariably dominated by one or the other minority group within it. The members of such a group, religious, social, or political, directed and controlled the peoples’ lives. They defined what was true, what the people should believe, and how they should behave. The cost and the resistance generated by domination that had to be  violently enforced was high, however. Accordingly, those who led society came to realise early that by far the most productive and cost-effective way of controlling large numbers of people was by utilising the system that society itself had evolved to control human behaviour, namely, morality. In order to be able to do this, however – by manipulating the local moral code for their own benefit – the leadership had first successfully to claim and establish its moral authority to do so in the eyes of the majority. This they did by means of their particular religious or political ideology, which utilised a compelling moral narrative that appealed to, and supposedly existed for the benefit of the subordinate majority. Once they had accepted the veracity of the moral ideological narrative dominant in their era, the majority fell effectively under the control of the minority.

Monarchy, aristocracy, and the various religions were all ancient and successful  systems of control utilising this morally-based, mass-indoctrination process. Each system in their time was based upon an ideology that presented the dominant minority in society as possessing morally superior qualities and/or morally superior understanding, compared to the majority of the people. This moral capture by the dominant minority succeeded in getting the majority to accept the position of relative moral subordination that they had each apparently been born to. Morally-based, mass indoctrination, it would appear, is the human expression of the herd instinct, common to social animals.

Idealistic modern political ideologies are based on the same controlling moral principles as these ancient social systems. Like the Western religions, both Socialism and Communism assert the moral claim that the whole structure and organisation of society should be dedicated to furthering the collective interests of the poor and the disadvantaged, rather than those of the normal individuals that Liberal Democracy serves. They are also autocratic, as were the ancient systems.

People believe that they ought to be more empathetic and altruistic towards strangers than they actually are biologically, when they have been convinced that they should be so, by the leaders who control them, and people are generally predisposed to believe what they are told by those they regard as their moral  superiors.

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