Question from Edward:
First of all I am an atheist as well, but what I can’t figure out is: is a pure human selfish, or generous? I mean some people are asses some are good. My theory is every pure human is actually an evil selfish bastard, but conscience and ego makes most people good. I mean since we don’t have a feeling that bugs us when we do something good, conscience bugs us when we act like an ass. I’d like to know your thoughts about this.
Answer by Andrea:
That’s a really good question, and I recently found out the answer since I’ve been researching evolutionary biology, which also encompasses the science of human behavior.
Apparently, there are genes that guide just about everything, including our behaviors, and compassion, fear, ambiguity, moods, etc., can all be traced to genetics. This is not to say you are a victim of your DNA, but it is to say that you may be geared to behave in a certain way, so that the environment during your formative years can help wire your brain and help produce the chemical processes that activate certain genes. For example, mothers who were distant with their infants were more apt to produce children who lacked impulse control and empathy, since the nurturing from moms that form these connections in the frontal lobe were absent. And the environment theory blends in with my own experience. My mom raised me to be (too) empathetic, so I lose sleep nights or get depressed thinking about marine oil spills or the plight of circus animals.
I think it’s evolutionarily conducive to be selfish, and we’re programmed to be as such — to an extent — but since we are social beings, it’s also conducive to cooperate with one another.
This leads me to believe that everyone is a mix of angel or asshole, the ratios are determined by a variety of factors. And as an atheist, I just try to set a good example so I can represent atheists accurately. Counter to all the negative stereotypes, atheists actually have the lowest peer capita rates of imprisonment as well as divorce. In “Atheism, Secularity, and Well-Being: How the Findings of Social Science Counter Negative Stereotypes and Assumptions” (Sociology Compass, 2009), Phil Zuckerman compares the values and beliefs of religious people with those of the secular, and the latter were markedly less prejudiced, anti-Semitic, racist, dogmatic closed-minded and authoritarian. They were are also less supportive of the death penalty, less likely to favor harsh sentencing and the least supportive of torture.
I hope that helps, otherwise, I might lose sleep over my failing to answer your question properly. 😉
“This leads me to believe that everyone is a mix of angel or asshole, the ratios are determined by a variety of factors.”
Question from Edward:
3 thoughts on “Pure Human”
Human beings are intelligent mammals. Mammals show varieties of behaviours – you have elephants who drown in rivers while saving their young ones, you have lions who kill off the cubs of other lions when they gain leadership of the pack.
I guess it all boils down to evolution and genes.
From my analysis of human behaviour I think most humans are opportunists when it comes to social behavior. However, as we have been able to become the dominant species by living together and cooperating to a large extent, we have natural tendencies to cooperate and empathize – and its these tendencies that make us angry about patently selfish behavior.
I think that enlightened self interest dictates that one be “nice” to others most of the time.
I read somewhere that around 80% of people are “normal” about not lying, not cheating, being nice etc. and 20% tend to be asses. Which means 8 out of 10 people one interacts with are likely to be ok. I guess its not Utopia, but its not that bad either.
But yes, when you multiply 20% with 6.5 Billion, things tend to appear a bit bleak.
I’ve theorized that all humans are selfish, and that every action is selfish. I believe I am correct on this because:
1. A person only goes through with an action because they believe it will be personally beneficial in some way.
2 Benefits can be tangible or emotional.
3. Certain benefits, may also be self destructive, or self depricating.
4. There is no rational reason to do something if you do not see it being personally beneficial.
If you watched FRIENDS, there was actually about this where Pheobe was fighting Joey about there being non-selfish good deeds(Joey was on a telethon or something). But I had this idea before I saw that.
A few example which probably come to mind are:
1. Doing something you hate, for somebody you hate.
My response: You are probably doing it because you think something bad may happen if you do not do it. This may include financial problems, physical abuse, or even verbal abuse. You also might be afraid that somebodies opinion of you may change negatively if you do not go through with it. You may also believe that “even though I hate this, it is the right thing to do”. In which case you are justifying your actions by the good feelings of “doing the right thing”. In any case it is always for self benefit.
My response: You are either trying to alleviate pain, or make a point. Both of which are self serving.
3. Donating to charity even when you are poor.
My response: Again, seeking that good feeling of “doing the right thing”. Like I said, even if something is benificial in one way, it can be detrimental in another.
4. You give your friend a loan.
My response: You either want the feeling of knowing that your friend will be OK to comfort you, or you are scared of being seen as cheap, or losing your friendships, so you give into your friend’s request unwillingly. If you are choosing the latter, you want the benefits of avoiding those things that you are scared of.
I can’t think of an example of an action taken by a sane person that was not self serving. Even if somebody found an action they hated, and made them feel horrible, and did it just to prove there was such an action. Them getting the satisfation of proving that such an action existed would be the benefit.
This is why I think all people are selfish. So decisions end up being how much value people put onto certain benefits. Like I can buy a new car and get a cool material benefit. Or I can donate $20,000 to a childrens hospital and get a deep emotional benefit/social (how people perceive me) benefit. Either way, I won’t say doing one or the other is “the right” thing to do. I think as long as you are not harming others, people should be free to decide how to spend their resources (time, money, posessions, emotions). Similarly I don’t think that people who donate their money to charities are better people than those who save for retirement instead. Both have their own self serving reasons for doing what they are doing.
Adam, I actually wrote something very similar in my piece on humanism and self interest. Rather than saying that every action is selfish, I said that no altruism is entirely pure.
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