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Good and evil from self interest - a recap

by Constant

Living beings predate on other living beings. Animals are, with narrow exceptions, in the world for themselves, and other animals, again with narrow exceptions, are obstacles and raw materials. Caring even the tiniest little bit about other animals is the rare exception, not the rule. This is true between species and within species. And even that caring is itself merely a ploy that serves either the self interest of the individual animal, or the self interest of its genes.

Human sympathy for other humans seems to spread beyond the merely self-interested. To some extent this appearance is simply a failure to realize how a particular atom of sympathy serves the person sympathising. For instance, we sympathize publicly with strangers. By this I mean, we express our sympathy for strangers to our friends and acquaintances. This functions as a show. People are more comfortable around other people who they feel will not stab them in the back the moment they cease to be of any use or the moment they come into conflict, and one way to seem to be a non-back-stabber is to express sympathy in cases where the sympathy serves no self-interest.

To some extent, non-self-interested human sympathy is doubtless a side-effect. Our instincts are not precisely programmed, so there is bound to be some spill-over of our instincts into areas where the instincts are not adaptive, or even are maladaptive. This situation is exacerbated by the rapid technological changes the human species is experiencing.

Sympathy exists because it serves the self. We help others so that we will be seen as helpful and therefore worthwhile helping. We do not harm or threaten others so that they will not feel threatened by us, because if they feel threatened they might attack us. And of course we help family not expecting any quid pro quo because this serves our genetic self interest. However, our instinct to aid to avoid harming others overflows into areas where it is non-adaptive or even maladaptive.

The word “sympathy” is usually reserved for the subjective feeling that accompanies helping and non-harming behavior. But the feeling serves a purpose, and the purpose is to help and to avoid harming others, and this is done for the sake of the self. A feeling of sympathy induces a sympathetic action, which causes others (not just the one helped but observers) to value us more or dis-value us less, which causes them to be more inclined to help us and less inclined to harm us.

The product of all this is society. Society, like the market, is a product of self-interested individual behavior.

So, for the most part, humans do not predate on other humans, and their failure to predate is ultimately self-interested. However, some humans continue to predate, presumably because they believe that the rewards outweigh the risks. Their would-be victims will defend themselves, out of their own self-interest. However, a problem arises:

On the one hand we have a clear interest in defending ourselves against human predators. But on the other hand we do not want to seem threatening (to anyone other than the predators). This requires that we make a firm, and clear, and public, distinction. It must be public because the purpose of the distinction is to appear harmless (to everyone other than the predator) while at the same time harming the predator. So we must make a firm (unvarying), clear (unambiguous), and public (seen by all) distinction between when we will harm someone, and when we will not.

We have many labels that we use for this distinction, but one of them is “evil”. Another is “crime”. We need to clearly and publicly define what is, and what is not, a crime. We need to publicly distinguish what will trigger a violent and harmful reaction from us from everything else.

Moreover, the category of “crime” should probably not be idiosyncratic, for a variety of reasons. One simple reason is that if it were idiosyncratic, then we would need to do a lot of explaining to keep people up to speed on what we considered a crime. It is much simpler to adopt a ready-made, public concept of crime.

There are many more considerations limiting and shaping the category of “crime”. For instance, it would be catastrophic for “crime” to be defined in a way that makes retaliation against a crime itself a “crime”. As a self-interested individual, I would avoid adopting such a concept of crime, because it might quickly involve me in a war of all against all.

“Crime” would furthermore tend to be minimized to as small a footprint as possible, because as a self-interested individual I am still highly interested in seeming maximally helpful and minimally harmful. A balance must be struck between these two considerations. Remember that the reason for the category of “crime” is the predatory behavior of some individuals, so that the concept of “crime” would tend to be limited to predatory behavior, and possibly even to some subset of predatory behavior, as I might allow other minor acts of predation to go unanswered in order to seem as nonthreatening as possible.

Please notice one thing that this is not: it is not utilitarian. I (the self-interested individual deciding what to consider a crime) am not trying to maximize global utility. I am trying to optimize my personal outcome. (Well, the actual situation is a bit more complex - my sympathy for others has the biological function of serving myself but I am not necessarily consciously self-interested; the process I am describing need not be entirely or even mainly conscious)

More generally, it is unlike most theorizing about good and evil. Well, me writing this might be just another example of that, but the me-character that I am describing who is weighing (not necessarily consciously) the pros and cons of where to draw the line between “crime” and “non-crime” is not engaging in abstract theory, but is selecting a strategy with the intention of optimizing his own personal outcome, and so is like a businessman who really only cares about the bottom line. (A slight aside: I said earlier that we adopt a public concept of crime, which seems to conflict with the idea that I am deciding where to draw the line. However, this public concept in turn comes from somewhere - it comes from other people like me. It evolves. Individuals are, each in their own way, contributing to the project of deciding where to draw the line between “crime” and “non-crime”.)

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