Question of the Day May 14, 2012 – Compassionate And ‘Giving’, And Selfish And ‘Taking’

What drives some people to be compassionate and ‘giving’, and others to be selfish and ‘taking’?

This seems a little like one of those “have you stopped beating your grandmother yet?” questions.
It seems based upon false premises.
It seems to me that all people are both compassionate and giving, and selfish and taking.
All that varies is the specific measures in specific contexts.
Without a certain level of selfishness, one dies from lack of resources.
Without a certain level of compassion, one cannot exist in a society – and thus one dies from lack of resources.
Thus it is absolutely essential that we all have both sets of qualities.
Both are needed for survival.
What varies is the balance.
I think that perhaps we could all do with a bit more awareness of our need for both.
It is not a matter of one or the other.
Both are absolutely required.

[followed by]

Hi Andrew,
The thing to get is that everyone does things to optimize their own advantage, at some level.
When viewed from one level, things may appear to be all one way or the other, and I contend that there is always a level at which they are in balance. It may not be a level that we are comfortable with ourselves, and it will exist.
At the genetic level, it is possible for genes for altruism to survive in a population if the expression of those genes gives greater advantage to the population than the cost of the loss of the altruistic life, then the gene can survive. If the gene is in collaboration with others that detect and remove individuals that do not have the altruism gene, then altruism can survive and prosper.
Similarly at each successive level.
In order to learn language, a human being must possess at least 3 levels of both selfishness and compassion/altruism in some measure.
As we grow as children, we learn from the mix of our culture, our genetics and our circumstances, a set of belief and understandings that guide us in our choices.
Viewed from a distance, these can look very different.
Viewed up close, they are almost always essentially the same – someone doing the best they can with what they’ve got in the circumstances in which they happen to find themselves.
Some are much more fortunate than others in the circumstances they happen to be in.
We all form habits in our lives.
Some of those habits are of distinction, in the patterns we are able to see when under stress.
Some of those habits are of action, in how we react to the situations we see.
Some of these systems tend to reinforce each other, others cancel each other out.
It is a fascinating study.
And at each level, there is a level of choice, of individuality, of honour, or the lack thereof.
The whys are so complex, at so many different levels, of chemistry, of genes, of culture, of honour, of potentially infinite creative levels.
We may be able to understand some of the general principles at each level, but never all of the specifics.
Why do you do what you do?
Why do I do what I do?
In the general I can answer, in general forms.
In the specific, if I am honest, I have almost no idea!

[followed by]

There are some very interesting ideas in both what Torch and Deb say, and I find that while I agree in part, it is not the whole story.
Torch wrote a lot about acceptance and unconditional love, vs reward and punishment.
I don’t see it as an “either or” situation.
For me, it seems that I can love someone, while using punishment to put in place a boundary.
And as much as possible I try not to impose boundaries, and it seems that that attitude itself imposes boundaries. Neither of my children have had the normal social boundaries, which has lead to them being isolated in their local communities. Both have managed to find peers in much wider communities, and it hasn’t been (isn’t) an easy journey for either of them.
Then there is the aspects of how some systems respond.
Some systems have “threshold values”, beyond which the response of the system changes significantly.
There are “tipping points”.
We see it often in people, they get to a certain point and they “lose it” (whatever “it” is), and become something else.
We see it in many levels of physical and biological systems.
We see it in earthquakes and volcanoes – where pressures can quietly build up over hundreds or thousands of years, and then be suddenly released in events that are not specifically predictable as to exactly when they will occur, yet they are predictable in a probabilistic sense, that sooner or later they must occur.
We see it in cars, where we can retain control up to a certain point, and beyond that point, the car “spins out”.
Sometimes energies can build up in multiple different systems at the same time, and the release may be triggered in entirely unexpected ways, and sometimes such energies can be released in ways that are not as damaging as other possibilities.

Then there is the aspect of choice.

Like in the old zen proverb about how we build our personalities – little by little, as a drip of water fills a bowl, we make choices for good, or little by little, as a drip of water fills a bowl, we make choices for other than good. Leaving aside the definition of good – one gets the idea. Who we are is the result of many small choices. Each may seem insignificant in and of itself, yet added together they become us.

Small and repeated action build habits that over time become larger systems with larger consequences.

To the extent that each and every one of us brings the light of our attention to developing understanding and compassion for ourselves, and everything and every one around us, then to this extent; we bring compassion into being.

To the extent that we are able to see that our own long term interests are tightly bound to the long term interests of everyone else; then we bring compassion into being, and our selfishness can look more like selflessness, until it becomes indistinguishable.


Then there is the systems level.
To the extent that we can create feelings of security in and for others, we encourage long term thinking.

The more uncertain things become, the greater the “discount rate” that people apply to future outcomes, and the more short term their thinking becomes.

Security does not mean staying the same.
Security means having confidence that the inevitable change will be beneficial rather than harmful.

So in this sense, the more we can encourage people to question everything, and to educate themselves about anything and everything that interests them, and to actively work at cultivating as broad an interest set as possible; then to that extent we promote compassion in the world. (And conversely to the extent that we diminish security, promote fraud {by withholding either our questions or our answers}, then to that extent we contribute to selfishness and taking.)

In the past, many have used “blind faith” as a tool to bring about feelings of security. To the extent that such systems have worked, it seems that their effect is very superficial, and that as the insecurities in a system become more obvious, the “blind faith” loses out to the obvious reality – and the systems fail.

To me, it seems that there is only one direction that offers both freedom and long term security, and that is to encourage everyone to question everything. Like democracy, it is slow and expensive, yet it builds secure foundations to approach an uncertain future.

[followed by]

Hi Deb

There is one great untruth in what you wrote – and that is the idea that what happens on the macro scale is beyond your ability to impact.
You have no idea what your ability to impact the macro scale may be.
You have no idea how a conversation you have with a stranger may impact how that stranger deals with another, leading through a chain of such interactions to world changing outcomes.

I contend that it is the inevitable chains of such things that create our reality.
It is all those little choices that all add up, moment by moment.
In so far as we bring our highest self to each of them, moment by moment, we make a difference – we change the world, we alter what would otherwise have happened, and who knows the ultimate consequences.

So I say what we each choose, in every moment, is important, and is, in a very real sense, world changing.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) with reasonable security, tools, resources and degrees of freedom, and reasonable examples of the natural environment; and that is going to demand responsibility from all of us - see
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2 Responses to Compassion

  1. Oh my gosh, laughing hysterically as I’ve never heard the, “Have you stopped beating your grandmother yet? question. You damned if you do, and damned it you don’t.


  2. It really is quite scary just how much political debate is of that sort of nature – people asking for simple yes/no answers to questions that are simply based upon false sets of assumptions.

    Asking them back – “have you stopped beating your grandmother yet?” can get the audience’s attention, and it needs to be followed up with arguments that quickly and clearly expose the false assumptions behind original question.


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