This post is dedicated to my daughter Aniko,
who never needed to learn how to be compassionate.
I only wish there were more people like her.
One of the loftiest qualities of humans is their ability to distinguish right from wrong. We call it morality. Without a sense of morality, we would soon descend in a state of anarchy, where no one is accountable for their actions. Some societies are already on the brink of anarchy, the so-called 'failed states' of the world, where citizens are never sure whether they will live or die any day of their lives. Morality is the glue that binds people together, it creates the space where the give and take between people takes place. Without it, life would be worse than death since being dead at least doesn't cause someone to suffer.
But why do we aspire to be moral to begin with? We want to be healthy, happy, free of pain, that is understandable. We call these 'natural' desires, but why do we desire to be moral? A biologist would ask: What do we gain by it? How does it serve our survival as a species? Thomas Hobbes thought he had the answer by saying that the natural state of man is "warre of every man against every man" and to prevent people from hacking each other to death, they needed to have a moral code. Obviously Hobbes didn't believe in man's innate goodness.
That is pretty much how our culture has branded human nature over the past few centuries. We are selfish bastards who have developed a system which forces us to cooperate with each other by submitting to a self-imposed structure. Thanks to our superior intellect, we have escaped the fate that nature imposes on the world, the cruel, barbaric law of the jungle that all species is subject to. With the help of philosophers like Malthus who anticipated Darwin's principle of the struggle for existence, it is widely accepted as a law of nature. This view leads one to assume that if you are nice, you are a patsy.
But just because we have irrevocably painted ourselves in the corner of selfishness, doesn't mean that we don't have the capacity for compassion. Primatologist Frans De Waal explains in Good Natured-The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, 'In the same way that birds and airplanes appear to defy the law of gravity yet are fully subjected to it, moral decency may appear to fly in the face of natural selection yet still be one of its many products.' Read more...