The question I would like to ask readers of this blog post is, do you think that humans are naturally selfish beings?
Before you answer that question however, I ask that you either watch the animated speech below entitled The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin, an American economist and political advisor, or, if you don’t feel like watching the ten minute speech (I recommend you do), read the much shorter summary of it that I provide.
The speech details the discovery of mirror neurons, special brain neurons that all humans and some species of animals possess. When a human being performs an action, special neurons associated with that action light up in the brain. When a human being sees another human being performing that same action, mirror neurons cause the exact same neurons to light up. So how does this affect us?
Say you were watching a horror movie and in that horror movie a spider crawled up on one of the characters. The mirror neurons would make you feel emotionally how creepy it would be to have a tarantula crawling up your back because the same neurons are lighting up in your brain that would activate if you actually did have a spider crawling on you.
The way Rifkin puts it, “We are soft wired to experiences another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves.” He goes on to discuss other research that suggests that a human’s first instinctual drive is not self-interest but the drive to belong. Finally, he suggests that the awareness and global connection brought by modern technology may allow humans to build a civilization based on this principle of empathy. Though he doesn’t get too political, his suggestions are obviously very comparable to Rousseau’s social contract, in which everyone works for the betterment of the community as a whole.
I would like to raise one possible counterargument that I think Hobbes, who believed humans are inherently self-interested, might agree with. If we experience another’s plight as our own, then doesn’t that provide us with the self-serving motivation for helping them simply in order to alleviate our own discomfort? Do you think Mother Teresa would have done all that charity work if it hadn’t made her happy? I’m not at all trying to suggest she was selfish or purely self-serving, not in the least. I’m simply saying that she was also benefitting from her own charity work. What I’m arguing is that humans will not do something unless there is at least some benefit in it for themselves.
So what do you think? Are humans naturally self-centered, naturally empathetic, or maybe some of both? Do you think that a civilization in which everyone acts exclusively for the good of the whole is possible or is it an unrealistic goal?