Heaven on Earth: The Kindness Maxim
In the past, I have noted that kindness is generally the best policy and always the best policy default. If you don’t have an ironclad reason not to be kind, be kind.
Let’s run through this.
People who are treated badly, become bad. The abused grow up to abuse. The sick make others sick and cannot contribute to society. Happy people are better to be around. Prosperous people can afford your products and services.
Happy, healthy, loving, and prosperous people are the people we want in our societies.
We evolved in bands. Forty to fifty people running around the Savannah. We would have been friendly to some other bands (those with whom we shared ancestors) and we were hostile to most other humans, who were our competitors. The level of hostility varied with carrying capacity; if resources were short because of too many humans, quite hostile, otherwise not very.
We did not evolve to take into consideration the needs of large groups of people. In order to do so, we evolved cultural methods: fictive kinship, culture, story, myth, and religion. These things created fictional identities which went beyond people we knew of or saw every day.
This was fine when were just a particularly clever animal. Even when we got to the point of making wholesale changes to the environment (usually through agriculture), the worst we could do is ruin a local ecosystem–we couldn’t mess up the world.
But, today, for good or ill, we live in that “interconnected world” and the “global society” everyone talks about. What happens to someone in Nigeria, Brazil, or China matters to me. Their happiness, their health, their prosperity affects mine.
And how they affect the environment affects me, too. How I, a first-worlder with a huge carbon footprint, affect the environment, affects them.
Their well-being affects mine. It is in my interest for them to be better off.
This isn’t what you’ve been told. Economics treats the world as a zero-sum game, a matter of managing scarcity.
The world has scarcities: resources, dumps for pollution like carbon, etc. But civilization isn’t, usually, a zero sum game. Instead, it’s usually negative sum or positive sum, or both. For some time for Westerners, and a few other developed nations, it has been positive sum, and there have been many other periods of positive-sum games.
My win is everyone else’s win.
Creating a good society requires both managing actual scarcities and understanding that actual scarcities are scarce, and that most things people want to do are positive sum. It requires turning most of what we do into positive-sum games. A good society is one in which “your win is my win” is made true far more often than not.
“We win together” is a prescriptive statement which must be made into a descriptive statement. (It is also a descriptive statement in general, because if my win isn’t your win more often than not, we don’t live in a good world.)
So humans must see beyond their identities, their tribes, and their nations, to treat all humans as people whom we want to be healthy, happy, prosperous, and loving. For their sakes and for our sakes.
But there is an additional step required to create a good society, a good world, a good civilization.
We must care for non-human life.
The mass-death of trees and plankton affects you, it affects me. The mass death of fish affects you, it affects me. The destruction of marshlands causes floods and reduces water quality; it affects you, and it affects me. Ecosystem collapse—well, you get it.
The problem here is that I’ve given you the rational argument.
Rationality is marginal. It’s not that humans can’t be rational, it’s that rationality is the lesser part of why we do things or how we make decisions. We make decisions based on emotions, and those emotions are based on our ideologies and identities.
Rationality, or “reason,” allows us to weasel out of doing the right thing too often. It is a tool for our emotions; emotions which right now scream: “My interests, my ideology, my identity, my people matter MOST!”
For a good world to exist, we must feel that other humans should be treated kindly simply because it is the right thing to do. We should be revolted by anyone going hungry, anyone being tortured, anyone being raped. The moment we think “They had it coming,” we’re on the wrong track. (Punishment is not the point, removing the ability of bad actors to continue to act badly is.)
And this principle needs to be extended to non-human life. We need to feel bad when animals are dying in large numbers and going extinct–bad enough to do something about it. We need to instinctively, by default, move to protect them. We should be as revolted by images of dolphins being slaughtered as we are by humans being slaughtered. If we kill for meat (and I eat meat), we should insist it be done humanely.
This must be based on values, principles, and identity, of feeling that humans and animals and even plants are all alive–and because they are alive, they must be treated with respect.
There are sound, pragmatic reasons for doing so; there are also sound moral reasons for doing so (read the Hidden Life of Trees). Anyone who doesn’t think most animals don’t feel pain, or don’t suffer, is on a profoundly unethical, immoral track.
This is the right thing to do, morally and pragmatically, and if we don’t figure out how to do it, we’re little better than bacteria that grow until they destroy their own environment and experience a great die-off.
Be kind. It creates the world you want to live in, and it may well save your life and the lives of those you claim to care about. By granting life the love you reserve only for a few, you give those few (and yourself, as it happens) their best chance at long life and prosperity–and grant it to your descendants as well.
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