Irrespective of us having free will or not, at least a part of our mind is taking decisions based on a very deeply rooted program. That program is our instinct and, like for all other species, its job is to ensure our survival. Instinct is both necessary and ruthless.
In the same time, we’re living in a society that reaches for higher moral grounds through the evolution of ethics and empathy. Our need for moral progress is probably also an evolutionary trait, ensuring social progress, which is a necessity of our survival as a species. We have gotten this far not only because we are skilled individuals, but also because we’ve found ways to work together through the direst of circumstances. However, the evolution of our society is sometimes in conflict with the instinct of the individual.
Healing the social schism
Through the use of education, most people today are aware of what their society is trying to build. Even so, there are those who fall prey to darker instinctual desires, which can become destructive. Sadly, due to their behavior, these individuals also face social exclusion of various kinds (imprisonment, disconnection due to social stratification).
This exclusion only serves to aggravate the problem because disconnected individuals lack the nourishment necessary for healing and growth. It becomes especially dangerous when such individuals reach positions of great power. The result is a sort of social schism where we as a species agree that we should be noble and kind, while in the same time individuals or social groups engage in harmful competitive behaviors.
The accelerated development of our technology means that unless we keep our destructive ways in check, we might go down like monkeys that went too far playing with the nuclear button. And this artificial “intelligence” thing^ racing towards us is much more dangerous than nukes. Globalization has also made it clear that it’s about time to develop a culture of planet Earth that acts as a sort of middle-ground between the countless conflicting cultures.
Reducing the risk of our species’ self-destruction as well as addressing world-wide suffering requires a paradigm shift that will see us question the very foundations of what we consider acceptable and unacceptable. It’s been a long time coming.
Fortunately, also regardless of us having free will, human behavior can change very quickly. What can be said about this is that, at the very least, it’s an evolutionary trait that has contributed to our survival. So, changing the rules of the game is well within our capability as a species.
Greed and the lust for power
One of the most common ways the survival instinct expresses itself is through the desire to accumulate. This is not limited to material goods. Humans are, for example, very good at accumulating friends in order to ensure social support for themselves. Having a social edge is a valuable currency that our primal brain knows very well to work with.
Greed has been tied to a so-called ruthlessness gene^ in our DNA. Again, through education, society has learned to tame certain urges. But even when the higher values taught by society manage to temperate greed^, humans are still notoriously poor at estimating their real needs.
The lust for power is rooted in the (quite accurate) perception that social status guarantees the access to an increased quantity of pretty much everything, including mates. It is understandable why this behavior exists. Natural selection is, after all, responsible for ensuring the quality of the gene pool.
Another interesting aspect is that some individuals have a very strong urge to compete, even after their basic needs have been met. This is at least partially influenced by genetics. Since most societies on Earth have fortunately distanced themselves from crude violence, we generally settle for intellectual competition within a peaceful society. But even there, the rules are strict (ethics, for example, are evolving fast). Some people are simply too competitive to be able to operate within such a restrictive context and then their “only option” is to break the rules. There are, in fact, lots of other options to satisfy competitive urges, but they are not fully exploited yet.
Preparing for the post scarcity economy means changing the rules
Even though (most of us) still have to pay (in various ways) to have a decent life, developed countries are approaching what is called a post-scarcity economy^. In a nutshell, it means that living will essentially become free. This will initially apply only to basic needs such as food and a place to live, but as technology advances, so will the number of things that will be provided for free (as in without having to have a job).
We could experience this very soon, if it wasn’t for an outdated system that is fighting for its survival. Like I said in a different article^, we can see any economic entity (small firms, corporations) as life forms in their own right. These creatures are right now fighting for their survival. Some are more ruthless than others. The same applies to governments. All of these entities try to mask their accountability through any means possible, because this allows them to become increasingly merciless. This, for a while, provides a competitive advantage, but often ends up blowing in our collective faces. Just look at how corporate negligence^ destroys lives and the ecosystem^.
It’s not surprising that we see so many scandals and abuse. The system is made up of people who often haven’t come to terms with the cold and calculated survival machine that lies at the bottom of our subconscious. What’s worse is that even people who try to change this are facing an uphill struggle against a system that promotes egotism and economically punishes charity.
Due to social inertia, this cannot change overnight. Radically different concepts need time to take root. But the change must happen, and it must arise from all social layers at once. Like many times before, it is up to the minority to inspire through the examples they’ll set. We already have people from all walks of life starting to talk about the same thing: we cannot risk our future by throwing bigger weapons at each other.
When the circle becomes a spiral
After countless cycles of bloodshed and revolution, it is time for evolution. Unlike most times, we will change the system without blaming our leaders or those that built it. We are, after all, together on the same planet, part of the same unfolding process of evolution. Is there a magically simple solution to achieve this? Surprise, there is! It’s called education.
Education is the foundation of our society. But education is also controlled by an obsolete system that fights for its survival. This is the reason why the changes we need must arise from everywhere at once, bursting through society in all directions. And yes, adults can be educated too. This is not a process that applies only to children, even though they are the easiest targets, which the current system uses to perpetuate itself.
Fortunately, there are also people at the top who see the need for change, but these sorts of leaders are increasingly outnumbered in a divided world that crashes towards nationalism. It is up to us to create the educational paradigms and institutions that will rear a generation of merciful and empathic leaders.
Today, working together across borders is discouraged due to the primitive and tribal way our society is still organized (nation states, rivaling corporations, often strict separation between cultures). But we can change the rules so that cooperation is rewarded. It’s not that difficult really.
For example, let’s spread the word about ethical consumerism^. This will make corporations change their way of operating, or risk dying due to a lack of customers. And let us introduce empathy as a mandatory subject throughout all layers of our educational system, studied from the very basics and up to the intricacies of philosophy and genetics.
I firmly believe that one day, we will look back at this century and be thankful for the changes we have made. Yes, I am part of the optimistic bunch that has decided that cooperation is the only way forward. Oh, don’t worry, we will still find all sorts of ways to compete through. How about competing in who can give most to the other?