Monday, June 20, 2011

Why can’t we just make world peace?

I was poking around the World Wide Web in order to figure out whether true altruism really exists as part of my attempt to verify that selfishness is what drives people to have babies. I was in the middle of learning about compassion when I stumbled upon the answer to a different question entirely; the mother of all questions (!)  I found an explanation to why we simply can’t agree to make world peace.

Before revealing the very simple answer, let’s give Wikipedia a shot at it. The article about World Peace says the following:
“While world peace is theoretically possible, some believe that human nature inherently prevents it. This belief stems from the idea that humans are naturally violent, or that rational agents will choose to commit violent acts in certain circumstances. Others however believe that war is not an innate part of human nature, and that this myth in fact prevents people from reaching for world peace”
So we have learned that world peace = a theoretically unsolvable theoretically solvable problem.  Fortunately someone have something to add to this. Evolutionary psychologists agree that human nature matters, in fact it is crucial, but the version of the evolutionary argument that I will present for you calls for a crucial edition to the Wikipedia article. Robert Write says in the Ted talk The Evolution of Compassion that the answer to why it is difficult to make peace is that people don’t live by the golden rule (one should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself). If you stop for a second and think about it you can probably recall that you already knew this, and you might be wondering what the heck the golden rule has to do with human nature and evolution.

This is where it gets really interesting, I will explain. In the beginning there was light… and compassion. The fuzzy feeling we get when caring for someone made its way to the gene pool even before humans. To illustrate this I give you the animal kingdom here represented by an orangutan and a bulldog:

When the bulldog cares for the orangutan, the bulldog will have greater chance for survival because the orangutan will protect the bulldog if a there’s a nasty situation later on. Today compassion extends further than close friends and relatives which it originally was confined to. We have expanded our circle of compassion to include larger communities such as religions, neighborhoods and nations. Those we believe can return the favor of compassion receives compassion from us. Write says that compassion is the genes’ way of helping themselves. We can say that humans from nature’s side are predisposed to believe in the golden rule. We have it in us, so that is good news. Why don’t we have world peace then? Here comes the bad news: we also have it in us to make exceptions to the golden rule. We reason for ourselves and other for why we limit our compassion:  “Bin Laden deserved to die”, “murder is morally wrong” or “drugs is really bad for you” are examples of such reasoning.

The reason why we can’t make peace is because evolution hasn’t given us enough tools to expand our compassion further than to our “own kind”. So while the Wikipedia article focus on that we have too much violence in us, Write says that we have too limited compassion in us. Well, it is not the amount of compassion that is the problem I think, but rather where it is directed. If Write is right, we do indeed have it in us, but we don’t really have it in us.  So where does that leave the prospect for peace? Yes, this is where everything gets seriously quizzical…

There are so many examples around the world on how people seem to rise above the nature given limits to the golden rule. But how can we seriously start applying the golden rule universally? And then there’s the question; how do we decide what we absolutely must condemn in order to be a functioning society? How does empathy relate to compassion, and are everyone capable of empathy? In his talk, Write suggests a strategy to expand our compassion.  He says that free trade and communication give us the feeling that we are all in this together, therefore, more globalization will make more world peace… I find myself painfully ambivalent to that statement. I will leave my brain to digest the message for a while and rather give you an alternative perspective, one that doesn’t make my brain hurt so much.  

Karen Armstrong in this ted talk makes an outcry for a Charter of Compassion based on the golden rule that might manage to join the major religions and all nations under the UN. I recommend that you take 20 and watch her very inspiring talk. Lastly, if the orangutan and bulldog didn’t give you the courage to expand your circle of compassion, this video of a cat making dolphins friends almost certainly will. 


  1. Linetje, excellent post. I'm not sure if we actually need to have "worldy" compassion - it may be sufficient if everyone just identifies with enough people so that no-one group of people is completely forgotten. Consider AVAAZ - they help raise my awareness of people's problems. I can then pass it onto other people via Facebook and lots of other people's networks, until such point as AVAAZ's message has travelled around the entire world. Unless I am misinterpreting your quizz?

  2. I think that identifying is key to compassion. AVAAZ is a great organization for people who already feel some sense of shared identity/responsibility/compassion for strangers across the globe. But what about the people that certainly thinks that their country and their values are superior(and I suspect that a lot of people, not just Americans and Norwegians)? I think education is a good tool. Kids need to learn that it is not "us" and "them" or "west" and "the rest".

    Were this gets really tricky though is at the state level, not the person-level. Is the state capable of not always putting it's own interests first? And is that something we want?