As children, most of us are taught to think and care about others and reflect this caring in our actions. Yet we’re frequently given no explanation beyond the lukewarm ‘that’s the right thing to do’. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why when we grow up the vast majority of us seem to care about ourselves above and beyond everybody else.
Are there good reasons why you should take others into account when you make your choices? This is a very real question with no ready-made answer. I’ll present the considerations (not arguments!) I believe to be important in four steps.
1. Interdependence is reality
Let us start from the broadest perspective with the concept of Interdependence. I first encountered this notion in Buddhism although it’s certainly present in other religions and frameworks of thought. We in the West like to think of ourselves as autonomous and independent entities. Yet, it is extremely hard to dispute that all things in the universe are connected to many others once we accept the fundamental notion of causality.
If you’re not familiar, try to understand it in the most Buddhist way: by pondering the simplest things. As usual, this very moment is a good place to start.
Take a minute to try to disentangle all the causes that led you to read these words on this device in this very location at this moment in time.
The first few that come to mind are most likely your own choices (e.g. purchasing the device). It’s also quite easy to see how choices made by other people with a strong influence on your life (parents, partner, teachers, peers) led you to where you are now. You could just as well consider the writers, artists, celebrities, or politicians whose thoughts you came across. And then, how many things had to come together for me to write this article and you to find it?
A mere 5-minute flight over this ocean of causality will give you the kind of vertigo you got when you first realized the scale of your own existence relative to your town, region, country, the planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the cluster, the universe…
To gently guide your return to more down-to-earth territory, allow me to point out how much of what happens to you if you decide to leave your home these days depends on choices made by other people. How many people will be close enough to infect you? That depends on how many others choose to go out and whether they respect social distancing norms. How many surfaces are you going to touch where the virus may be with a reasonably high probability? That’s a function of how many others had the virus and (albeit involuntarily) placed it there.
Does this mean that one of the most epic anti-lockdown protesters caught on tape between 6:16–6:36 of this video is right? Is he related to Dr. Dre because when you really think about it, hypothetically, we are all related? Genius may strike at vastly unexpected locations but as evidenced by the apparent lack of rapping skills our protagonist inherited from his famous ‘ancestor’, the answer is no. There are different degrees of relatedness just as there are different levels and kinds of connection. Some are close, some are more distant, some so distant they barely exist. Some revolve around business or politics, some are personal. Some involve a great degree of love, hate, or both.
The only inescapable truth is that, although you merely see a very tiny section of it, you are part of the canvas of humanity. Everyone has a social network, no matter how small. And impact travels through social networks. What this means in practice is that through most of your actions,
2. You have an impact on others
While they may be in minority, a lot of people recognized a Covid-related version of this truth. An argument I heard several times over these past lockdown-filled months reads something like this:
‘Even though I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine, I will respect the regulations and my own norms because I don’t want to spread the virus.’
Why? The two most common reasons people list are:
- protecting others including the most vulnerable — ‘I don’t want to cause old people to die’;
- agreeing with the need to maintain a functioning healthcare system — ‘Because if they have to treat me and many others like me, the healthcare system could be overwhelmed and people could die.’
Both of these reasons are based on true insight. If you catch the virus and infect anyone, even a single person, you will have had a major impact on their lives. If you get infected and need treatment, you may contribute to horrible situations like those Italian doctors were forced to face in March 2020 when they literally had to play God by deciding who got to live and die.
This is also the place where the logic common among extreme individualists falls hopelessly on its face. To paraphrase a way of thinking I’ve encountered dozens of times in the past weeks: “If I get sick, then I am going to bear the consequences. If anybody else gets sick, they bear the consequences of their free choice”. But is being infected really the sole responsibility of the person who happens to be on the receiving end? If you infect 50 other people, can you really say they all fell sick due exclusively to their own individual choices? Regardless of how much you like your freedom, putting all the blame on the victim hardly makes a morally defensible viewpoint.
And your impact doesn’t stop at Corona-related things! The uncomfortable truth most of us prefer not to acknowledge is that every choice to make may have an impact on people close to you. When you make your living as a professional fighter and get hurt; drive drunk and get in an accident; or consume sugar daily as a diabetic and have a stroke… you won’t only hurt yourself. Do you have the right to do all of these things and more? Yes. But it’s not only you who will suffer but all those who care about you.
I hope it’s both clear and agreed by this point that if you don’t acknowledge interdependence and the fact that your actions have an impact on others when making decisions, you discard a part of reality.
But that doesn’t fully answer our original question, does it?
After all, it IS your CHOICE whether to care about this or not, right? It is, but there are two more arguments I’d like you to take into account.
3. Thinking of others can be good for you
Humans are social and political animals. We are hardwired to engage in a rich array of relationships as we tread our the emothought-filled trajectory through spacetime. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that research summarized in this post found that people who exhibit a higher degree of compassion tend to have a stronger immune system, live longer, and be happier.
There may be multiple mechanisms behind these benefits. Compassion can be pleasurable in itself by activating certain circuits in your brain. It can also greatly help you not get or remain stuck in your own world and escape ego traps. This is one of the reasons why compassion is a central concept in all forms of Buddhism and perhaps explains why self-absorption has been linked to an ironically impressive bunch of psychological disorders such as “(…) anxiety, (…) many depressive disturbances, to various addictions, to post-traumatic stress disorder, and to most of the personality disorders”.
4. Society couldn’t function if nobody thought of others
In this extreme form, the above statement hardly needs support through argumentation and is corroborated by the millions of examples of cooperation that created the world around you. Moral philosophy has devoted considerable effort toward coming up with individual and societal frameworks to ensure extreme selfishness can’t prevail.
At the same time… you are not everybody so why should YOU care? In fact, in the abstract situations frequently taught in economics classes, such as the tragedy of the commons, the best scenario for you is if everybody EXCEPT you follows the rules. Thus, even this argument won’t have the devastating effect of forcing us to answer our original question with a resounding yes.
Do we have an answer at all, then? Should you think of others when making your choices? Turns out, that in itself is a decision you must make. At the same time, I argue that if you agree with what you’ve just read, you have only two options.
1. Acknowledge your impact on others and decide not to care.
2. Acknowledge your impact on others and decide to care.
In the latter case I hope you do it in a deeply critical manner and ask yourself questions like: ‘Is it true that my main motivation with this action is to help others? Is that what others would say when I can’t hear or is it something I tell myself?
As we saw in my previous article, human motivations and needs are rarely simple or mutually exclusive. In our present case this translates to the fact that you CAN think of, care about, and love yourself AND think of, care about, and love others. Neither comes naturally and both need a lot of practice. It is my sincere hope that you will find this practice useful should you decide to embark on your own treacherous journey to climb those ever-looming twin mountains of wisdom and understanding.