15 October 2023

Beyond Selfishness and Altruism: Evolution, Empathy, and Systemic Sustainability

Ben Goertzel on good and evil: 

"It's a complicated and somewhat silly distinction. Human beings under evolution have been shaped by two objective functions: Individual selection and group selection. The tension between selfishness and altruism. A lot of what we view as evil is selfishness -Individual interest. A lot of what we view as good is altruism -acting in the interests of the collective. We are a mix.

But culture has a lot of flexibility in what it teaches as the default position between the two. And we have a lot of room to move to more altruism."
[end quote] 

Expanding on Ben Goertzel's delineation between good and evil through the prism of individual and group selection, there's an additional evolutionary dimension worth considering: the long-term viability of groups in relation to their external environment and other groups. This involves another kind of selection - one based on a group's ability to extend its empathic boundaries and sustain harmonious coexistence with out-groups and the environment.

This "meta-selection" isn't just about immediate survival or dominance but encompasses a group's adaptive strategies for long-term sustainability and coexistence. It's about how a group defines its circle of empathy and the consequent impact on its cooperative and competitive strategies. Groups that practice wider empathy are not just being altruistic; they're investing in a robust strategy for long-term survival. They contribute to a social and ecological equilibrium, enhancing not just their own resilience, but the resilience of a larger interconnected system. 

This perspective also casts a new light on the concepts of good and evil. Actions and policies that foster broad cooperation and empathy, even beyond immediate in-group interests, contribute to the collective good—not just of one's own group, but of the larger ecosystem of groups and the environment.

Conversely, short-sighted strategies, those prioritizing immediate in-group benefits at the severe expense of others and the environment, can be viewed as contributing to a collective evil. They may offer immediate gains but compromise the long-term resilience and sustainability of the broader system. 

It's crucial to note that in this evolutionary framework, the ultimate "victory" scenario isn't one group out-competing all others to the point of their extinction, then living in isolation, sustainably, with the non-human environment. Such a scenario would actually be detrimental to survival in the long run due to decreased systemic robustness resulting from reduced diversity. 

True optimal success in this framework is a rich tapestry of diverse groups, all practicing extended empathy, cooperating where possible, and coexisting sustainably with each other and the environment. This diversity isn't just a moral ideal; it's a strategic one, vital for the long-term resilience and adaptability of life on Earth.

(uses some help from an artificial friend)