Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Thin Layer

Instead of waiting behind the other 50 people in line at a highway off-ramp, a motorist passes everyone and cuts into the line right at the exit.   

During the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew a guy hawks bottles of water at $50 each on the streets of South Florida.

At a supermarket checkout, a new line is opened.  The last person on the next line walks over and becomes first on the newly opened line, despite the fact that others were in line longer and would, in all fairness, be entitled to a spot before him on the newly opened line.

An app developer comes up with a name for his iOS app similar enough to that of a highly successful app that hapless users will purchase and download his app thinking it’s the highly successful one, and once they realize it’s not will not bother to do anything about it and will instead simply write off the lost $1.99.

A parent enrolls his daughter in an expensive test preparation course for her upcoming SATs, knowing that many of the other college applicants she will be competing against cannot afford those courses and his daughter will therefore have an unfair advantage.  

Where is the line that separates “smart”, “resourceful” and “skillful” from “greedy”, “despicable” and “scummy”?  Exactly when does a shrewd operator become an asshole?

As I wrote some time ago, capitalism works and communism doesn’t because we humans are a greedy, selfish lot.   However, during our lives we are presented with mixed signals and confusing messages.  As children we are taught that sharing is good, yet in business school we are taught how to amass as much as we can at the expense of our competitors.  We are expected to help the less fortunate, but are considered more successful the more we have.   We live in an absurdly unfair world, where undeserving people have much more than they could ever need while deserving people are starving, simply because they happened to be born to a different circumstance.  So we give the homeless guy at the stoplight a dollar, and then meet with our accountant to see what we can do to lower our tax bill.

How responsible are we, if at all, for the welfare of others?  Are we only responsible for ourselves?  Ourselves and our immediate families?  Extended families?  Neighbors?  Friends? Fellow citizens?  Do those that have have an obligation to give back?  Or do human beings simply live in a “dog eat dog” world, just like all the other species on the planet, but unlike them have ridiculous delusions of incorporating a “morality” layer that mitigates our innate survival instincts?

Human behavior, unlike that of other species, varies widely when it comes to our respect for our fellow men and women.  Some people manage to get through their whole lives without infringing on the rights of others, while others dedicate their entire lives to benefiting at others’ expense.  Some people patiently wait in line, while others cut in.  Many dedicate large parts of their lives, or their entire lives in some cases, to helping others they perceive to be less fortunate than themselves, while others spend their lives scheming to find ways to deprive others of their fortunes.  Most of us lie somewhere in between.

We seem to be the only life forms on the planet with that thin layer of consciousness right above the survival instinct, sort of like the skin that forms on the surface of heated milk.  The skin is so insubstantial that most humans require some sort of perceived selfish incentive to follow the skin (consciousness), and not the body of milk below (instinct) when making decisions.  But, as thin as the layer is, it does exist.  And it does not exist in the animals that we evolved from.  Does this mean that, as natural selection and evolution continue inexorably, the layer will gradually thicken and become more prevalent?  Will the species that evolve from us no longer require selfish incentives to do the right thing?  Why do we even have that layer to begin with?  Why did natural selection result in a being with consciousness?  

One sensible answer is that the consciousness mutation resulted in a being more fit to survive.  So it would follow that a being with a higher degree of consciousness would be even more fit to survive.  So it would further follow that the species that evolve from homo sapiens will no longer be bound by greed and selfishness.  Our progeny will not require absurd constructions like religions to do the right thing.  Police forces and armies will be looked back on as relics of a bygone era.

Before we go too far into Pollyanna territory, we must consider another possibility, sadly perhaps more likely given the current state of affairs.  The greed and selfishness will overcome the layer of consciousness, and we will self-destruct, becoming simply another in a long line of failed species.   In that case, maybe a few million years from now a layer of consciousness will mutate into a progeny of today’s shark, or cockroach.  And maybe that species will be better equipped to withstand its growing pains than the long-gone homo sapiens.