Archive for August 8, 2013

How Pleasing Others Progressively Lost its Value

August 8, 2013 20 comments

More than a few of my previous posts have explored the idea that “real life” relationships and friendships have now become useless or net negatives. I should also add that relationships at work, where an increasing number of people hang out to escape from their family and friends, are even more dysfunctional. This lack of functional and trustworthy relationships in all spheres of life is probably the major reason why people in ALL developed countries are clockwork oranges, though it is more plainly obvious in some countries (USA, Canada) than others (Germany, Japan).

But this post is not about how bad things are right now or will become in the near future. Instead, it will focus on how the current state of affairs became the norm.

Most popular theories of alienation revolve around the primary and secondary effects of money, capitalism, industrialization, post-industrialization or scientific progress on human society. In my opinion, the real cause of alienation runs much deeper than socio-economic developments in the last two centuries. Having said that, many aspects of ‘modern civilization’ have certainly made things worse. But what is this underlying problem I keep referring to? Why is it so hard, and perhaps impossible, to fix? And does it have any impact on what humans can evolve into or whether they have a future?

In it most basic form, the underlying problem is a fundamental contradiction that occurs in any group of self-aware biological individuals and can be summarized as-

Individual success in any group requires the individual to cheat, exploit, abuse and impoverish other members in that group. However the individual also simultaneously requires the trust, faith and active cooperation of those other members to survive and succeed. Conversely the group always benefits by exploiting its most vulnerable and naive members. However it also requires the trust, faith and active cooperation of those very same members to keep the gravy train rolling.

This fundamental contradiction is not a serious problem in primates and was largely a non-issue for humans as long as they lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers. In those settings, immediate feedback from the group and individuals prevented both from becoming especially abusive. Sure.. somebody could still become big chief, have more fancy headgear and a few more hoes. But there were real limits to what an individual could get away with in such groups. On the other side of this equation, the group itself could not neglect and abuse its most naive members as that was the quickest way to lose willing members.

The emergence of ‘civilization’ and therefore much larger groups disrupted the old pseudo-equilibrium by making it easier for the weaseliest individuals to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions. This is not to say that all consequences for bad behavior disappeared and a significant minority of lords, rulers, kings and emperors did not die of natural causes. The lack of technology also limited long-term damage of such one-sided excesses and the high-fertility rates prevalent in those eras helped repair any serious damage to the system.

This new pseudo-equilibrium kept on playing itself, over and over again, for the next few thousand years. People kept on fighting largely useless wars, new prophets routinely offered alternate pathways to “salvation”, empires rose and fell, people kept on building palaces for evil and dead people, famine and epidemics killed large percentages of the population etc. But nothing really changed and the average person was as poor, miserable and insecure at the beginning of the classical civilization model (~ 3000 BC?) as towards its end (1800 AD?). To put it another way..

Most of recorded history is a glamorized account of jumping from one garbage pile into another.

But what does any of this have to do with why pleasing other people progressively lost its value? How does the course of ‘civilization’ reduce the value and utility of interpersonal relationships. And why does industrialization and its sequelae speed up that transition? To answer this question let us look at how living in increasingly larger societies transforms the nature, direction and utility of the ‘individual-group’ dynamic for the median person. But before we go there, let me ask you a related question.

Is human behavior mostly driven by what people truly believe in or what they can get away with?

If you look around with an objective mind, it is clear that most human behavior is driven by what people can get away with. The majority of people do not possess independent core beliefs strong enough to influence their actions. They just make up or copy the lies, delusions and justifications necessary to push on with their mindless agendas. Most people, including the so-called clever ‘high IQ”ones, are really no better than monkeys, dogs or viruses.

Which brings us to the real reason humans want to please other humans. It is about really about trying to ensure reciprocity. The core idea is that if you are nice to other people, a significant percentage of them might be nice to you or at least not become your adversaries. This strategy works very well in small to medium-sized communities where people know each other over long periods of time. But it also requires most important decisions to be made at the level of that community. Any serious break in the feedback cycle which allows weasels to slip away or non-local entities having a big say in important local decisions undermines the integrity of the system and that is why ‘civilization’ was the original cause of alienation.

But pre-industrial era civilizations were quite provincial. It was still pretty hard to pull of very large scams and escape to another continent or shield yourself with lawyers and contracts. Moreover the basic family, extended family and community networks were reasonably strong if somewhat frayed. Those networks gradually changed over the course of the industrial revolution and society became increasingly atomized, impersonal and dependent on relatively autonomous institutions.

Now there is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of these changes at the theoretical level. Their real life implementation is however rather problematic and destabilizing. For one, they require you to make the assumption that almost all people are basically decent and thoughtful human beings. As I said at near the beginning of this post, external and systemic constraints are the most reliable check on the opportunistic and myopic tendencies of humans- both as individuals and groups. Removing those constraints allows the most greedy, deceptive and murderous individuals to succeed and shape the institutions of that particular society.The success of the worst also encourages imitators and fence-sitters to jump in the fray thereby speeding the race to the bottom. Note that all of this occurs without any of traditional safety nets and feedback loops that characterized previous eras. This is the stage where a society tries to compensate for the loss in social cohesion by passing an every increasing number of laws, rules and regulations. It also tries to create new communal identities centered around flags, movies and sport teams.

In the end, almost nobody can trust anyone else. Even parents and children see each other as adversaries to be conned, exploited and scammed for the most trivial of gains. People start assigning precise monetary values to every basic human interaction and need. Almost everybody is willing to back stab their friends for the equivalent of a 20$ bill. Yet almost every member of such unstable and fragile societies try very hard to appear polite, decent and honest. They are almost obsessed with portraying themselves as civic-minded, law-abiding and thoughtful. It ultimately degenerates into a competition where people try to make and model the most ‘realistic’ mask of normality to cover the ugly reality beneath the mask.

You can either join in this mask making competition or you can admit the unpleasant reality to yourself. The first choice is easy because it is socially acceptable. The second requires you to be fairly misanthropic. Then again, what is the point of pleasing systemically dishonest people who do not care, or have any stake, in your well-being?

What do you think? Comments?