This is an extremely interesting video from the Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell YouTube channel all about egoistic altruism and the selfish argument for making the world a better place.
Altruism is a pretty contentious topic at the moment, what with all the charity sexual exploitation scandals and allegations of misuse of power, and the topic is well worth a bit of reflection.
Here’s a roundup of what I think the video did well, and what I think it might have addressed further.
First off, where I think it may have missed the mark is in its implication that altruism is not egoistic to begin with. In fact, altruism has no need of the “egoistic” modifier – all altruism is at least partially egoistic in the sense that giving makes us feel good, and can be a driving force in even specifically altruistic action. For instance, there is growing evidence that so-called “volunteer tourism” is ineffective, and does far more good to the affluent volunteer than it does to the people these volunteers are meant to be helping in the first place. In other words, there is always going to be a selfish element to altruism, whatever form it takes.
That aside, however, I think that the video makes an extremely interesting case in arguing that it is in the common good to free as many people as possible from poverty and the lack of opportunity that arises from a lack of education and a lack of economic freedom. As a keen player of the Civilization strategy game in my down time, this makes instinctive sense…in the game, you want all your cities to be maximized for scientific, production, and economic output and, in the same way, it makes no sense to have a world in which there are whole continents contributing so little to our overall progress.
As the video points out, however, there is a dual concern here: of course there need to be people capable of paying for goods and services, but equally, there also need to be people capable of innovating and creating those solutions in the first place.
My concern here is that even prosperous and developed societies are far better at converting people into consumers than they are at converting people into creators and innovators. With the exception of an educated and moneyed elite, this leaves the majority of people with the same immediate concerns for subsistence and survival that they’ve always had, whether they were farmers or, as the case might now be, shop workers, call center operators, and bank clerks.
The Kurzgesagt video makes a lot of wasted human potential, and I think we could be doing a lot more to ensure that every individual in our own society, as well as others, has the equality of opportunity to explore their talents and realise their full potential. Again, we could only profit from giving people the space and freedom they need to pursue whatever it is they have to share with the world.
It may be a far-off prospect but, as today’s video reminds us, there’s always a benefit to making life better for others.
I’d be curious to hear your take on the issue in the comments below!