Our sense of community
Jan 26, 2011

Our sense of community

As humans, we innately act to benefit the communities we are part of. However, in an integrated world our communities are now far larger than they ever could be during our evolutionary development. We don't just feel a sense of community for our family and local community, but for groups as large as entire countries, races or religions.

This aim to benefit communities has another side to the coin which is conflict between communities. In zero sum situations, harm to communities outside our own is acceptable if it benefits our own community. Even if the harm is enormously asymmetric. For example, a job loss in our country through outsourcing is lamented even if it creates many jobs elsewhere. A death of our countrymen is seemingly "worth" more than many deaths of people in countries we are fighting, even of their citizens.

The issue is that this messes with the calculus. We don't take actions based on reducing the net harm, we take actions that reduce explicitly the harm of communities we identify with. Sometimes we become so entrenched we even act solely to cause others harm. Tribalism, such as when it comes to issues like religious or ethnic conflict in failed states, is perhaps the largest creator of conflict on our planet. So much of it is needlessly arbitrary and goes far beyond some of the legitimately zero sum issues of economic rivalry that exist.

The position that manages to sidestep all of this is to simply accept as your community the human species. All people, all countries, all religions. This fundamentally humanist perspective moves to eliminate the arbitrary borders we draw between us that cause so much conflict. It retains all that is good about our human instinct to protect our communities that lead to empathy and charity for those who suffer while getting rid of conflict between communities. It allows us to reduce the net total harm in the policies we support.

This idea is distinct from opposing selfishness. Humans have both selfish tendencies aiming to benefit themselves as well as selfless tendencies aiming to benefit the community they are part of, even at their personal detriment. Of course, there is overlap where one can help both at the same time and it is often the case that helping the community is truthfully aimed at helping oneself by extension. However, the communities we now assert ourselves as being members of in modern, interconnected societies are so large - an entire country say - that benefits to oneself do not in any way directly follow from benefiting the community. I don't ask that we stop being selfish - this is an entirely natural motivation - I ask instead that we let our arbitrary notion of community be more inclusive to retain the positive aspects of this human motivation without detriment. The empathy and consideration for one another is latent in our society - opposed as it nonetheless by selfishness - and we can more optimally utilize this motivation with the broader perspective. 

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