I love the Golden Rule, but I can’t help but feel like it’s just not enough. After all, we’ve had this rule for all of recorded history, yet only recently have abolished slavery. Despite it’s incorporation into every major world religion, we are still waging war on each other.
It’s almost like this rule is falling on def ears. Perhaps it’s time for a change in strategy.
Why is the Golden Rule so hard to follow?
Excellent question. The reason is that this behavior is based in our evolutionary drive to reciprocate altruism, or help others so that when you need help, you can get it. It makes sense to work together to reduce the risk and stresses involved with surviving.
Yet reciprocal altruism as a crucial limit: it only makes sense to help the people you know. Helping people who won’t be there for you is (in an evolutionary sense) wasting resources. That’s why you are most kind to your family, lesser so, but still kind to your friends and co-workers, and even less interested in the many strangers around you. Your brain is at work, guided by selfish genes to prioritize your needs first, and inhibiting you from wasting time and resources on behaviors that don’t aid your survival.
So why DO we help strangers?
This is not a good question. The reality is that we DON’T help strangers. We may give a few bucks, volunteer at a shelter and show compassion for our homeless community members, but there are still vast inequalities in a civilization of vast wealth.
So why DON’T we help strangers?
Better. We don’t help because our animal brains keep telling us that resources are limited and to focus on who you know to maximize the returns for altruistic behavior. Your brain says: help people who you see often, because they are most likely to be around when you need help in return.
Yet this thinking can be over-ridden. Like a child being taught how to share, we learn to control our selfish feelings and reactions. As we shift our focus from our own needs to our community needs, we can tell our brains shut up! I have plenty to share! That’s what millions of people do every day when they donate resources to charities and volunteer their time to improve their communities.
So we DO help strangers?
No. We give to charities that we identify with in some personal sense. We help people who live near us. We may not KNOW the people we help, but we KNOW the people doing the helping. Anyone who has fundraised for a nonprofit knows that personal connections with donors are necessary for sustainability. People are generous to people they know, which is why every nonprofit wants to be your friend.
So we DO help strangers, in a round-about sense?
No. Our nonprofits are completely overwhelmed by the needs in our communities. They are desperate to find many many more people who care about them. There are huge needs in our communities, and many millions of people suffering.
There’s no rational reason for this: we have plenty to share. In America, the average net worth of an adult is $300,000. That’s a lot of money. Now you’re probably thinking “that’s just because of the super wealthy” and you’re right. Can you imagine how successful our nonprofits would be if they got more than the 2% of household income they receive in donations annually?
So how do we solve the problem?
Yes, now we’re getting somewhere. The problem is that our brains are wired to limit altruism to the people we know. Thus, the solution is to expand the circle of people we know.
When we learn that sexual preferences are mostly genetic, and that they represent a vibrant ecosystem of gender and sexuality, LGBT identified people become a part of our circle.
When we learn that some people are born in countries that treat them horribly, immigrants became a part of our circle.
When we learn that stressful childhoods can cause damage that is difficult to repair, criminals become a part of our circle.
We are getting to know each other, and that widening of our circle of altruism is resulting in a more fair, more safe community for us all.
We may have a ways to go, but our progress justifies optimism for peace. The Golden Rule reminds us to be kind, but it doesn’t help us understand WHY we need to be reminded.
So here’s a new rule, something that will remind you to help others, AND remind you WHY we need to be reminded in the first place:
Golden Rule 2.0:
Learn about others as you would have them learn about you.
Because in the end, this is how we’ve been making progress, by getting to know each other. It’s all about relationships. Once you have gotten to know someone who was once a stranger, you can then kick back and allow your evolution-crafted altruistic behaviors to kick in. And boy, does it feel great to help others!
Learning about what life is like for others is important. When we apply our curiosity to others, we learn more about what it means to be human. We’re social animals. We’re unique individuals with different experiences. And ultimately, we all have the same mission: to live long, happy, healthy lives.