Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One Heart

Last week I went to a lecture at the LSE by Professor Conor Gearty, the former director of the school's Centre for the Study of Human Rights. The lecture was titled, "Human Rights after Darwin: is a general theory of human rights now possible?" Professor Gearty looked for the reasons of why we emphatize with and care for others in evolutionary psychology. He said caring for others' feelings and cooperative behaviour might have developed because these attitudes created the highest chances of survival and reproductive success. This could also explain how moral values, laws, religion, philosophy and literature came about. Moreover, these feelings were eventually divorced from the direct gains we could expect from performing them. The only utility we gained from caring for someone could be the pleasure of seeing their well-being (and our contribution to it). As a natural extension of this logic, we could emphatize with and care about people whom we don't know at all, and who will never return our favour. (Except maybe by karma points in this world or another.)

Professor Gearty, however, was quick to accept that caring for our kin and community took precedence over caring for strangers. If we perceive the interests of our kin and those of strangers to be in conflict, we would inevitably take sides with our kin. It seems to me that most of us have an inalienable need to care and feel and contribute to others' well-being. It is required for our happiness and fulfillment. It is a well of moral energy that needs to be used up, that needs to be channelled. However, the most essential requirements for survival are our first priority. Then comes the well-being of our family and friends. If all is well, and if we still have the time and energy and courage to notice (because choosing to look over misery is nothing but an excuse for inaction, laziness), then we start genuinely emphatizing with people we don't know about, and do something to change something for them. (Even then, I would be more likely to feel strongly about the problems in Turkey than those in another country.)

This is true on the level of individuals, people and governments. If we feel our survival and well-being to be threatened by others, their feelings and well-being will never matter to us. That's why the unjustified fear and paranoia created by indoctrination, history and received opinions can be so dangerous.

But can we really emphatize, can we really understand how others feel? Can we assume that just because our nature obliges us to care, there is a true and universal understanding of wellness and happiness? Does the urge to move forward mean that we are all moving towards a single point? Do we know where we are going, where we should be going?

Here the question of cultural relativism vs. universalism comes into stage. Can we really understand the struggle for survival and suffering when we have never struggled, suffered? Can we know the good and the best for others? Do they want for themselves what we want for them?

I believe in universal rights that stem simply from the dignity of being human. Everybody deserves them, even when they don't know it or when they are too pre-occupied with barely surviving to fight for it. What matters, however, is how we go about reaching these common goals. It is very important to understand people's values, their first and foremost needs and priorities, the context. And this takes hard work and we may be frustrated. The definition of good may be universal, but the definition of improvement differs from one community to the other. One community may need clean water, another may be trapped in violent conflict, and another might be fighting for political rights and freedom of expression. It is very important to attend to the reality of the local situation if we genuinely have people's well-being (and not our high ideals) at heart. Realism is better than idealism.

Once I thought that I had two hearts and they excluded each other. I wasn't happy with either of them. But now I realize they are knitted to each other with tiny strings, veins and arteries, they are in fact one. They feed each other constantly and grow from one another. If one were to shrink, the other would suffer, too.

There's no better way than being loved and believed in for what one is to gratify one's self. That little core in me shines, throbs with joy, expands. On the other hand, loving and caring is essential to happiness (for reasons I explained above), and it can be quite a selfish business. Sometimes I want to tell people (and my little calculating, doubting brain) - just let me be naive and stupid and care for something, even when I won't get anything in return, because I need to feel! I think sometimes we feel bitter when our love is not returned, not just because we are not loved back, and our ego suffers, but because we are denied the possibility to love, to make someone happy. It is so difficult having to do nothing when you want to do lots.

And when you expect lots in return, doing lots is selfish. Loving without expecting constant gratification in return is only possible when you are at peace with yourself.

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