Thinking Christian

Thinking Christianity for church, home, and community

Compassion Series Part 2

Posted on Nov 20, 2012 by Tom Gilson

Christianity is first of all about God our Creator and King; and about Christ’s work reconciling us, whom he had created in his image but who rejected him, back to a full and right relationship with him and with all of his works. Everything else flows out of that, including the explanation for who does good and why.

Everyone exercises compassion. Why? What motivates interpersonal compassion? What is its purpose? Where does altruism fit in to the human picture? Why are some more compassionate than others? Has any one group demonstrated compassion more consistently than others? If so, why have they been leaders in that way, and why isn’t it more blazingly obvious that they have been? Why does everybody–and every group–fail in caring for others?

Altruism is a puzzle for evolution, which on the face of it really should support the survival of the fittest and its corollary, the perishing of the least fit. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century sought to speed that perishing along. Germany under Hitler took that to extremes. Researchers have developed elaborate—and still controversial—mathematical models for altruism, generally following the idea that the behavior of helping the weak tends to strengthen a population’s overall fitness for survival.

There’s something lacking there, however. I sense it when I compare that explanation to my own experience. It’s not that it’s totally off base, at least not on the surface, for it’s perfectly in tune with, “When you help the needy you help us all,” which is undoubtedly true. Yet it has a mechanical tinge to it, that doesn’t fit well with my experience.

Look at it this way: if naturalistic (unguided) evolution is the true explanation for how we got here, then it is the total and complete explanation. Whatever evolution cannot cause cannot happen, in the realm of biology. And evolution is a mechanical process, not a moral or even a mental one. So if there are moral or mental aspects to altruism, they are side products of the mechanical process by which chance and natural selection brought us to be. Altruism really is a behavior whose function is to cause the population to reproduce more successfully.

Of course it seems like something more than that, and even sometimes something altogether different than that. When I do good, my experience seems to be not just behavioral but also on the mental and moral. I make decisions, I assess their goodness, I experience moral satisfaction if I do good. I can assess the goodness of others’ behaviors. Never does it come to mind that this is a process of calculating a given behavior’s conformity to patterns that will enhance our population’s reproductive fitness.

But if naturalistic evolution is true, then that’s exactly what’s going on inside when we decide to do good, or when we assess others’ actions: we’re comparing that behavior to what works reproductively for our population. Evolution is of course very powerful, and it has fitted us with automatic mechanisms (heuristics, habits, subconscious processes generally) that allow that calculation to reside deep in the background of our minds, so we don’t realize that’s what’s going on.

It has also supplied us with more conveniently accessible alternative categories with which to describe such things. We do not call it “the behavioral pattern-set that has led to our population’s historic success in making babies that make babies,” even though that’s exactly what it is. In

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