Thursday, January 29, 2009

Why People Matter

Recently I made a comment in an e-mail note expressing my concern about how people are treated. My correspondent responded with some interesting questions:

Why would it matter how people are treated in a universe without God?
Why should we help other human beings at all if there is no God?

I think the key question underlying both of these is, “Why do you care?”

I can think of three reasons why it matters to me how other people are treated: it is part of human nature, my training reinforced it, and my own self-interest requires it.


My concern for other people is natural—instinctive.

Like all other humans, I am a social animal. I am by nature inclined to enjoy the companionship and society of other people. There is a wide spectrum of extroversion and introversion, and I'm very much an introvert, but I still have a very strong desire to have close relationships, and I even enjoy meeting new people.

As a part of my innate sociability, my emotions resonate with those of other people. I care about how they feel, because I experience some of what they feel. Knowing how various situations affect me, I experience empathy with people who are in similar circumstances. I sympathize with people who are suffering.

Only sociopathic people lack empathy. It is a part of mental health, unrelated to religion or lack of religion. Mothers love their children and everyone cares about their friends, regardless of their worldview or the kind of gods they worship. Many psychologists have studied caring relationships, and some intriguing studies have found that a number of primate species demonstrate compassion, indicating that the capacity for empathy evolved even before our species did.

The fact that empathy is natural doesn't imply that people will never mistreat each other. Anger and the desire for revenge are emotions as natural as love and compassion. People who harm others often regret doing so, however, because mistreating other people is contrary to the kinder aspects of our nature.

Why does it matter how other people are treated? Because we relate to other people and share their emotions. Why should we help other people? Because we know how it feels to receive help when we need it.


I was trained to care.

I grew up in a family that valued compassion. Before I was born, my parents chose to serve as houseparents in a home for orphans. Seeing the needs of the children they cared for, my father made a career in social work, in the field of child welfare.

I absorbed the concern for others that my parents taught and demonstrated. I took seriously the teaching of the Bible and my church that love for others—even enemies—is the greatest virtue. My family, my friends, my teachers, and the books I read all reinforced my innate tendency to care about other people.


I know that it benefits me to love other people.

As a Christian, I often heard teachers say that we love because God loved us first. With a long background of teachings like that, I was a little surprised to discover how much I still loved and cared for people when I found myself no longer believing in God.

As I pondered this discovery, I realized not only that my concern for others is natural, but that it benefits me in many ways. I depend on other people for most of my needs. I don't think I would survive for very long if there were no other people around—nor would I enjoy surviving alone. I am not an island—either physically or emotionally.

Because of my dependence on other people and my friendships with them, I care about their welfare. I want their lives to be secure and enjoyable, and I want to contribute to their happiness. I want to treat them in the ways I want to be treated.

I want everyone to be treated well—not just my friends and family. People who are treated badly behave badly. When people suffer extreme injustice, they grow desperate for revenge. In their anger, they often strike out at anyone and everyone, with little regard for whether or not their victims are actually responsible for their suffering. If everyone were happy, no one would be a terrorist.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama said,
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion; if you want to be happy, practice compassion.
I agree.

Influence of religion

I have heard people suggest that former Christians care for other people primarily because of their religious background. Although I don't deny that I was influenced by my training, the idea that it is responsible for my humanitarian values is not supported by my observations.

First, I found that some of my values changed dramatically when I left religion, while others remained very much the same. This indicates to me that I'm not merely a product of my upbringing or my religious traditions.

Second, my Christian teachers and role models taught me to love everyone, but I find that the strength of my passion for the welfare of other people varies, depending on the level of my relationship with those people. The people I know the best and spend the most time with—my family and friends—are the ones I love the most. As I observe my reactions to news stories and e-mails, I see that I tend to care more about acquaintances and even strangers I encounter than I do about people I have no direct contact with at all. I care more about Americans than I do about Asians.

This spectrum of concern is not what my religious teachers promoted, but is consistent with the idea that empathy evolved as a result of the benefits of empathetic behavior. Caring for one's own family and tribe is likely to have been much more beneficial than caring for strangers who had different languages and customs.

I see plenty of evidence that other people, religious or not, share this pattern of caring for others.

What matters most

Nature, nurture, and self-interest all factor into my concern for other people. Those explanations of my motivation for that concern may not be the whole story, but the completeness of my understanding isn't essential to the truth of my feelings. In the end, it doesn't really matter much why I care about other people. I do care, and that's what matters.