Altruism in an Uncaring Universe, and The Good Place

The last episode of Season 2 of The Good Place had a fantastic message buried inside of it.

Nobody is truly altruistic in the dictionary definition of the word. (But that's okay - we're only human, so we make human decisions).

Altruism does not exist in a vacuum. A good person doing kind acts will only perform those acts for so long before they stop doing them, if you kick them in the face every time they do them. Because they're good, not stupid.

More subtly, a good person in a truly brutal and uncaring universe will only keep doing selfless acts for so long, before they lose the ability to keep doing them. Because we get a fuzzy feeling of awesome from doing good things for other people - which is a reward. It's an old reward, one baked into our genetic code (and into the code of most mammals to a degree, but turned up in primates). It's the concept of /fairness/.

A highly altruistic person operates on this principle: I'll do good things for you out of the goodness of my heart, because it's the right thing to do. In return, my brain rewards me with a sense of being a good person, who helps others.

In an uncaring universe, that contract - a social contract between people with similar firmware - is broken. (This also happens in large cities, where people are stressed). The rewards are spotty if they come at all.

Without the reward, people get tired of it, and eventually stop - or turn against the behavior. The strategy isn't working, and has been proven not to work, and most people won't keep doing the same thing over and over again if there's pain involved - or if actions aren't reciprocated.

What does this tell us?

Thank people when they help you, or they won't help you.
Don't lash out at people for sincerely trying to help you - or they won't help you.

Our world is a pretty bleak place right now. Don't squash the helpful butterflies. They're part of the grease that keeps the machinery going forwards without grinding. Be polite. Treat each other well.

A lot of our world works because people are altruistic. If our world becomes entirely transactional - I'll do something if you do something tangible for me - it'll turn into a remarkably hollow, sad, and lonely place, partly because transactional relationships lead to attempts to game the system, or tilt the playing field in your favor. Right now we've got an altruism deficit, and that deficit is growing. So don't be that person.

(And I'll try not to be that person too, and we'll get along swimmingly).

About the author

Simon Cooke is an occasional video game developer, ex-freelance journalist, screenwriter, film-maker, musician, and software engineer in Seattle, WA.

The views posted on this blog are his and his alone, and have no relation to anything he's working on, his employer, or anything else and are not an official statement of any kind by them (and barely even one by him most of the time).

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