Thursday, April 21, 2016

The unit of mattering

Most of us think of ourselves as individuals.  After all, only individual humans have consciousness, per se -- groups of humans and parts of humans don't.  But as I've written before, we are organized in levels of complexity, and so groups of humans also exist.  In many ways they behave like sentient creatures, even though strictly speaking they are not.

The thing is, even though consciousness is always at the level of the individual, there's no requirement for this to be the level that matters most to us.  As an example, take ants.  Ants are individual animals, but their individual existence is not important to them.  The colony is what matters, and individual ants will suicide for the good of the nest without hesitation if they are injured.  So for ants, you could say that the "unit of mattering" -- the level of organization which the ant considers important -- is the colony.

But humans are not ants.  We are creatures of conflicting impulses.  We have selfish desires, where we value ourselves as individuals more highly than others; and we also have altruistic desires, where we wish to sacrifice for other individuals.  But it seems that this is still a very individualistic way of thinking of it -- natural in a modern American like myself, but perhaps not universal among humans.  It seems that plenty of people, whether consciously or not, put their main "unit of mattering" on a group level.  That is, they care more about their nation, tribe, religion, or family than they do about any individual within that group.

I would readily die for my family or possibly for my nation; but if I did so, it would be entirely because I cared about the individuals within these groups.  The existence of the group itself is not all that important to me.  I think I would prefer that my country cease to exist, for it to be taken over by Canada and its culture erased, than for a citizen of my country to die.  I care about individuals.  I don't care about groups very much.

But I'm unusually un-groupish, probably due to my history.  Even plenty of Americans, individualists though we tend to be, have stronger group loyalty than this.  They think it's okay for individuals in their groups to suffer at least a little bit, provided the group itself remain.  The more strongly they feel tied to their groups, the more they're going to do this.  For instance, the Deaf community is very tight-knit, and within it there's a lot of objection to curing deafness.  Sure, the lives of all the individuals within the group would be improved by being able to hear, but the group itself would die.  They don't want that, because they love their community.

And this isn't against the good of individuals, necessarily.  People like having groups, so when you have a good group where you feel at home, you would go through a lot of inconvenience to stay connected to it.  The group enriches your life.

But I think a big part of it is more instinctive.  The unit of evolutionary survival in humans isn't generally the individual, it's the group.  That's why so many things have been passed on that aren't individually beneficial -- from self-sacrifice to asexuality.  So, while our consciousness is individual, the life-form that's fought its way through the ages to survive against all competitors is not the individual human, but the human group.  You could call it a parasite in the minds of humans that forces us to serve its needs instead of our own.  (The cult survivor in me would like you to consider that possibility.)  Or you could say that it's a higher level of organization, like a body of which we are the cells, and since it's more advanced than us, it deserves our service.  But I think the best way to describe it is symbiosis.  We serve the group, and in return, it's there for us when we need it.

This ties in to the Two Boxes post -- I feel that Box Two, the liberal box, is full of things which promote happiness for individuals, while Box One, the conservative box, is full of things which are more geared toward groups.  I'm still thinking that possibility over and am curious what you think about this.  Certainly a liberal view of self-sacrifice is about helping individuals, including all humanity rather than people similar to oneself; while a conservative view is that one should sacrifice oneself for one's group.  I mean, take that famous poem, "Horatius at the Bridge":

"And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods?"

Notice he doesn't say "for my friends and family," or "in order that humans everywhere should be better off."  What he dies for is Rome.  Rome, to Horatius, isn't a collection of people, it's an entity of itself, which he loves.  He loves it for a lot of reasons, I suppose -- love of a culture is a complicated thing -- but one of those reasons is because Rome has kept him safe up to this point.  It's a mutual relationship; he defends it and it defends him.  It is hard for a human being to actively care for thousands of people at once, so we care for a group which we think of as a single living thing -- symbolized by concrete things like temples.

And there's another advantage in putting one's "unit of mattering" in groups: it helps us cope with the inevitability of our own death.  When we worry that we'll die someday, and then what's the point of anything we've done, we can remind ourselves that we are part of something larger -- that after we die, our religion or nation or culture will continue.  So if we put our efforts toward the group rather than ourselves, we have the consolation that none of that effort will be wasted.

What do you think?  Do you care more for individuals or groups?  Is there a specific group you are in (nation, religion, class, club) which you feel identifies you most completely, which you would sacrifice for?


Belfry Bat said...

Well, I don't know why, but I seem mostly to feel as you do, that individuals (human individuals, mostly) are the ultimate earthly subject of political and moral questions. I also think it, for exactly the reasons of where consciousness operates, which you list here, but I don't know why it's also my sentiment.

I do think, though, that cultures can be good or bad at serving the individuals that inhabit them, so in that sense defending [what used to be] Canadian Culture is also (or would have been... trying to mend it now, I guess) a service to those individuals I'll never know in this world. But, yes, it feels rather abstract.

... I do have one story of doing a stupid thing that might (in equally-probable circumstances) actually have got me killed, for the sake of two people I'd never met, but... write me if you want to know. But I don't feel particularly courageous, either, and can't imagine (say) joining the Army. One can be put in the way of violence even without the Army, though... so, no way to know before it's done, I guess.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, if "people who care about individuals more" and "people who care about groups more" are the only two "signs" one can be in this theoretical zodiac, I'm clearly a groups person. =P But the only group I would die for (sorry, not sorry, Patria mea) exists for the good of its individuals. I don't see any contradiction between supporting it and supporting those individuals . . . or between hurting it and hurting those individuals.

I'm now reminded of something I read many, many years ago about group dynamics. In A Different Drum, the psychiatrist Scott Peck (author of The Road Less Traveled, if that helps) said that whenever there is someone in a group who holds an unpopular opinion that no one else in the group seems to share, the reality is that everyone else in the group thinks it, too, but the individual is getting to be the voice of that opinion. This is true even if the opinion is so unpopular that the rest of the group wants to expel him.

Now that I think about it, I think you'd really, really like A Different Drum! (And maybe even The Road Less Traveled.) I have a feeling that Dr. Peck's own mental model of different groups will echo your experiences with RC, with your in-laws, and even with Bat and me on your blog!

James said...

I'm pretty much for individuals as the unit of mattering.

That's a nice phrase, though--I've often tried to think of something that captured the idea of "I don't care about X does unless X does something to some individual who experiences it as positive or negative," and saying "The individual is the unit of mattering" seems rather nice.

Sheila said...

I think most Americans (and probably Canadians) will come down on that side of things. But I still find something admirable about people who sacrifice for their groups. A couple of weeks ago I watched Death Comes to Pemberley, in which Georgiana Darcy is going to marry someone she doesn't love. It's her own choice, and she defends it by saying something like, "My family is bigger than me, many have sacrificed to keep it going, and I too will have to sacrifice to hand it on to those who come after me." It's the polar opposite of Lizzie Bennett's choice to refuse a marriage that would have given her family security. Most modern Americans would never marry someone they didn't like to keep the family together, but I still find it an admirable thing to do on some level.

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