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  • Jerry Schuitema

Survival and empathy.

Where does business fit in our natural human instincts?

It must be one of the most intriguing questions that have faced humanity over the ages – what is the nature of humankind? Until we really get to understand ourselves, can we hope to understand all of the social, political, and economic constructs that we have created as a species and which ultimately are all informed by the answer?

In economics and business especially, it is important to have some sense of our basic nature and what drives behaviour. This in turn helps us to understand the very character of social interaction, transaction, purpose, and motives that account for the way things are, the way they should be, and the path of our destiny.

It is much more than an exercise in philosophical semantics. It could be one of the most important insights of all, because it is inconceivable that we could construct an order for our species that is in conflict with or deviates far from those basic attributes that make us human. Ultimately you can distil any debate or argument about anything to that essence –economic systems, political constructs, laws, and many more all end up in an assumption about the why; an assumption that many are ready to make simply because we have ourselves as reference and think we know who, what and why we are, and therefore also understand what others are or should be.

It’s a question that has occupied great minds over millennia: prophets, philosophers, psychologists, scientists, humanists and virtually every branch in the pursuit of knowledge. Ultimately, it seems, to understand ourselves most of us fall back onto basic instincts to explain all behaviour and if you ask anyone to name these instincts you will seldom find any beyond that of survival.

That makes a lot of sense. Because from that one instinct we can link or extrapolate most if not all of our activity: including other instincts such as sex and procreation; reflexes such as fright and flight; emotions such as fear, anger and insecurity; physiological responses such as adrenalin and serotonin; and behaviour such as ambition, competiveness and control.

It’s only a small leap from there to make the same link for misbehaviours such as raw material self-interest, greed, envy, resentment, and acquisitiveness. At its core this encourages our understanding and facile acceptance of these behaviours as being part of “human nature” stopping short in condemnation and abhorrence only when these acts lead to outright crimes such as fraud, theft, or even robbery and murder. Then they become “anti-social” implying that they are not fitting for an evolved, civilised and enlightened being. In turn this implies that being part of a social construct is inherently in conflict with our natural individual selves.

But even a casual understanding of our basic selves will rebel at this narrow definition. It is obvious to all of us that we are social creatures, drawn to each other by nature, not evolvement or enlightenment and that we have another equally powerful instinct called empathy.

This instinct in humans is so powerful that it often overrides that of survival. I was reminded of this again by this video clip showing the extent to which people virtually routinely can place themselves at risk in saving another. I have argued previously that our basic instinct of empathy accounts for our majesty on earth, the most powerful of all creatures and custodians of the planet.

What deserves repeating is that evidence of this instinct can be found in our reflexive response to come to the aid of another in trouble; the fact that evidence has been uncovered of this instinct that accounted for the survival of a human-like creature more than 200 000 years ago, and that scientists have identified the presence of mirror neurons in humans that far outnumber those found in other living creatures. More recently, scientists have determined that there is an area of the human brain (the anterior insular cortex) that accounts for empathy. Of course, as with any physical feature, these can differ from person to person and accounts for excessive empathetic behaviour in some, psychopathy in others, and many variations in between.

Where have we placed business and our economic behaviour? It is a trite cop-out to argue that it is both. Ultimately one will override the other either routinely or in a certain circumstance. It can be argued that we have placed business virtually exclusively in the survival context. It’s a natural thing to do because survival has always been seen as the basic motive behind behaviours such as storing, hoarding, acquisition and even barter and trading.

The basic instinct of survival and with it the self-interest motive is the most common assumption in explaining all business and economic behaviour, ultimately underpinning with highly sophisticated Nobel Prize winning Friedman logic the unassailable and near fanatical defence of the profit motive. Questioning that fundamental premise invites condemnation as an economic heretic, enemy of freedom and anti-capitalist.

It’s a legitimate question whether, under the mantle of the survival instinct, we have not too readily accepted dubious business behaviour such as poor customer service; that having a moral compass and ethics in business is seen as a “strategic” issue rather than its absence being seen as absolutely abhorrent behaviour; and that fraud, collusion, and corruption are seldom met with retribution reflecting deep disapproval and lasting outrage.

Yet I can think of no other institution that is more dependent on social goodwill than business. Indeed, within the rules of legitimate transaction, business is founded on the premise of being of service to another, without which it loses its right to exist. Tangible wealth creation itself is the outcome of that service, rooted in the principle that value depends on the contribution it makes to others.

It’s an intriguing question how different business would be, how company norms would change, how executives would be rewarded, how strategies would be adjusted and how accounting formats would be altered if our understanding of business would be informed by the instinct of empathy rather than survival.

Of course, for humanity the instincts of survival and empathy are mutually supporting. The more evolved we became the more empathy dictates survival.

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