Colin Turnbull found a total absence of love, affection and compassion among the African Ik. Once mountain hunter-gatherers they had been relocated and forbidden to hunt in the new parks around them. Though they lived communally they felt joy only in other's misery or misfortune. To avoid having to share people gorged to the point of vomiting. Families turned anyone old or sick out to starve, then tossed their bodies over cliffs. Mothers abandoned their children at the age of three, merely threw their bodies away if they died first.
In a final chapter of "The Mountain People" Turnbull wonders if individualism is consigning us to the same fate. He believes we show all the signs, needing only the same depth of misfortune to develop the same behaviors.
"The Ik teach us that our much vaunted human values are not inherent in humanity at all, but are associated only with a particular form of survival called society, and that all, even society itself, are luxuries that can be dispensed with... We pursue those trivial, idiotic technological encumbrances and imagine them to be the luxuries that make life worth living, and all the time we are losing our potential for social rather than individual survival, for hating as well as loving, losing perhaps our last chance to enjoy life with all the passion that is our nature and being."
He wrote those words in 1972. How have we been doing since then? By general opinion, becoming more individualistic, less compassionate. A wildly popular TV program "An Idiot Abroad" invites us to laugh at a supposed idiot suffering continual misfortune; the producers have themselves shown laughing hysterically at their supposed "stupid" friend's misfortunes, employing today's most powerful instructional medium to model for us what they imply is the appropriate response. Our origin story, Darwinism, enshrining as cardinal values competition with one another for mates and sex, gives us no reason to respond with compassion when others fall behind.
If we wanted to open a discussion on the rights and wrongs of such behavior, where would we find suitable terms of discourse? In economics? I don't think so. I think we lack a discourse for assessing the condition of the self. This re-affirms for me our need for such a discourse--see previous post below.