Is there actually a basis for values like compassion, empathy, etc.? Or are these just values that seem good to us because of the way our culture evolved. Do we only follow these values because we "feel" like we should?
I agree with all the comments about evolved compassion and empathy and how it benefits us as individuals when we are in a group that behaves with compassion towards its members.
From my recent review of the history of the colonization of the American continent by Europeans, I am interested in enlightened values of morality as they apply to strangers. I have read that we as animals discriminate in ways that other animals do when it comes to strangers. We naturally tend to be altruistic to group members (when appropriate) but altruism is less natural when interacting with strangers. Why do we need to have some "higher vision" to overcome "stranger danger"? Is not a fear of strangers also an evolved "feeling" that provides survival benefit? And what I am to think of someone who claims my feelings are unenlightened and even immoral because I am do what comes naturally?
Interesting questions, Alex. Empathy and compassion are not just byproducts of our culture, I think, although I think culture can do a great deal to inhibit or encourage those qualities in people.
Not everyone is capable of feeling empathy or compassion. There can be biological reasons for this, with their brains simply lacking that part of the brain normally responsible for producing empathy. In controlled experiments, some animals (like monkeys) appear to feel empathy for similar animals and they will give up some of their own food for them; this empathy isn't learned or culturally induced but is simply something experienced by many higher order animals.
You've already heard that compassion and empathy may have been qualities that were adaptive for perpetuating our species, and I think that's valid, but that didn't seem to be enough of a compelling argument for you, so I'll offer more of an in-depth analysis.
I think that empathy helps us imagine and predict the emotional responses of other people to our own behavior, and it then helps us adapt to maintain and improve the relationships. If you don't feel empathy, then you're likely to end up being focused on just your own desires and needs due to not caring about anyone else's feelings or situations. You'd be much more likely to take advantage of any situation for your own benefit at other people's expense, and you wouldn't be a good friend, spouse or parent because of the resultant unbridled selfishness. Your relationships would suffer and you wouldn't be likely to pass on your genes.
People who lack empathy often have a personality disorder like narcissistic personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. To learn more about the effects of *not* having empathy, you could read more about the problems that these people have.
The economic crisis has also been blamed on people being greedy and narcissistic and not thinking about the long term consequences, and it's still not over. When people gratify themselves at the expense of society, they can undermine the very system they're exploiting, and then everyone suffers.
According to a BBS series I saw on differences between men and women, women tend to have more empathy than men do (as measured on the test that they gave). However, one of the men who scored the lowest on empathy had felt badly about the poor quality of the relationships he had had in the past and had thought a great deal about how to improve his relationships with his own children. In another test, he scored the highest of all the men on interacting with a baby after changing the baby's diaper; he had learned to overcome his original detachment to play with the baby. Thus even if one feels one doesn't have a lot of natural empathy right away, it seems possible to change one's focus so that one can relate better to other people. (Men tend to have more of a one-track mind compared to women, so they may need to consciously change their attention to focus on the relationships they have.)
I dislike studies that tend to generalize men and women. They help to create cultural expectations of how people of certain sexes should behave. They also are widely misunderstood. Just because a large number of males in a certain sample scored lower on an empathy test does not mean that males are less empathetic. It may, however, mean that there are a large number of people who are male that are not very empathetic. Individual males may be far more empathetic than most people who are female.
What I'm saying in regard to the question of empathy is that I don't know how to justify the belief that being empathetic is a good thing. People tend to justify it by saying, "It's good because it lets us survive." Well, that's pretty subjective. I feel like we're being irrational on this issue, but at the same time I feel like being empathetic and compassionate are how any intelligent entity should behave, even purely rational robots.
I am thinking that maybe Alex is trying to follow an objectivist line of thinking or something similar. From my perspective, it is headed for a challenging area.
As has been stated, evolution has favored brains with empathic capabilities. It is also noted that this is not equally active in all humans. As much as we like to think otherwise, most of our behavior is ultimately triggered by some (often sub-conscious) emotional programming. And there is the endorphine factor that reinforces select behaviors.
As non-theists and rationalists, we like to think we behave according to our well thought-out frontal cortex activities. This may lead to a re-evaluation of ALL of our behavior under the scrutiny of "reason", such that we have a fully-conscious, logical, reason for all that we do. For example, a common question is: why did I decide to have children? or why is it more reasonable to NOT have children than to have children? Some claim to use reason to be childless (e.g. current overpopulation). Some parents claim naturally selected evolutionary drives as a reason for having children. Some claim to use reason to say it is wrong to discriminate against anyone (e.g. no genetic basis for perceived differences). Some naturally avoid strangers and avoid explaining any reason for it (e.g. "I just don't feel comfortable").
So, I don't know, but perhaps Alex is looking for a reason that he should behave in a certain way based on some emotional scripting or programming rather than a rationalized, logical thought process that is reviewed for relevancy in each and every situation.
Your post was very incoherent. Unless you're not a native English speaker, I'm not going to waste my time, sorry.
I'm trying to find out if my beliefs on morality are rationally justifiable, like many people claim them to be. I don't think theists are in a better position at all: They claim they only behave morally because they're interested in their own well-being (God likes people who are "good").