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Philosophy professor offers a Darwinian explanation of spite


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From ScienceDaily:

We often think of playing fair as an altruistic behavior. We’re sacrificing our own potential gain to give others what they deserve. What could be more selfless than that? But new research from Northeastern University assistant professor of philosophy Rory Smead suggests another, darker origin behind the kindly act of fairness.

Smead studies spite. It’s a conundrum that evolutionary biologists and behavioral philosophers have been mulling over for decades, and it’s still relatively unclear why the seemingly pointless behavior sticks around. Technically speaking, spite is characterized as paying a cost to harm another. It yields virtually no positive outcome for the perpetrator. So why would evolution — which is supposed to weed out such behaviors — let spite stick around?

We hope we are not spoiling the suspense for you when we reveal that he shoehorns an “evolutionary”explanation out of the situation.

All the while admitting that such scenarios don’t match the complexity of real life. Good thing no one expected anything like that. 😉

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You can measure a man by the size of the things it takes to upset him, or so the saying goes. A person who refuses to become upset by minor annoyances or offenses is a person of true stature. Such a person displays not a petty attitude, but a largeness of mind and spirit. But one easily upset over trifles is guilty of smallness. And often that smallness further betrays itself by acts of spite. What is spite? Spite, we are told, ‘applies to ill will shown by doing petty things that hurt or annoy.’ It may be born of envy, resentment, or simply a mean disposition. Two opposite behaviors to spite are humility and empathy, along with altruism. In all races and cultures, people have been willing to help others, even when doing so involved danger to themselves. Such selfless altruism is not what would be expected if humans were mere animals struggling to survive at any cost. After all, asserting that a person's faculty of reason and conscience [from where humility, empathy, and altruism] springs from subhuman ancestors lacking reason and conscience themselves is like stating that a river springs from a well lacking water. Barb

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