“Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
–Robert F. Kennedy, on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination (1968)
“Have I sinned?”
— Anwar Congo, The Act of Killing (2012)
“They are souls, like us.”
— Greek fisherman Babis Manias, after saving a refugee child from the ocean (2015)
The inherent dilemma of all social animals is the tension between balancing two obligations — the ones we we have to ourselves, and those we have to others. One cannot be completely selfless, sacrificing everything for others. Nor can we be totally self-absorbed, ignoring the rights of others. Somewhere in that tangled mess of sometimes overlapping, sometimes competing, interests we get a sloshing mixture of cooperation and conflict.
As primates, humans have a deep history as social beings, probably going back tens of millions of years. According to Shultz et al. (2011), primates began their path as intensely social animals around 52 million years ago, probably as a means of protection from predators as our ancestors made the shift from nocturnal to diurnal living. One benefit of living in groups was strength in numbers, but a reliance on the group also had drawbacks, such as the need for at least some modicum of self-restraint to maintain group cohesion. After all, one cannot just do whatever they feel like whenever they want, particularly if those wants conflict with the wants of others.