Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Life and Death in Balance

It is interesting that most human beings, particularly when they are younger, live life as if they were immortal. Most people do not think of the prospect of dying, or have varying degrees of experience with it over their lifespan. This leads to what one may call short-term selfish behavior that has suboptimal results from a social standpoint. The outcomes in single-shot games (any interaction among two or more individuals where individual interests can be modeled in relation to a feasible outcome) do not often result in cooperation, but if the game were repeated many times from an endpoint of sincerity (an example being the extremely common occurrence of reflecting back on one's life when one is on one's deathbed) then one could have more cooperative outcomes.
If you reflect on the above, dear reader, many corollary observations follow, much like what Gautama Siddhartha started to realize as he observed sickness, disease, desire, and death in his rounds of the city as a young prince.

1. Younger human beings are more likely to be more self-directed in their dealings with others relative to older people who are increasingly confronted with their mortality, as well as that of their peer group.
1a. Among younger people, those with a higher relative experience of mortality will tend to behave less selfishly.
1b. Societies with higher and healthier lifespans will tend to be more self-interested, everything else being equal.
1c. In societies where there are subpopulations with significantly different experiences related to the prospect of death, there be a higher degree of intra-group coherence in those groups that have higher prospects of dying.
2. Higher education and wealth, which correlate with health and longevity, are likely to result in more self-directed behavior.
2a. In some cases, where the education effects outweigh wealth effects, behavior may be more altruistic (the informed ability to reflect on the consequences of death).

In short, reflecting on the prospect of dying (or not being able to do so) is what what defines us as human beings and causes many interesting patterns in social interaction, and our individual decisions in regard to those interactions. We often think that death is a consequence of how we live, but what is substantially more consequential is the prospect of dying for life.

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