The Shadow Of Death

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 26 2012 @ 8:48am

In a long, searching essay on altruism, William Flesch contends that living "in the shadow of our own mortality" is a neglected source of human cooperation. Our knowledge of suffering – our own and others – gives rise to kindness:

I think the fact that we know we're going to die is part of the structure of altruism. The desire to convince others to cooperate, and to empathize with cooperators, takes on its most urgent colors because we know, and expect them to know, that suffering is a standing possibility and inevitable eventuality for all human beings. When we look at humans we look at them as capable of suffering, and so we punish those who make them suffer needlessly, knowing too that in punishing we are ‘correcting’ by causing suffering. … “How can you put someone in danger, you who know what death is, you who know that you too are mortal?” might be the whisper behind all altruistic punishment. And also behind all “human love,” as W.H. Auden puts it: what it means to be human is to see others, and to know oneself as seen by them, as creatures who are at various times and according to various moods and situations, “mortal, guilty, but…entirely beautiful.”