if you still have the patience
No problem, as long as we are moving along now.
But then, why do we get it? Is it even important?
Good question. I think it was answered before (and on several other threads), but maybe I can try to make it a little bit clearer.
What I think is that empathy, or at least a disposition toward empathy, is part of the innate mental wiring in our heads. Humans evolved from social species, and a feeling of empathy, the ability to put oneself in another's place and share their joy and their pain, would obviously do a lot to grease the social wheels.
Empathy and altruism would help the tribe survive better. It has been shown
that that a population of altruists may survive better and have a reproductive advantage over a population of egoists. The key here is that everyone
has this same tendency toward altruism (perhaps, like in the case of humans, mediated by feelings of empathy). Your
empathy helps others survive, and since they will share your disposition toward altruism, and while tribes of egoists don't survive as well, then the next generation will have more altruists and fewer egoists. And of course you
benefit from altruism as well, since your fellow tribe members altruism is helping you.
Of course, it has been shown through mathematical models that a population of pure altruists is unstable -- a single egoist in that population will have a reproductive advantage. However, pure altruists don't exist in real-life. In real life, altruistic individuals have the ability to notice egoists and to take action against them, or at least not give them the benefit of their altruistic behavior. The outrage you expressed over people you notice taking advantage of helpful people might be an expression of this.
And then, it makes us feel good. Which means we are doing it for selfish reasons.
That could be. I might be wrong, but all altruism that I know of is done either because the person feels good about it, or the person will feel worse if she doesn't do it. It might very well be that, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as true altruism -- we always
get something out of it, even if it is an emotional high or the avoidance of emotional pain.
However, it seems to be the case that people encourage
other people to feel good about being selfless, and that the good feelings that one feels when one does the "right thing" is itself considered a virtue. So, I guess someone who behaves "selflessly" is really being selfish since she is actually striving for a "good feeling". On the other hand, other people think it is admirable that she does feel good when she is being selfless.
So, maybe it is a bit complicated after all.
Actually, if their god makes better pancakes, I'm totally switching sides. -- Charley the Australopithecine