A new bottom line


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and a glimmer of hope. By Colin Tudge

Keir Starmer promises change – but the change he is promising is of a very limited kind. Whatever form it takes it will be within the present “neoliberal” economic paradigm: an all-against-all competition with the world at large to increase material wealth, known as “growth”. Within this paradigm all enterprises in the end are geared to “the bottom line” – measured of course in money. “Progress” is equated with more growth, and/or with smarter tech: tech of the kind that leads to yet more economic growth. Starmer is not promising to change that.  Rather, he is promising to keep it the same.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose

It won’t do. It’s this, both the fixation on material goods and on competition, that has led the world to its present state of catastrophe, on all fronts. As Rabbi Michael Lerner says in Revolutionary Love (2019), 

“We need a new bottom line that judges our institutions, our economy, our political lives, our legal system, our cultural institutions, and every aspect of our society as productive, efficient, or rational to the extent that they maximise our human capacities to be loving, generous, and caring toward each other and toward the Earth …”  

In short, it’s not more money and goods we need – or at least, some people and some societies obviously do need more but the world as a whole has easily enough, and no-one should go short if the world was more equitable. Neither do we really need more technology, although there is always room for improvement. What’s lacking is attitude; and in particular the moral attitude of compassion, aka love, manifesting as kindness and generosity. Compassion – a true, empathic concern for the wellbeing of others, whether human or non-human – should be seen as a “bedrock” moral principle, and if we’re to have any real hope of rescuing the world and ourselves then this moral principle must be centre stage.  

For all their outward differences all the great religions are agreed that compassion must be our guiding principle. In Part 1 of this three-part series I quoted the Dalai Lama’s speech at the University of California in San Diego in 2017: 

“Many remarkable individuals have called for different kinds of revolution: technological, educational, ethical, spiritual … But for me, the Revolution of Compassion is in the heart, the bedrock, the original source of inspiration for all the others.”

Satish Kumar, a former Jain  monk, has returned to this theme many times, not least in his latest book, published last year: Radical Love: From Separation to Connection with the Earth, Each Other, and Ourselves. The Muslim writer and scholar Ziauddin Sardar points out that all the chapters in the Qur’an begin with an appeal to “the Compassionate One”. And as St Paul famously remarked in a letter to the Corinthians (13: in the New King James translation):  

 “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 


“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Politicians take note, I am inclined self-righteously to suggest. 

Of course, ideas like compassion, or indeed the idea of attitude in general, is an abstraction. Only material, tangible things are seen to be real; and in the real world we must deal with reality. But as Satish Kumar commented in Soil, Soul, and Society (2013): 

“Some people call me naïve and unrealistic. Then what have the realists got to show for their efforts? What have the realists achieved? Millions are dead in wars. Millions dying of hunger and starvation. Millions of people homeless and jobless in spite of abundant resources of nature, a tremendous amount of technology and trillions of dollars and pounds whizzing around the world every minute. If this is what realists are able to achieve, then what is so good about being a realist? Under the watch of so-called realists, oceans are overfished and polluted, the biosphere is being saturated with greenhouse gases and population is exploding beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth. If this is the achievement of realists, then now is the time to say goodbye to the realists and give the idealists a chance.” 

It is of course a huge pity that none of the great religions in practice lives up to its ideals, and certainly not to the ideals of their founders. But then, all great thinkers in all fields tend to be ill-served by their would-be disciples, or at least by a fair proportion of them. Prophets (or artists, or scientists) may launch their ideas upon the world but they cannot subsequently keep control of them. Nonetheless, the core idea, of the paramount importance of compassion, is firmly embedded in the human psyche. 

Over the past few thousand years most of humanity has subscribed to one or other of these religions. In recent decades, although Islam continues to spread, religion in general has lost some of its grip but many or most of those who no longer claim to be “religious” still claim nonetheless to have spiritual leanings; and although atheistic materialism now seems to dominate secular Britain the Zeitgeist is still suffused with Christian and Jewish precepts and now, also, of course, with the essentially similar moral codes of Islam, Hinduism, and others too. Given their ubiquity in so many and various cultures it is reasonable to suggest that the core ideas of the great religions, including and especially their shared moral concepts, reflect the core convictions of all humanity. In particular, I suggest, the shared ideal of compassion is what most people (all who are not psychopaths, in short) feel in their bones is right. And `what people feel in their bones, or in their heart – what their intuition tells them – in the end is what really counts. Thus scientists, economists, and lawyers of the hard-headed kind who set the tone of the modern world like to claim above all to be “rational”, and to base their ideas and recommendations on evidence and logic. So they do, up to a point. But evidence in the end is just an observation (aka a “fact”) that seems to support a particular hypothesis; and whether the scientist, economist, or lawyer actually believes the evidence, in the end is a matter of intuition. And logic can only expand on existing premises. It does not itself give rise to those premises. 

Where exactly intuition comes from can never be known exhaustively. Is it God-given? Do we all perhaps partake of some Jungian “collective unconscious”? If so, where did that come? Or did the instinct for compassion evolve, along with all our other characteristics? To be sure, the different kinds of explanation are not mutually exclusive. As many a scientist and cleric has pointed out, scientific and theological arguments can be perfectly compatible. There is no reason other than dogma, whether it’s the dogma of religion or of science, to argue otherwise. And evolution is surely in there somewhere. As I argued in Part 2 of this three-parter, Life is a master-class in cooperation, all creatures on Earth need each other, and by far the majority benefit from social living for all kinds of reasons. So natural selection as envisaged by Darwin ought to favour sociality, and to favour instincts that enhance sociality – and so it surely does. 

It seems reasonable to assume that the social instincts of ants and bees and termites etc is programmed into them, via their genes; that they are, in effect, automata. But sociality requires some self-sacrifice – to be social, all need to some extent to restrain their own behaviour. To some extent the same is surely true of humans too. But we are intelligent. Putting it crudely, our brains can override our genes. Sometimes a social individual can gain an advantage by not behaving sociably; indeed, by putting the boot in, preparing the ground by deception and judicious betrayal. Intelligent creatures like us have choice, or at least have the illusion of choice. So if we feel we can gain an advantage over our fellows at any one time by stitching them up, we may choose do so. So why don’t we do this more often, as a matter of course? One reason is surely practical. Betrayal doesn’t work unless we begin from a position of trust, and if we cheat too often others will be on their guard. But another reason – and I suggest it’s the main reason – why people who are not psychopaths do not routinely betray each other is because they don’t want to cause hurt. We empathise with the people we may hurt, and we care about their feelings.  

Thus, sociality is an evolved quality – favoured by natural selection because it hugely enhances a creature’s chances of surviving and reproducing. Intelligence is an evolved quality too. But intelligent creatures can choose not to be social if they can gain short-term advantage by kicking over the traces. So, I suggest, compassion evolved in intelligent creatures to protect their sociality, which in the long term is their prime route to survival.  That we should be compassionate is indeed a Darwinian prediction. Absolutely not does it require us to fly in the face of nature. Rather; the precise opposite. 

As biologists like Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall and many others too have shown in recent decades, and is becoming more and more apparent, other intelligent animals are empathic too, including other primates, dogs, horses, elephants etc, and perhaps also intelligent birds, like parrots and crows.  The more that naturalists study our fellow creatures the more widespread the quality of empathy becomes apparent. It’s their capacity for empathy that makes intelligent animals such good companions – for empathy extends across species. We can’t of course know how other creatures feel but it is abundantly clear that intelligent creatures do feel something, and it is reasonable to infer that when they behave caringly, that they do indeed feel compassion, each in their own way. 

Wherever compassion may come from, compassion emerges as a deep-seated intuition that is shared by all humanity (or all at least who are not psychopaths). It should be seen to be a key component of “human nature”. So although the idea of a “new bottom line” as described by Michael Lerner now seems so remote or indeed outlandish, pie-in-the-sky, anyone who makes a concerted effort to bring that idea down to earth and into the main stream, ought to find themselves pushing against an open door.  

Very clearly, however, this is not how things have turned out. Why not? 

So what’s gone wrong?

There surely are many reasons why we, humanity, don’t root our economy and indeed our lives in the moral principle of compassion, given its many obvious advantages (primarily in helping to keep families and societies together) and the undeniable fact that most human beings are eminently capable of compassion, and admire it in others, and would prefer to live in a compassionate society, if only that was seen to be an option. But as things are, and have mostly been in the past, we don’t see this as an option. One reason why we don’t, as I suggested in Part 1 of this trilogy, The biology of compassion; work in progress is that over the past few millennia, intellectuals of all kinds have sought to persuade us that deep down we are a bunch of miscreants, who would be at each other’s throats unless we had strong leaders to keep us in our place – on the somewhat dubious assumption that those leaders are themselves superior moral beings. As I suggested in Part 1, the whole drift of this perception was most famously and succinctly expressed by the 17th century English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes who said that when we are left to our own devices – 

“The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  

The reasons why so many intellectuals including clerics were so keen to assure us of our own venality and general nastiness are doubtless many and various. But they surely include some measure of self-justification. People in positions of influence and of power tend to be privileged and commensurately wealthy and the idea that humanity in its pristine state would be a venal and violent mob that needs an elite to keep it on the rails, justifies their elevated status.  

Philosophers, however, are fairly easily ignored. They all say different things, after all. The coup de grace was delivered inadvertently by Charles Darwin, kind and compassionate gentleman that he was, in his seminal masterpiece of 1859, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”. It’s this last phrase – “the struggle for life” – that’s the problem. In his account, natural selection, the relentless force that has shaped all life, is driven by competition. He got this idea from the gloomy economist-cleric T R Malthus, cosily known as Robert, or Bob, or sometimes as Pop, who argued throughout the early decades of the 19th century that human beings were potentially able to breed faster than the food supply could be increased, despite the advances in agriculture, so all in the end are forced to compete for what there is. Darwin saw that this principle must apply to all living creatures. Life, in short, for all of us, human and otherwise, must be one long punch-up. Although we may choose to ignore philosophers like Hobbes, scientists are commonly seen to deal with incontrovertible truth and so too are economists, who are commonly though erroneously seen as scientists. So that view of life has fed into the Zeitgeist, and is used not least by neoliberal economists to justify their core idea, that the economy should be conceived as a no-holds-barred competition for material advantage and that this is “natural”, and to argue otherwise is unnatural. It seems then that to be competitive and venal is natural while compassion and generosity are unnatural, and require special effort, and may indeed be seen to be perverse. Nice guys come last, as the adage has it; and in this competitive world coming last is the great no-no. “Loser!” has become a common playground taunt, as featured not least in The Simpsons.  

Origin was an instant best-seller and its influence ever since in all fields of human inquiry can hardly be over-estimated. But it has also of course been much criticised. It isn’t true, as is widely believed and taught, that it caused the perceived rift between science and religion, and that all or most scientists rallied to Darwin’s support while the clerics fought tooth and nail to resist. Both criticism and support came from both sides, and of course in the 19th century when all dons in the most ancient universities were obliged to be ordained, science and theology were not as separated as they later became. So for example the Church of England vicar and writer Charles Kingsley, best known for his moralistic novel The Water-babies, said in a lecture in 1871 that: 

“We knew of old that God was so wise that he could make all things; but, behold, he is so much wiser than even that, that he can make all things make themselves.” 

On the other hand, many of Darwin’s sharpest critics were scientists, including some who were his friends – notably Charles Lyell, sometimes called “the father of modern geology”; and some who definitely were not his friends, including Richard Owen, the leading British palaeontologist of his day. Owen objected partly on religious grounds, and partly because he saw Darwin as an over-privileged upstart. Most relevant here though, is the Russian geographer, naturalist, polymath and political activist Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin was born in 1842 so he was 40 when Darwin died in 1882 and he knew and admired Darwin’s work. As he described in his most famous book, Mutual Aid, published in 1905, Kropotkin studied the wild creatures of Siberia and concluded that their struggle for life was not with each other, but primarily with the harsh conditions. What mattered at least as much as their competitiveness, was and is their propensity, consciously or unconsciously, to help each other to cope with their surroundings by “mutual aid”. He wrote: 

“In the long run the practice of solidarity proves much more advantageous to the species than the development of individuals endowed with predatory inclinations.” 


“The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history.” 

Kropotkin also admired his older contemporary and fellow countryman Tolstoy, a lifelong campaigner for peace, who was more widely revered in Russia than anyone else has been before or since. Russians like peace too, it seems, despite the bellicosity of their best-known leaders. Tolstoy in turn admired Kropotkin and the two corresponded in very friendly fashion although they don’t seem ever to have met. Tolstoy surely would have approved Kropotkin’s advice:  

 “Don’t compete! — competition is always injurious to the species, and you have plenty of resources to avoid it!” 

So, we may ask, if cooperativeness as opposed to competitiveness is so important in the natural world, and in evolution, how come Darwin, the greatest of all naturalists, didn’t cotton on to it? Ah, but he did, said Kropotkin. He wrote about it all the time. Indeed he invented the term “co-evolution”. It features in The Origin, and in his book The Fertilisation of Orchids he describes the mutually beneficial relationship between orchids and the moths that pollinate them. 

But a prime inspiration for Darwin’s whole idea of natural selection came from Malthus – that all creatures are obliged, willy-nilly, to compete for inevitably limited resources. He was also, as all of us are, a child of his time, and the early 19th century, hot on the heels of the French revolution, was a time of political turmoil and struggle like no other. When Darwin was born in 1809 Britain was still at war with Napoleon. The industrial revolution was reaching its peak, hand in hand with unrestrained capitalism. Economic inequality and the differences in social class were everywhere conspicuous. The poor suffered mightily. A protest in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, in 1819 ended with a cavalry charge that killed 18 people and injured hundreds more and was known ever afterwards as the Peterloo Massacre. The Chartist movement seeking political reform to improve the lot of the working class came and went between the late 1830s and the late 1850s and reached its peak in 1848 – which was also the year of revolutions throughout Europe, and the year that Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto. Slavery was still a horrible fact of life, a major trade indeed, which Darwin encountered first-hand in Brazil in the 1830s and vehemently opposed. Britain’s Empire waxed and waxed throughout Darwin’s life (Queen Victoria was dubbed “Empress of India” in 1877), and further emphasised and exaggerated differences of class and race, and helped to consolidate a global hierarchy that placed high-born white people at the top, and by way of justification declared that this was God’s will. It all served to increase the global tension.

Darwin’s own life in rural Kent with his loving wife Emma and his ten children seems enviably tranquil and secure but he lived through some of the most turbulent times in history, in which nations and races and classes were all fighting their corners, often to the death; and he knew what was going on in the world at large, and cared about it. What with all that and the apparently inescapable logic of Malthus, he seemed bound to conclude that all indeed are embroiled in a “struggle” for existence; and that, despite the orchids and their insect accomplices, he seemed bound to conclude that competition was a far more powerful force than cooperation. 

So wherein lies the hope, promised in the title of this article? In human beings, is the answer. All of us who are not psychopaths are eminently capable of compassion. All of what George Orwell was content to call “ordinary people” would far prefer a world based on compassion, and was designed to be harmonious, if this was an option. And wanting is the necessary first step. 

The trouble is, this doesn’t seem to be an option. The present economy is designed to be an all-out struggle for material advantage. This in turn is taken to reflect the way of the world – a natural extension of nature itself and therefore a fact of life that we must deal with. In line with this, over the past few millennia we and our ancestors have been told by people perceived to be of the highest authority that we are basically self-centred and venal, as nature requires us to be. If we do behave with restraint and compassion we cannot trust others to do the same. We may feel that we are nice, but we can’t be sure that other people are too, and there’s at least a fair chance that they might not be. If we behave nicely and others don’t then we are liable to be bashed. Jesus said in Matthew 5 that if we’re bashed we should turn the other cheek but the bashing may be terminal – we may be left with no cheek to turn – so it’s best to get our retaliation in first. 

If, though, we could at last begin to acknowledge that nature is not, in fact, red in tooth and claw, and indeed that life is in essence cooperative; and if we recognized that human beings, accordingly, have an urge to be cooperative and hence to be compassionate; and that most people who are not seriously deprived do not crave more and more material goods as the modern economy presupposes; then Michael Lerner’s new bottom line would begin to seem not outlandish, but obvious. 

It does occur to me, albeit whimsically, that if Darwin had had the chance to read Kropotkin and Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal, instead of Malthus, we might have finished up with a quite different Zeitgeist, and the course of history these past 160-odd years might have run very differently. Then, Keir Starmer’s promised change would seem small beer indeed. 


The idea that life is essentially cooperative is subsumed within the larger idea of oneness, which in various African cultures is called ubuntu; and this ancient notion is now reinforced by various trends in science. 

In particular the idea of universal mind is now taken seriously in various fields, including quantum physics and psychology: the notion that mind is not simply generated within our own heads, as we feel is the case. Rather it is a quality of the universe, built into its fabric. We do not create it. Wepartake of it – and so too do other creatures. Particle physicists in the tradition of Niels Bohr and his disciples maintain as a matter of inescapable fact that the fate of fundamental particles and hence of the whole material universe is crucially influenced by mind. There’s a growing realization too that the mechanisms of life, as described by molecular biologists, biochemists, and physiologists, cannot be properly described without reference to quantum physics. All is excellently outlined in Life on the Edge, by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden. 

There is much speculation in all this and the various threads cannot yet be integrated into one convincing fabric, and perhaps never will be. There is too much in these ideas that is not only unknown, but seems unknowable. But there’s enough going on to suggest that the whole of biology is moving into a new paradigm – and it’s one that emphasises the unity of everything in the universe, and especially the unity, the oneness, of all life. Oneness implies cooperativeness, and cooperativeness in intelligent animals requires compassion. 

I do not want to live forever (which in any case doesn’t seem to be an option) but I would like to come back in 100 years and see how these ideas are working out (assuming civilization lasts long enough to allow such contemplation to continue). 

One final, final thought:  The central conceit of this website is that politics and economics can never be put on a sound footing and provide a world that’s safe and agreeable to live in until and unless serious moral philosophy is built into them. Morality in turn – and science too, and indeed all great, resonant thoughts – are, in the end, metaphysical in nature. All in the end are rooted in presuppositions that cannot be shown beyond all possible doubt to be true; and, of course (another exercise in metaphysics) the very idea of “truth” is endlessly slippery. Big ideas of crucial importance that cannot be shown beyond all possible doubt to be true are the stuff of metaphysics. 

But in practice the political and economic ideas that shape all our lives and largely determine the fate of the whole world are not convincingly rooted in coherent moral principle, and metaphysics as a formal discipline seems to have gone missing altogether. 

So all, or nearly all, of formal education these days is fragmented, or indeed siloed. This observation doesn’t fully explain the catastrophic state of the present world, but it is surely relevant. Beyond doubt, if we seriously want the world to be a better place, and indeed a tolerable place for all its inhabitants, then education must be a key player. But at least in modern Britain education is largely seen as a means to “train” people to compete within the prevailing paradigm. All political parties claim to take education seriously. But none offers a coherent path to a viable future.  


In addition to the books cited in the text, my own book, Why Genes are Not Selfish and People are Nice, published by Floris Books in 2013, discusses the biology in more detail.  

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