Life, Death, and the Social Propensity

Previous posts in this blog have characterized life as a sort of bully, one that compels people to follow its lead and do things in its preferred way. Life’s preferred way involves striving to grow and become stronger, usually at the expense of other living things, often including members of one’s own species. As described in a previous post, the struggle between life and death can thus be viewed as a kind of tug-of-war, where everyone starts out on life’s side but ends up on death’s side, as life dismisses those who do not continue to meet the elite standards necessary for a place on its team.

As also noted in that previous post, most people find themselves somewhere between life’s most powerful winners and those who, from life’s perspective, have wound up in death’s collection of losers. For most of us, life is a mix of comfort and struggle. The constant risk of injury or other harm, potentially putting us on a downward slide toward death, motivates us to protect ourselves and seek ways of becoming stronger and more comfortable.

That previous post also observed that those who become most powerful in life often do so by enlisting the support of others. People commonly join and seek advancement in the service of various individuals and organizations, so as to protect themselves against threats and take advantage of opportunities unavailable to the lone wolf.

This grouping tendency is quite powerful. When nearby populations permit, people tend to become affiliated with multiple groups, organizations, and institutions. Some such affiliations are voluntary (e.g., a parent-teacher organization; a political party); others are involuntary (e.g., one’s childhood family; society as a whole). Some are perhaps theoretically voluntary but practically involuntary (e.g., the market). Of course, people vary in how much they put into such memberships, and how much they get out of them. The point here is just that, for the enjoyment of life and/or for protection against death, groupings tend to form, with various costs and benefits for their members.

The tendency to join or belong to organizations and other groups – the propensity to be social – necessitates a significant refinement of the picture sketched out in the previous posts. Those posts have emphasized the binary opposition of life and death. Life and death do continue to vie for control, in myriad ways large and small. Life and death remain the consummate forces of human experience. But most of us are neither at life’s pinnacle nor at immediate risk of dying, whereas we are almost always interacting, thinking about interacting, or preparing for interaction with others. Hence, for purposes of the human beings with whom these posts are primarily concerned (and also, no doubt, for other species), the social propensity often appears more immediately compelling than either life or death.

It seems, in other words, that the social propensity would be optional or dispensable, without the struggle between life and death outlined above; but because we are torn by that struggle, the social propensity tends to play an important role. It has the capacity to make an enormous difference in how much we will grow and become stronger, and also in how vulnerable we are to become weaker and die. In both such regards, the social force plays both sides of the table — sometimes assisting in our growth, and at other times retarding it; sometimes sheltering us against a fall, and sometimes pushing us over the edge.

The social force may not be the peer of life and death, in the starkest times of our lives; but for practical purposes, on the day-to-day level, the social force has everything to do with what life and death mean to us. For the most part, in human existence, the social force operates as a peer of life and death. The well-known statement that something is a matter of life and death underlines the consummate importance of those two forces, but it also implies that, normally, we tend to be preoccupied with things other than life and death.

From the perspective of life and death, the social force is a tremendous modifier. Within outer parameters contested by life and death, questions such as who will be born, who will thrive, and who will die, and how quickly, tend to be decided by arrangements among groups of humans.

It certainly is possible that the nature and functioning of life, death, and the social force are due to the workings of some kind of supernatural source. This discussion leaves out the possible interventions of a deity, not because such a being would be incompatible with the scenario developing here, but because it is not necessary to add that layer of speculation. Attributing these matters to a divine being does carry the risk of blaming him/her/it for things that are ultimately caused by humans or perhaps by other beings. In that sense, divine attribution is worth avoiding, not only because it potentially invents an additional, unnecessary complication, but also because it risks blasphemy.

It may be wiser, and it certainly seems more reasonable, to credit or blame a divine being for our human conditions when (a) the divinity has made a clear and credible claim of responsibility or (b) to the extent that divine intervention is necessary to explain aspects of human existence. In short, at this point, it tentatively appears that the elemental forces of life and death, and the derivative social propensity, account reasonably well for basic realities of the human situation — regardless of whether any divinity has set those forces in play.

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