I've always thought that from earliest times there is evidence for both views for a good reason. Human societies have always contained a mixture of both types of behaviour because it was necessary for our survival. Early archaeological sites show clear evidence of tribes looking after injured individuals for long periods of time but also of warfare and cannibalism. Compassionate care has been mixed in with hatred and anger for a very long time.
There is a huge advantage in working collaboratively, sharing food, learning from each other, specialising in things that you are good at and giving freely because you can trust others to look after you and your neighbours. Any group that behaves like this is bound to out compete a bunch of selfish individuals who can't rely on each other and spend time squabbling and arguing.
However, it is equally true that if everyone is nice and co-operative and never challenges the status quo then human society might never have evolved. We need some risk takers and people who break rules in order to shake things up and try things that are new. All societies contain a number of individuals who are not very good at collaboration but are very good at experimenting and breaking away from convention. Our original tribal societies also needed a proportion of people who were good at aggression. You don't survive very long on the open plains of Africa if you always give way to the needs of others. That side of humanity is just as integral to our early evolution as the ability to collaborate because no society cannot prosper if all it contains are aggressive selfish individuals looking out for their own interests.
But it is very dangerous to have too many people like this in society. Scientists have modelled the behaviour of groups statistically and the evidence is crystal clear. If you go over a certain proportion of selfish individuals and too many people demonstrate selfish behaviour then your society starts to break down. No one can see the point in being helpful and collaborative if they get nothing much back from neighbours who are solely out for themselves. Once trust goes the group loses all the advantages of collaboration and starts to fall apart.
Bearing this in mind, ask yourself a question. What rewards are we offering at the moment to someone who decides to work on behalf of others in a caring profession and what rewards are we offering to someone who ruthlessly looks to their own self interest? Which tendency in human behaviour are we encouraging with our system of financial incentives? Are we in danger of encouraging so much competitive behaviour that the collaboration that is crucial to our entire existence is starting to fall apart?
Each of us might have a different view on this question. I happen to think that dangerously high numbers of people who have chosen to work selflessly for the NHS or for a local authority care team or as a social worker no longer expect to receive recognition from a grateful society in the form of earning a reasonable living and working in a supportive and encouraging environment. By comparison the rewards for the few individuals who focus on looking out for themselves have gone up consistently year by year since the mid 1970s. Top rates of taxation in the UK have gone from over 85% to 40%. The swing in the US has been even more extreme. The share of all wealth owned by the top 1% now exceeds 40% and all increases in national income since the 2008 crash have gone to the very richest in society whilst nurses and care workers have had seen their workloads increase and their real incomes decline.
In these circumstances sooner or later society reaches a tipping point. If we continue to finance and encourage selfishness to this degree then we will experience a steady decline in collaborative behaviour until a point is reached where there are very few mugs left prepared to be helpful to others. Our society will become steadily weaker and less secure. More and more of us will think only of ourselves and it will be each of us against all others. Human history gives us plenty of examples of how that ends. None of them are pretty.
Why should a teacher work flat out under close supervision if she sees her Academy Director drive away in a smart car after recommending to his Board of Directors that he needs another salary increase in order to be properly motivated? Why should a nurse stay on after her hours have finished to look after a patient when the clinic is running late if she sees an agency nurse being paid more than her to do the same job with less stress whilst the owners of that agency pay themselves large share dividends?
We are steadily dismantling the welfare state and allowing good quality education to be something that you get if you can afford to buy a house in a nice area. We are allowing companies to pour trillions of microbeads into our environment every day in order to slightly improve the pouring qualities of soap dispensers. We are putting sick and disabled people through humiliating tests of the extent of their disability in the hope that we can save a few quid in taxes. We are shutting out refugees from a conflict that we started in order to be able to burn the last drops of fossil fuels and to damage the atmosphere and climate of the entire planet rather than collectively invest in change. This is not the behaviour of a society that values caring for others. Rather it is a society that is suffering from a serious excess of selfishness.
It should be evident that we cannot rely on the highly rewarded selfish elements of society to suddenly see the error of their ways and change their behaviour. So the only way to deal with this highly risky situation is for those who believe in the value of collaboration and caring for others to change theirs. Instead of being quiet and understanding of the needs of others we need to start being loud and noisy about the needs of the collective. We need to start speaking up more often and challenging the outrageously selfish behaviour that is putting us all at risk.
People of good will need to use the only real power that they have available to them in order to take on and defeat the excessive selfishness of modern society. That power is the power to collaborate and co-operate. We need to work together politically and organise to challenge the prevailing ideology. And we need to do that before it is too late!