We are all driven by the survival instinct. Not just people of course, but every living creature does all it can to survive. Usually this involves killing other creatures to eat, and killing others of the same species because they threaten mating rights, territory, dominance – or whatever might diminish power. Human beings have also created additional reasons to kill each other, many being associated with ideology.
This effort to persist in our existence is essentially the root of all suffering. It creates conflicts of interest, vulnerability to unfavorable circumstances, and exaggerated and cruel modes of behavior. When we experience circumstances that reinforce our survival instinct then we feel pleasure – more money, good health, a promotion, fame and a hundred other things. Circumstances that diminish our survival prospects create pain – poor health, poverty, violence against oneself, and so on. And so people are buffeted around by changing circumstances, depending on whether their survival prospects are reinforced or diminished – it’s called being a hostage to fortune.
Manifestations of the survival instinct are not limited to animals tearing each other to bits, or people involved in a bar brawl. Academics for example can be particularly vicious is they perceive someone is stealing their limelight. Religious people commit all kinds of atrocities if they feel their beliefs are being threatened. Ultimately survival is very strongly associated with power, and anything that diminishes a person’s power will be felt as a pain. Silly examples include neighbors who launch into wholesale hostility because one believes the other’s tree is encroaching on their territory. Such an encroachment is threatening to the feeble minded, and they will lash out – often in a totally disproportionate manner.
Because the survival instinct is so strong, and without some form of social governance people would murder each other for the least offense, we need a system of laws where punishment is sufficiently severe that it deters the brutish behavior that most people would manifest. In other words we need to use reason to construct a society, governed by laws, so that the maximum number of people survive and prosper, with minimum conflict. The breakdown of the rule of law, even for short periods, results in looting, revenge murders, and other forms of violence and theft. If the breakdown is extended in time then widespread genocide, rape, and bestial behavior soon manifests – cannibalism being one extreme.
We also need to use reason to govern our individual behavior. Without it we tend toward excessive pleasure that is damaging to health. The survival instinct is a dumb thing, it will cause someone to gorge, simply because more food seems favorable, when in fact it threatens health. It would also cause us to react violently to minor violations of our boundaries. So reason is needed to modify our behavior, so that we might truly survive more effectively, both individually and as a species. The survival instinct on its own would see us degenerate into the bestial behavior of other animals – stuck in their own cycles of violence for thousands of years.
Nearly all interactions between people are some form of power game – one seeking to enhance their power at the expense of the other. Bragging is generally used to achieve this – the latest holiday, a new car, large residence, perhaps even a yacht. If others feel diminished because of the bragging they will either become subservient or hateful toward the bragger. Everyone is trying to enhance their survival and by association their power – it’s all pretty unpleasant, unless of course you don’t care. Not caring would come about through not needing external agents to enhance one’s sense of power – a rare achievement indeed.