There is a rather famous Carl Sagan quote that accompanies a picture of earth taken from a space probe, in which the earth appears as just a tiny “pale blue bot” in the middle of the vast, empty sea of darkness that is space. His speech is meant to be humbling, and indeed, the notion of the size of the universe compared to the earth is a very humbling thing. But I also feel that there is a danger in this. One of the topics he brings up is the meaningless of war, and how much blood was spilled just to claim a fraction of that tiny blue speck in space. But what are we? We are just specks on that speck, not even visible in the picture. Sure those conquerors killed many people, but what does that matter? If the small size relative to the rest of the universe makes the land they grabbed less meaningful, then it should make the small human lives less meaningful as well, but of course we know that each human life should be considered important.
Even recognizing that each human life is important and every human should be entitled to certain rights and have basic needs met, actually caring for every human is not possible. There are billions of humans and each human can only be as close as family with maybe dozens, be friends with maybe a hundred, and be acquainted with only hundreds or thousands. We all know that there are plenty of people suffering from poverty some place away from us, and quite frankly we do not care. Most of us think that something should be done about it, but most are not doing anything as an active participant to aid them. Instead we just like to say things like “tax the rich” as if they are legitimate solutions and make other people foot the bill rather than doing anything about it ourselves.
We are all very small. There are many of us. Sometimes we come into conflicts. Sure these conflicts seem important, but in the grand scheme of things, they are not important. Our personal problems while they can be all consuming to us, are objectively not important. Our personal ambitions, our dreams, are no more or less special than any of the other ones amongst the billions. It is a humbling thought, but it also risks giving way to nihilism and even more fervent individualism. If you do not matter, if your battles are not important, then none of the other ones are important either. If the others are not important, then why should you care about them? At the basest level of nihilism, one would do nothing, seeing that their life and wants are not important and so they would simply allow themselves to starve and wither away or other self-destructive actions or inaction. At a higher level, it would lead towards the reckless pursuit of some goal that is recognized as arbitrary, but driven towards nonetheless with no regard for the consequences. There is certainly no need to help others, and hurting others does not really matter either, so in striving for that arbitrary goal one would tend towards hurting others if it were convenient.
Objectively, science does seem to say that we are just a bunch of hairless talking monkeys on a rock flying through space. But we feel so much more than that. We feel important to us. We see the people around us as important as well for the most part. There are plenty of mostly arbitrary reasons for why we choose to care for some people more than others, but these reasons are important to us. There is a problem that people can only care for so many people to the extent that we can all say that we believe that the world would be a better place if everybody cared for everybody else, even if that amount of caring did not involve trying to give everybody perfect lives but at least was to the point of ensuring that everybody has access to the basic needs and rights we believe all humans are entitled to. But the solution to this is not to make people stop caring so much about themselves.
The solution should be to make people care more about themselves. This is not intended to make them only care for themselves, of course. A person who cares about themselves want to live a life they consider happy. Having others around you that are happy can contribute to one’s own happiness and helping others makes us happy as well. Volunteering should not be seen as altruistic and in many ways it is not. It is legitimately pleasant and self serving to do volunteer work. Ironically, by giving volunteering the image of self-sacrifice, we make people more averse to it. People do not want to do something that hurts themselves, even if it means helping others. People do not even like doing something that hurts themselves to help themselves. The key to a better world is not to realize how small it is and how small we all are, but rather to feel important and make others feel important as well.