In part 1, I discuss how Shinji is a reflection of a kind of superficial altruism that mass media has encouraged us to embrace, that consequently discourages us from acting altruistically in our lives.
So the solution that Evangelion proposes is simple, right? We need to stop having unrealistic expectations of what constitutes altruism, and start acting altruistically in whatever ways we can (hinthintgovegan). Problem solved.
Bzzzzt. Wrong. Evangelion doesn’t just question mass media altruism. It questions if altruism even exists at all.
Altruism is tricky business. An action that might appear to be altruistic on the surface is quickly discounted if we suspect any ulterior motives. For instance, when Putin showers Assad with generous amounts of aid with no strings attached, I don’t think anyone believes, for one second, that he’s acting out of altruism.
This, however, is an extreme example, and a very simplistic one. What about Misaki from Welcome to the N.H.K., who professes to help Satou overcome his hikikomori ways, but is actually desperate to think of herself as a good or reliable person? Is this still altruism?
The problem comes when we are forced to ask if altruism can ever be without an ulterior motive that is rooted in self-interest. And this is a huge problem, since our deepest desires are often subconscious and inaccessible to us, exacerbated by the fact that they are typically seen as a sign of weakness, and most of us would rather pretend that they don’t exist than confront them.
What if we actually engage in acts of altruism because we are desperate to be happy, to feel good about ourselves, or to be able to think of ourselves as decent people? What if we are afraid of being disliked? Afraid of being seen as inadequate? Afraid that we don’t have a place in this world? What if altruism is just a convenience excuse to turn a blind eye to the criticisms of others because we have the moral advantage? What if, like Misaki, we enjoy thinking that there are others out there who have come to depend on our goodwill?
All these concerns exist based on what kinds of lives we’ve led and what kinds of experiences we’ve had in our lives. They are a product of our genes and socio-economic statuses. In that sense, there is a part to them that is strictly deterministic. We can’t just choose to eliminate these selfish motivations because we don’t want them to exist. Even if we desire to be altruistic for the right reasons, we can’t be sure that we want to be altruistic for the right reasons for the right reasons, or to be altruistic for the right reasons for the right reasons for the right reasons. We’re stuck in an altruinception.
Taking this scepticism one step further, what if those who value altruism the most are merely the ones who need to value altruism the most? What if, like the cast of Evangelion, only those with the strongest ulterior motives are driven enough to make huge sacrifices in the name of ‘altruism’?
Altruism is a convenient source of security, in the sense that it accepts everyone. Nobody will ever reject your donations or be ungrateful for them. Nobody will ever call you out for trying to do good, unless you’re Putin.
Don’t you individualists get too smug yet. If altruism falls, so does its close cousin. Evangelion goes on to interrogate love, forcing us to ask ourselves if true love exists, or if love is just a mutually beneficial arrangement between two people, in which each party is only in it for selfish ulterior reasons. Why do we love others? What if we love only because devoting ourselves to someone gives our lives meaning? Because we want someone who will devote themselves to us? Because we want to see ourselves as people who are capable of love? Because we want to matter to others? Because we are lonely? Because we are afraid that we cannot be happy on our own?
These are questions that all the main characters are forced to ask themselves as the Human Instrumentality Project begins and their internal worlds are ruptured. The last two episodes of Evangelion, while perhaps the way they are due to budget problems, nonetheless present a fascinating artistic decision. Yes, the plot completely ceases to exist at this point. However, as we watch the painful interrogations of Shinji, Asuka, Rei and Misaki, we need to bear in mind that this is all that matters to them right now. If we were subjected to the same kind of psychological scrutiny, I doubt most of us would still care what were happening around us.
This drives home the idea that, ultimately, our internal worlds are all we have access to. No matter what we do or who we love in the external world, we can only view these things through the filters of our minds, and interpret them using our thoughts and emotions. The external world only comprises half of our experiences, maybe less. If our filters are muddied, everything behind them might as well cease to exist.
What, then, is the point of caring for others? What is the point if we can never know that someone else experiences the world the same way we do, and if we can never know that our altruism and love has a positive impact on someone else’s conscious experiences in the way we envision? What is the point if we’re limited to experiencing a reality that’s necessarily self-centred?
Thankfully, Evangelion doesn’t try to argue that altruism and love are inherently self-defeating. Rather, it takes us to the absolute bottom, in a somewhat Cartesian fashion, so that things will look greener from that vantage point. Human motivations are extremely complex, and we will continue to be uncertain about our decisions and ourselves no matter what we do, but things can only get better once we accept that. It is only when Shinji is put in a world where everyone’s consciousness is merged together and there is no such thing as betrayal or selfishness or conflict that he realises that this is not what he wants either. He would rather deal with all the pain and hypocrisy, just so he can search for the beauty behind it, because he knows that it is out there.
If altruism and love were nothing more than illusions, we would’ve dropped the pretence long ago. The fact that they continue in exist, in their many forms, and continue to affect our lives in very real ways, shows that even if we were misguided about the purity of our intentions, we’d have deceived ourselves so well that we’d come full circle and go back to the real thing.
Even then, humility is important if we desire to act altruistically. We need to accept that we can never be ‘genuinely’ altruistic. Every decision we make is a mix of everything we believe, a mishmash of all our interests towards ourselves and towards others. At best, we may only identify that altruism and self-interest coexist. It’s impossible to try to separate them. The good news is that this means acting altruistically isn’t futile. It’s just difficult.
Evangelion leaves us with one last observation, perhaps the most important one of all. Genuine altruism isn’t something we deliberate over. It is raw and spontaneous and arresting. We see it in the moments where Shinji isn’t given the freedom to wallow in self-pity. In the very first episode, he agrees to pilot Eva Unit 01 on impulse. The trigger? He can’t bear to see Rei suffer. As he tries to rationalise his grievances in later episodes, he corrupts his original moral convictions with his own selfish needs. However, there and then, frozen in time, as Rei shivers in his arms and he is plagued by despair, there is a brilliant clarity in his intentions.
This is part 2 in a 3-part series about Evangelion and Altruism. The 3rd part is Evangelion and Altruism in an Indecent World.