This counter-intuitive statement is an opinion of mine. I’m not a psychologist and have very little evidence to support it, but bear with me and see if you agree with my reasoning.
Children learn to understand the needs of others
Humans are born entirely dependent on their parents providing for their needs. The newborn’s existence will undoubtedly provide its parents with much joy, but because it is unable to fully process the stimuli of its world it is probably completely unaware of this, in fact, at this point of its life, it is probably entirely unaware of the needs of others around them. For infants we see this as morally acceptable. Their needs are simple and their parents are probably perfectly able to provide for those needs.
However, as infants grow to become children their needs will become more sophisticated and their parents may be unable to meet some of those needs. The child then has to learn to relinquish their needs, for example, they may be compelled to endure the long visit to the shops or to forgo the toy that they wanted.
Eventually, the child will develop a degree of autonomy and will be able to satisfy some of their needs themselves. They will also learn to empathise with other peoples’ needs and will occasionally find that their ability to satisfy their own needs compromises the needs of others around them. Their first instinct might be to satisfy their needs regardless of the impact on others, but through conflict and parental guidance they will soon learn to negotiate their needs with the needs of others.
We are all aware of this process, but I illustrate it here merely to highlight how limitations in the child’s environment encourage the child to understand the needs of others. We could speculate that the more severe the limitations the more aware the child would have to become.
Moving beyond negotiation
At this point the child has learnt to negotiate merely for the purpose of meeting their own needs. For all of us, as we matured into childhood and adulthood, we became habitually programmed to resort to negotiation to meet our own needs. We might often encompass this need to negotiate within a moral framework. For example, we might easily feel indignant when our part of the negotiation has not been reciprocated. We may have given 110% to our workplace and watched while promotion passed us by or supported our partner in the home and felt that our needs have been ignored. This drive to negotiate comes in many guises. Even acts of kindness may be done to receive gratitude or social recognition.
Sometimes, however, we can move beyond this need to trade kindnesses. For example, we may sacrifice a pleasure to give an anonymous donation to a worthy cause simply because we are moved by compassion. It seems to me that the greater our compassion the more likely we are to make a genuine personal sacrifice to meet the needs of others. Generally, the greater the suffering of others, the more we are moved in compassion. Of course, our reactions to suffering may be mixed. Apathy or self preservation may lead us to ignore it. However, without the suffering of others there would be no drive for us to abandon the trading of kindnesses in favour of true compassion.
An imperfect world leads to human kindness
So, it seems to me that our moral development is dependent on us living in an imperfect world. Without limited resources we would not have to learn to consider others’ needs and to negotiate. Without the suffering of others we would not have the choice to either act in compassion or to be apathetic towards the needs of others.