“An individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity. Every person must decide at some point, whether they will walk in light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
– Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (August 11th, 1957)’
While I would not go so far as to propose psychological egoism it is not unreasonable to suggest certain elements of modern society are rooted in selfish behaviour. The foundation of our most pervasive economic system, free-market capitalism, relies on self-interest in relation to others. We are often inclined to parrot mottos such as ‘help yourself before helping others’ in non-applicable situations, as though it is a crime to devote your time to the benefit of society before the benefit of yourself. So where does this purported intuitive selfishness really stem from? Here I will suggest that not only is selfishness embedded in the perpetuation of sociological factors but in another factor we take entirely for granted: our very perception of reality.
Is it madness to question such fundamentals as our anatomical make-up? Our accepted origins are in evolution but the ‘reason’ for human existence itself is still unclear. Using the power of the imaginative facilities we are equipped with, especially regarding our tendency to dream and desire magnificent impossibilities, why shouldn’t we have insight into the perspective of other humans? An interesting utopia would be waking up as a different person everyday with an entirely new perspective and set of problems to overcome. Now of course this would defeat our traditional idea of personal growth (as well as being fundamentally impossible on physical grounds!) but the point stands that this flawed and shallow perspective we have of reality (see Kant’s transcendental idealism¹) could be much improved, but isn’t. Thus to some degree even the most self-absorbed person requires the second-hand experience of others to verify their own perception. Moreover, each of us is inescapably influenced by our predecessors and those we directly and indirectly come into contact with. To some degree we are other people (whether this implies the unity of all things is much more controversial). A second point then, if the immaterial self is to a significant extent a product and amalgamation of others we have very little reason not to devote our lives in service to the majority, yet strangely many of us refrain from doing so. Why is this the case?
Let’s start with competition. There’s a sound argument that competition is in some way biologically ingrained in civilisation. Great thinkers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky argued that a socialist utopia, where each of us is attributed resources equally, is impossible as (among other reasons such as the necessity for perpetual freedom) many of us use the concept of potential monetary reward as an incentive for improved performance, rather than contribute to society for the direct benefit of others. Others such as H.G. Wells would contest this kind of claim with the supposition that with a consistent increase in average IQ, plus a speedy rise in technological capabilities rendering manual labour eventually obsolete, in the next few centuries people would be drawn to less competitive professions like artistic pursuits for the coming of a second Renaissance. The likely reality is probably somewhere in between these two viewpoints.
However in defense of humanity most of us walk the line between selfishness and selflessness on a day-to-day basis. We accept the status quo with the admission that at least we have the freedom to choose our profession even if others around us may receive greater monetary reward for a similar output or hours spent working². We have the opportunity to utilise our ‘spare’ time volunteering such as attending support groups or aiding environmental welfare. The problem is that our economic system combined with our restricted perspective of reality allows those who are selfish to prosper, not that all of us are necessarily selfish.
In developed societies especially it is quite difficult to abandon the rat race and decide to devote your life to the service of others. To begin with the very idea of relinquishing the luxuries of life in favour of a minimalistic lifestyle is much easier said than done. Then comes the challenge of funding a charitable way of life, where your best bet may be working for a non-profit organisation or becoming a modern-day nomad. This is not to rashly declare the whole of our capitalistic system is inherently wrong. In fact the competition for more and more resources has left us with a colossal number of spectacular inventions and achievements. The question is whether we would continue to prosper in a society where the self is not so individuated from the whole.
Collectively we have the power to create a society based on noble reciprocity. At the moment it appears as if we are tending too far in the direction of individualism (on average we are having increasingly less interactions with other members of society) and in some way this is linked to the idea of intuitive selfishness. Us having a single-minded view of objective reality can quite easily reduce or destroy our natural sense of empathy with others. In this sense our perception allows selfishness to prosper leaving very few deterrents for individual immoral behaviour³. The best we can do is to promote individual and systematic change in the way we live. A good start is by abstaining or campaigning against unethical practices which often value money-making and output efficiency over the well-being of the people. The end goal could well be a more socialistic society, where the wealth disparity is greatly reduced but perhaps not entirely eliminated, or even the advancement of various technologies (e.g. being able to visually replicate experiences) enabling us to better understand the perspectives and emotions of others we interact with. In either case your life is finite. It would be a mistake to live predominantly for the self and not for the sake of others.
“It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a ‘higher standard of living than any have ever known’. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary and henceforth unrationalizable as mandated by survival.”
— Buckminster Fuller, ‘Critical Path’
¹Stang, Nicholas F., “Kant’s Transcendental Idealism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
²Personally I don’t believe this system is just. Although, it is certainly fair that workers in dangerous professions may receive a greater salary than the rest of us. But there is no simple answer in the context of a vast economic structure complexified beyond belief. Very few individuals have a thorough understanding of the way wealth is generated and awarded, and of those who do it is likely very few of them would support changes to a system so easily exploited (e.g. the concept of investments, which generally increases the wealth disparity as of course only those who already have disposable wealth have the opportunity to increase it).
³A radical example: If allowed the means and the motive a psychopath could commit a horrible crime, killing dozens of innocent people and then themself with the erroneous belief that human life is worthless.