Archives for posts with tag: selfishness

There is a fairly cynical worldview out there called Psychological Egoism. What this means is that every human action, regardless of how altruistic, can only be motivated by some kind of personal gain. A common example is the story of Abraham Lincoln, of all people, saving a pig stuck in some mud, and then explaining afterward that he would have been bothered all day had he left the pig stuck in its predicament. It’s probably not a factual depiction of history, but it gets the point across.

Some go further than the uncomfortable feeling one might possess if they had not rescued a pig in distress. Complete self-sacrifice, such as throwing oneself onto a grenade in order to save one’s peers, has been argued to be selfishly oriented as well. The story goes that the person is of such a disposition that the life they would have led had they not sacrificed themselves would be less agreeable than death. It is a selfish act because they choose for themselves the less painful of the two options. The introspection and regret would have been too much, and so to avoid that personal suffering, they selfishly kill themselves, saving everyone else.

Charming, right? Such a lovely mentality.

I want to take a different approach. Since those who argue for humanity’s inherent selfishness look to the altruistic paragons in order to tear them down, I’m going to look at the most selfish behaviour, and see if I can’t argue that it is inherently selfless. Since I want to look at the worst of the worst, I will of course be examining the Trump family.

The Eric Trump Foundation’s charity golf tournament, which raises money for children with cancer, falsely tells its donors that 100% of their donations go to charity. Eric Trump alleges that his father Donald allows them use of his golf course for free, when in reality, the Trump organization charges them for everything, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars “donated” by unsuspecting philanthropists. Surely this must be a selfish act!

Eric Trump connives and takes advantage of cancerous children for the sake of his family. He has no interest in himself, but spreads the wealth that he steals from charity to the people he cares about most. He would risk his name being dragged through the mud, vilified for his deeds, in order to bring in extra money for the only people that matter to him.

Now you might think, the Trump family already has enough. As president, Donald is seeking to eliminate the only taxes that he appears to have to pay! Surely they do not need the extra cash. Yet I expect that the Trump family believes that they would make better use of any funds given to them, bettering the world by making sure that those who best know how to utilize money are the ones given the opportunity to do so.

Those who routinely decry taxation as theft, who would rather spend less on the property tax on their vacation home, do so because they believe that they know how to spend their money better than some government. They believe firmly that the world would be better off if they had the choice on whether the money they earned sends poor children to school or buys a second vacation home, rather than have that decision made for them.

The natural human lifespan necessarily requires altruism. Leaving a legacy, preparing a dynasty, we as individuals always leave this mortal coil, which means that a portion of our life is inherently dedicated to who and what we leave behind, but let’s say that Donald Trump was not going to bequeath his vast wealth to his children when he dies. Let’s say, after he has stolen so much from so many, he burns it all, rather than dispersing it to anyone, loved ones or otherwise. This would obviously be because he believed that the world would be improved without this money in it. Why else would he burn it if he didn’t believe the world would be better off?

Every act we take is based on helping the ones we love (even if it negatively impacts others), and improving the world based on the personal standards that we hold it to. Even if others might disagree on those standards, we cannot help but abide by our own.

Perhaps you might think my examples far-fetched. The Trump family is a difficult sell as decent human beings of any sort. Yet my story is just as plausible as the soldier jumping on a grenade for selfish reasons. We can come up with speculation to justify or betray any behaviour.

In all honesty, there are certainly selfish behaviours, just as there are selfless ones. Trying to confine the complexity of humanity into one is just as absurd as confining it to the other. How we judge and perceive the actions of others is more determined by what story we are willing to tell. If someone perceives every action as selfish, I believe that speaks greater volumes about the accuser than it does about our human nature.

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There is a fairly common belief that part of the basic nature of humanity involves some amount of selfishness. That, instinctively, people will look out for number one, and when it really counts, will leave their fellow man behind. This allows things like Capitalism and Liberalism, with their heavy emphasis on individuality and striving to raise oneself over others, to become bio-truths. When the paradigm of the day declares selfishness to be a part of who we are, the exploitation and oppression that arise from it become even more difficult to fight and overcome. If one despot is overthrown, for example, another will simply take his place as that is how our basic chemistry makes us.

Is it true? Are we naturally selfish? I am but a humble blog writer with no relevant credentials, but I would disagree with this assertion. The belief that we would naturally be selfish is based on the idea that self-preservation would allow our ancestors to make sure they weren’t eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. They only had to outrun the person they were with to survive, after all.

It is of course impossible to know for certain what makes up our biological impulses compared to what is nurtured into us, but I believe there is evidence even today that disproves selfishness as a part of our nature. The easiest place to look to see if self-preservation prevails is a place where human beings are being threatened with death every day. So let’s look at war.

The book On Killing by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman tells us that the utmost fear of a rookie recruit going in to battle is the fear of dying. However, the greatest fear of soldiers who have seen combat is letting their comrades down. The conditioning of soldiers is intended to strip them of their humanity until they are unfeeling killing machines, and this typically works. However, basic instincts would remain, and what we see by those who have faced the opportunity to either embrace their allegedly selfish nature, or stick with their friends, is that they almost always stick with their friends. Those who are ignorant of the ways of war maintain the selfish fear of personal death likely due to the common cultural belief that we are inherently selfish individuals, but those who have lived it show that the true instinct lies in our connection with others.

This phenomenon doesn’t just appear in war. Parents on welfare will frequently go without food so that their child will be able to eat. When the situation becomes dire, it seems that our instinct is to take care of those that we love, not abandon them in order to save ourselves.

So… cool? Most people associate selfishness with “bad” anyway, so why am I bothering to disprove it as a bio-truth? Because when we see it as a part of who we are, it seems almost necessary that greed and corruption permeate all levels of our culture. To strike back becomes futile, and the common trend is to join in and try to survive as best you can. We even have philosophies based on selfishness that are wildly successful. To achieve happiness, don’t change the world, change the way you look at the world. Reality is based on our perception and experience, and if one focuses solely on the way they perceive things, they would be able to achieve whatever they want: within the realm of their own existence.

But our reality is not the only reality. Each reality shares an interconnected dependence on all the realities of all the individuals around it. Think of it as a a lake, and every action we take is a stone dropping into the water, creating a ripple. If everyone throws in a stone, each ripple overlaps with all the others, influencing the pattern on the surface. We are not individuals, we are individuals within a community, and to ignore that is detrimental to both the community as well as the individual.

So if our basic instinct is to embrace our love, why is there selfishness? The entire premise of Grossman’s book is to look at what enables one human to kill another, and I believe the conditions that allow us to kill allow us to perform all manner of terrible things upon each other, and I look at this premise more in depth in my blog post here. I also believe that what we call empathy, or our ability to perceive the experiences of others through our own personal lens (oftentimes to the detriment of that other) allows us to act selfishly without recognizing the consequences of our actions as damaging to others.

How do we fight the selfishness that appears to be overpowering our culture? Foster the interconnected in our communities, listen instead of assume, disable the conditions that perpetuate both figurative and literal violence, and above all else know that deep down we are creatures of love. Expand the circle of that love to include more than just family and friends, and a difference will be made.