Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Selfishness (some further ranting)

Selfishness is one of those long standing words which I’ve always had a bit of a problem with. We all know how to use it well enough in context, but it’s exactly the context of it that makes its use, well, sort of selfish.

Choice, a general view:
In our daily life we have choices, and I’d like to here say (for the sake of rhetorical power) that in almost every circumstance there are two types of choices we can make. There is the NORMATIVE choice, and there is the SELFISH choice.
Normative choices are those that fit the category of “shoulds”. In other words the things we should do based on our cultural value system; we SHOULD follow the speed limit, we SHOULD stop at stop signs, we SHOULD not drive while intoxicated, we SHOULD meet our previously agreed to obligations, we SHOULD donate to United Way, we SHOULD not steal from our neighbors, we SHOULD help an old lady across the street.
Selfish choices then, are those that simply avoid or do not take into account the normative alternative. In other words we simply don’t take into account how our actions are going to affect our cultural value system; that is, we act according to our own values, our own wants and needs. We break the speed limit, we break our plans, we’re stingy with our money, we push over old ladies to get out of a fire safely, we “take our ball and go home.”

The problem of Object/Subject:
There’s an obvious problem here though, in the way we view normative / selfish choices, and that is we do so objectively. We all know what the normative choices are and if we see someone not making it, they are immediately selfish, but we’re completely neglecting what’s going on inside someone’s head when they make that choice. We neglect the potential fact that, when a given individual makes the normative choice to donate money to the church, he’s doing it not because it’s normative, but because it makes him feel good to know he’s helping people.
So what we have is simple, the objective judgment of the act, and the neglect of the subjective motive.

Normative Selfishness and Motive (the existential problem):
Again, when people make the normative choice, we’re neglecting the motive for that choice; why are they doing it? In an objective sense, we’d call the man who donates his money selfless, however, perhaps he’s servicing an inner desire to help people, or perhaps he servicing an inner need to do the normative and be seen in a certain light; the bottom line is, the action completed is in the service of an individual’s emotional state. One either wants to feel good by doing good, or feel good by being accepted, or feel good by taking the normative rout, or perhaps it’s the alleviation of an underlying anxiety of not doing it. No matter the reason, the normative act always has a deeply personal motive; regardless of the objective benefit or seemingly normative nature of the act, the person is servicing themselves and therefore has a sort of Normative Selfishness.

So what:
Ok, sure, so what? I suppose I think about it this way, one man gives his money and time and feels good about doing it, another refrains from giving his money and time because he doesn’t. Perhaps the one man is just plain stingy, but certainly it goes deeper then that. The psychological dispositions of the giving man and the stingy man, having both given money, are completely different. The one man feels good, the other perhaps has a growing anxiety inside over just having lost 10% of his earnings that month. So should we blame them for feeling the way they do? If someone doesn’t feel good about doing a certain thing, should it be our place to make them, or label them? Isn’t THAT a bit selfish? We use the negatively connotated word selfish to point to peoples actions, while at the same time being completely oblivious to the way the person feels, or what they’re motives are. How completely selfish is that? Essentially what we’re saying to people is, your actions should be consistent with the benefit of me and/or people at large no matter how you feel about it; how selfish is that? We could say, as an example, that homosexuals are selfish people because they’re actions are not consistent with normative choices; but are we not in this case failing to consider that they have a need for love and affection, and that the love and affection they desire is not possible from a member of the opposite sex? How selfish is that? Don’t we all have the right to love?

I say that we are all equally selfish, as, so far as I can tell, there is no such thing as altruism. We simply like those who benefit us, and don’t like those who don’t; we judge people objectively, in almost a utilitarian way. And certainly there are people whose happiness is dangerously wrapped up in activities that are grossly against the normative choice; child molestation for example, we of course need to draw the line somewhere. The bottom line is simply that, some people feel good with the normative choice, and some people don’t; I’m not convinced we have any more control over it then a homosexual has over his sexual preference. Perhaps the big issue here is that we all have certain emotional rights, and sometimes those emotional strivings butt up against what’s normative; how we get around that I don’t know, but certainly casting judgment isn’t the key. Is it?

NOTE: I've always liked the following anecdote, and it sort of fits the occasion; some people step to the open door of a plane, prone to jump and dopamine is released from the brain, an intense rush is upon them. On the other hand a completely different person in the same position gets a release of serotonin from the brain, and he’s scared out of his mind. Should we judge / label either of these two individuals in a negative way?


We should love people for who they are, and not for how they may or may not benefit us. Perhaps in showing a “selfish” person love, they’ll learn to reciprocate? Perhaps people wouldn’t be so stingy if they knew that people in general were not so stingy? But we are.


  1. I think that, as we are subjective beings, selfishness is all we are truly capable as we act accorningly to our relationship between self and the interconnectedness with the rest of the world. Sometimes even best intentions go awry. In the end, we try to do things that are good and noble for all things, but we are limited in our knowing of what right actions are.

  2. I agree. Although our behavior is a reflection of the opposite belief.

  3. Isn't behaviour a condition response? We base our social interactions on attachments. When attached to someone, seeking approval is normally what we do. Perhaps it is the lack of attachment (the stingyness you refered to) that epitomises North American society and our anti-social behaviour...

  4. Certainly,
    to some degree behavior is a conditioned response, and so is the use of language.

    I am of course, just ranting here as "selfish" is simply one of those words I loath and like to beat up on here and there. The reality of a real argument, (if I honestly were to make one) would follow along the lines of attacking the neo-dualistic thinking that exists in western society (and by that of course, I mean subject / object thinking).

    I guess I'm not so much interested in the psychology of the matter, but in the underlying forms of thought that created the psychological disposition in the first place. For example (here’s an interesting thought), in Vietnam (and other parts of the east) it’s socially acceptable for two men to walk down the street holding hands. Now it should be known that these two men are not homosexual, they’re just friends, they enjoy each others company and they’re holding hands; The thought of these two men being homosexual wouldn’t even cross the mind of anyone seeing this.

    I tend to believe that it’s our western form of rationality that creates our isolation, and we have Aristotle to thank for that. This is a long story so I’ll just say this, prior to reasoning establishing itself as king-shit, people (the Greeks) believed in arête, or excellence, or virtue. They believed in a Quality undefined, and it had a sort of Tao-istic ideal to it. Today we live in a dualistic world where excellence is achieved by objectivity, and that’s a shame.

  5. Isn't the whole isolation issue the bane of western civilisations demise? The Me Generation augmented by the high speed 24/7 mentality dominating our society has lead to being more connected than ever, yet resulted in the demise of our neighbourhoods and the relationships that create culture. We no longer have "culture" in North America. All we have is a sense of entitlement and a thirst for quantity. Sad.

  6. Sure,
    but again, what is that issue a result of? Is our high speed 24/7 mantality a cause? I dont't doubt that it contributes, however that mantality is itself caused by deeper underlying forms of thought. The seeds that grew into todays mantality were planted years ago, well before being connected.

    But this is a whole other topic of conversation.

  7. Perhaps it all began with the industrial revolution - where faces and people began to be replaced with machines. Most of what we do in terms of socialisation has also moved from inter-personal to mechanisms (phones, email, TV, etc.). I'm not sure. Urbanisation might also be a factor.

    You are right that it's a whole other topic of conversation...

  8. Sounds like this is a hot topic for you though? Perhpas worthy of a blog post. I'm always interested in other people thoughts on such things....

  9. Yes, this is a fairly hot topic for me. If I were to name my top three issues they would be: apathy of the masses, the collapsing of neighbourhoods/communities and life without substance. I have nattered on at length about these topics on my site. Ultimately, I feel the world is becoming as one great corporation where we adopt the cubicle mentality and are concerened only with climbing the corporate ladder as quickly as possible. Life is short and we are missing the point.