Thursday, May 25, 2006

IS EVERYONE SELFISH?

“Everyone’s selfish.” That’s the commercial wisdom that’s been pounded into morally flaccid skulls over the last few decades. The recently departed Libertarian presidential candidate, Harry Browne, even placed this very popular idea into an essay that graces a popular ethics anthology. The article was named, “The Unselfishness Trap.”

According to this revisionist logic, people who do what they want to do are selfish. And since everyone—Pope Benedict, Donald Trump, and Richard “the shoebomber” Reid—does what he wants, everyone is selfish.

It’s a clever rhetorical sleight of hand that manages to overturn, without further ado, two thousand years of moral reasoning that portrayed selfishness as a grave vice. Now, armed with this cheaply attained insight, conspicuous consumers and media narcissists are able to dismiss the trait as an empty label that moralists attach to actions they disapprove. At least that’s the conclusion Harry and company came to after five minutes of not-so-strenuous philosophical lifting.

Getting folks to think seriously about morality is, indeed, a daunting task—especially in a culture where individuals are inundated with messages designed to reinforce their worst impulses. “No rules, just right.” “Obey your thirst.” “Just do it.” “You’ve got to make yourself happy first.”

Anyone who can’t spot the flaw in the aforementioned selfishness argument would do well to begin a rigorous moral exercise program—say, ten pages of Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas a day. Heck, you can throw in Confucius or the Tao-Te Ching for diversity’s sake.

The mistake that modern rationalizers make is to define selfishness as “doing what you want to do.” This is not, and never has been, the definition of selfishness. (Indeed, for Aristotle the very definition of a virtuous individual is a person who both does and wants to do what is right.) Instead of “doing what you want,” selfishness is properly defined as the quality exhibited by those who focus inordinately on their own interests—and act accordingly. Selfish people, in other words, regularly fail to look at things through the eyes of others.

By introducing a bogus definition of the word “selfish,” revisionists succeed in undermining the concept itself. For if every single action is selfish, then the phrase “acting selfishly” is transformed into a useless redundancy.

An embarrassing question that arises from this short analysis is this: Which persons and groups are most anxious to do away with the concept of selfishness? It doesn’t take a media genius to figure that one out.

A final question takes this form: Why do contemporary Americans so easily confuse rational self-interest, willing acts of sacrificial love, and craven egotism? The answer, I think, is that people who are brazenly superficial and stunningly narcissistic prefer to employ moral mirrors that are thoroughly muddled.

5 comments:

Mateo said...

Well first, you decide impossibly step out of your own being and think for other people, which you can't in any way since you are not them. There are endless possibilities which The Other could be, or their reasons. You can't know anything about anybody else. And second, your own ideas of right and wrong are a 'muddled mirror' or whatever you said. There is no proof that this world came with a set of right and wrong.'God is Dead'. And the very fact that people decide to follow what is 'right' is because it pleases them to do so. Bringing back the whole thing that there is no right and wrong. If there is a god he created our minds like this first of all, and second, we have no obligation to worship or follow him. Everything can be traced back to personal pleasure and displeasure. You decide to follow what you believe is right because it pleases you. You are you, that's it. THAT'S IT. If you say no, you are doing right because it is right, no other reason, and you believe in the christian god, you're doing it for your salvation. If you don't believe in the god, or decide not to distinguish your belief, you're doing what is 'right' for your own pleasure. People don't think it is right to put suffering on to anybody else because it displeases them to know they caused it or to see somebody else suffer. And as for the "they can't put their own eyes in other positions" or however you put it. Why should they? What is anyone else's suffering to me?But then again, I contradict myself since i can only speak for me as previously stated.
'Zuanghzi and his friend are walking along a river and Zhuangzi says "look at the fish, they're enjoyment is to swim and dart about"
The friend says "you are not the fish, how do you know what they enjoy?" Zhunagzi says "Ah, but you are not me, so how do you know I do not know what the fish enjoy?"
=)


'Tis only a thesis for the sake of the state we are arguing in.

And as for this state, "Is Everyone Selfish?" YES.

RKirk said...

Mateo,

I would work on grammar and clarity of thought before attempting philosophy.

You either didn't read what I wrote or didn't understand it or didn't pay any attention to it.

You say it's impossible to step out of your own mind to know another's, and yet you are perfectly willing to interpret my thoughts--incorrectly it turns out, since I said hardly anything that you wrote.

The simple proposition put forward in this short piece has nothing to do with whether there is or isn't a god. The article is based on the commonly accepted definition of the word "selfish"--a word which you mistakenly (ignoring my argument and the dictionary) equate with "pleasing yourself." That is not the definition of "selfish." In fact, when one gains pleasure by doing the right thing, one is, according to Aristotle, truly virtuous. Aristotelian ethics, I might add, are not rooted in "theology."

"Selfishness" means to focus inordinately on the self to the exclusion of concern for others. While I have no absolute insight into the soul of an individual, I, like other humans, rely on a person's general pattern of action and speech to draw practical conclusions--such conclusions that make language itself meaningful and serviceable. (If everyone were as solipsistically sealed off from everyone else as you seem to suppose, then useful communication and cooperation, which obviously exist, would be impossible.)

When a person exhibits no consistent concern for anyone besides himself, that is the social and linguistic, not theological, definition of selfishness.

Some people are like that--selfish. Some are not. Whether they gain pleasure from what they do is not intrinsically related to selfishness. I am not "selfish" if I gain pleasure from helping others, nor am I "unselfish" if I find myself (a la a Freudian analysis) stewing miserably in my own self-centered actions.

The principle reason people like to argue that everyone is selfish is to do away with the very concept of selfishness--which is a convenient linguistic and philosophical trick that advantages selfish individuals, since it eliminates their unfavorable comparison with folks who are charitable and not inordinately self-centered.

Mateo said...

""Selfishness" means to focus inordinately on the self to the exclusion of concern for others. While I have no absolute insight into the soul of an individual, I, like other humans, rely on a person's general pattern of action and speech to draw practical conclusions--such conclusions that make language itself meaningful and serviceable. (If everyone were as solipsistically sealed off from everyone else as you seem to suppose, then useful communication and cooperation, which obviously exist, would be impossible.)"


Ok first, while you accuse me of not reading your article, you chose not to include that I referenced that I had to condtradict myself for the sake of the argument.

"You say it's impossible to step out of your own mind to know another's, and yet you are perfectly willing to interpret my thoughts--incorrectly it turns out, since I said hardly anything that you wrote."

Once again, for the sake of the state we are arguing in, and if you classify that as incorrectly, then you are also incorrect when you rely on 'practical' conclusions based on others' general patterns. And when you tell me you would work on grammar and clarity of thought. You don't know at all my level of clarity of thought. And what does my grammar matter? I'm sure you can understand my arguments, it's not as if i'm speaking gibberish. So let's get past that.

Since it is impossible to step out of one's own mind, its an impossibility to come to any conclusion whatsoever about anyone else.

And, to focus inordinately to the exclusion of concern for others?
I argue that in 'concerning' others, one is only pleasing themselves in pleasing their belief of a right and wrong, and performing that belief in situations.


"(If everyone were as solipsistically sealed off from everyone else as you seem to suppose, then useful communication and cooperation, which obviously exist, would be impossible.)"


Which obviously exists? well I can completely disreguard that since The only existence one can prove is 'Cogito ergo sum'

All one can know is the existence of their own mind and what it perceives. It doesn't automatically mean it externally exists with absence of the human mind. ie. idealism.

And if you'd like, so you don't keep pointing out my contradictions of stepping out of one's own mind, you may replace 'one' or 'you' with 'I' or 'Me'. To be correct.

Your title is Richard Kirk on Ethics. So yes, the matter of ethics does have to do with if there is or isn't a god.

Daz said...

First I would like to say thank you Mr. Kirk for posting your insight in such an open manner. It is nice to be able to discuss such things with people in your position in an open forum like this.

I would like to start by saying that I thought Mateo's posts were clear enough for me to understand and what he seems to be saying is that we have no foundation for ethical values to begin with except for Rene Descartes’ initial meditation. This would mean that our values that are selfish also should be because of the above stated foundation. This argument would be pretty good even with critical assessment from David Hume, but I see what you mean when you say it still does not cover your main topic which is that all people are not selfish and can choose to be selfless.

You seem to make this claim off of a misinterpreted definition of selfishness. "the quality exhibited by those who focus inordinately on their own interests—and act accordingly". After seeing both sides I would have to say that a man even as educated as your self seems to have made the misinterpretation. No where in this definition does it say you have to ignore the prospective of others. This is where the argument arises; people like me and Mateo see any action taken that is taken to please them self is in fact a selfish action. Like if helping a homeless man on the street by giving him money is done because you feel good about helping people, that is a selfish action. However you don’t seem to see it in this manner and if I could guess I would have to say that you would call the gesture to the homeless man an unselfish gesture because you are seeing through the homeless mans perspective. I don’t see any reason for this though because it is not selfless by definition unless the person does it with no self interest or pleasure.

At least that’s my interpretation, but like Mateo pointed out I really have no way of seeing the way you or anyone else thinks or knowing whether or not something someone else does is done without self interest. Just because I know I have done everything with self interest is not reason enough for me to attribute the same mentality to anyone else. So I guess you are right that people should stop attributing this frame of mind to everybody.

sittiponder said...

Facepalm. The main argument is that those who say,"Everyone is selfish," misinterpret the meaning of, "selfish." Being selfish means you basically seclude yourself from socially acceptable ways of acting in society. A selfish person does not care about the group. "For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack." A selfless person is like a wolf. They serve themselves by serving the pack, and therefore survive. If wolves were selfish, they would not work together, and would one by one die off via starvation. In order for a community to truly survive, its members must be "groupish" and less "selfish." (Groupish is a made up word to show dissection of the word selfish.) Being "groupish" (selfless) means you seek a common good that in the end helps you, and the rest of the community, no matter how self compromising it may seem, and furthermore, you WANT to do it. Case closed.

Just for anyone wanting to spot my grammatical flukes, i rly dont no or care hoo teached me hao ta speech lol ok so just shutt ur face