June 17, 2020
In my senior year of high school, I had a thought-provoking and reflective conversation with a good friend, who argued that any action made by anyone ever could be rationalized as selfish. As he made his point, I immediately tried to think of the most selfless actions I had witnessed or read about and tried to argue them. Person who devotes nearly their life’s work and finances to helping others in needy conditions? His ultimate aim is to make himself feel he has left a strong positive impact on the world. Friend who takes a 50 minute detour to go out of their way to give you a ride? She’s just playing the long-term game of friendship, expecting you would be available to her help out should she ever need in the future. Of course, these might not always be the exact motivation in these situations, but the point being even in the seemingly selfless actions, there was a hidden motive that the actor had in mind.
When I later reflected on this belief, I continued to internally rattle off a bunch of other altruistic actions, and rebutted each with some reason in how they could be justified to be selfish. Some reasons certainly more sensible than others, but they all had some reason that was not an unreasonable stretch. This gave me a sense of futility, and I felt like many of the interactions in the world that felt purely good-intentioned were sneakily for each’s own gain. After feeling glum about it for a few days, I think I proceeded with my life mostly the same, with a slightly stronger mentality of deciphering at people’s intention in their actions, which I despised myself for whenever I caught myself doing this.
This also seeped into myself having a more negative stance towards certain things in this world such as religion as charity. Religion felt contradicting to me - most religions emphasize the greatness of their God(s), yet it felt the one true motive of followers of a religion is to gain entrance into heaven/eternal comfort. Charity is always framed as impacting those less fortunate than yourself, but I felt like almost all charity was performed in the spirit of either bettering one’s public image or in the purpose of making one feel better about his/her identity as a human being. In short, it was hard to find any system branding its goal as one with the greater purpose of an individual, when all the agents in this system are still acting for their own selfish interest.
I do want to jump in and say that the idea humans to be inherently selfish agents is not an unexpected or radical one - taking advantage of local resources to nurture and feed oneself is necessary for survival, and like all organisms on the planet, we will bias our actions to stimuli that make us feel good, and repeatedly seek those out. I think a cool tangentially related topic from The Rational Optimist is that humans were able to surpass all other organisms on the planet in terms of prosperity and advancement because of their selfish intelligence - recognizing that specialization of goods traded by differing groups provided a net greater benefit to each individual group, encouraging greater and greater specialization and exchange.
A new shift in thinking began for me a year or two ago, when I began to dig deeper into one of the few actions that did not feel wholly selfish to me - the acts of deep sacrifice from one family member to another, both in the ones I had experienced as well as the ones I had heard about. Yes, if you dove from enough angles there’s no doubt you could find some written selfish motivation to plug for any of these actions. Yet when doing so for myself, it still didn’t feel truly right. I recently read two ideas quoted from Buddhism in Eleven Rings that went “Just as a mother would protect her only child with her life, even so let one cultivate a boundless love towards all beings.” and “What you do for yourself, any gesture of kindness, any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty and clear seeing toward yourself, will affect how you experience your world. In fact, it will transform how you experience the world. What you do for yourself, you’re doing for others, and what you do for others, you’re doing for yourself.” Having no affiliation with Buddhism, this was the idea that made the most sense to me in this context. Yes, this is selfishness - but in the frame that someone is acting for the benefit of someone they see as an extension of themselves, rather than the selfishness of an action that is a transaction that may benefit them in the future.
Although this is still selfishness by definition, I found this concept to be quite touching. To me, it seemed like genuine, prevailing love is the component that shifts the gear of a selfish action going from a transaction to an action with the best intent for oneself. While you can’t objectively say the latter is better than the former, to me, that is a beautiful idea - that the well being and betterment of someone else can be wholly incorporated into the intent of all of your own being. When thinking about larger groups(families, best friends, close villagers), it feels like such a powerful unstoppable force in this world. I don’t think we could ever reach it, but it is a happy thought to ponder if the whole world could be unified in such a way. For myself, I will be grateful for the relationships I have in my life than exemplify this, that transition of someone's intent from the ‘isolated’ selfishness, acting in their own favor to the ‘unified’ selfishness, acting with full representation on the account of someone they love.
*Thank you for taking the time to read this. I’m quite aware this writing is unorganized and disjoint in some transitions. Feel free to reach out for any comments or criticisms. I also want to disclaim I am no longer a skeptic of religion and am thinking much about God and spirituality.