Selfishness, Part III: The Balance

The argument of the selfless is the idea of imposing morality, encouraging belief instead of thought thus insuring certain notions to stay in play in a society/tribe/family.  Some of this imposing need is in the form of tyranny (I’ll talk about tyranny/power in another post) but more often than not it comes at us on the road of good intentions.  These notions are good, were “always” thought to be so and the need to question therefor becomes moot.  It is my contention that if one is going to commit themselves to ideals then it is best to do so with the full weight of one’s intellect, compassion and consciousness.  Nothing less.

Of course the qualifier to this is that it can only be acted upon when a person has a formed self; when the development has gone past the notions of simple pleasure seeking and instant gratification (helloooooo Id).  This is not to negate the notions of finding pleasure in self inquisition or philosophical discussions, but rather these things would be hollow if we were only allowing ourselves to venture into the realms of comfort to find answers.  Some individual’s doctrines would encourage the simple acceptance of “just being” and, while I can not negate the truth of the statement, is it truly complete?  I am, who I am all right, but if I don’t know what I think or why then what kind of existence is this?  Does this kind of existence encourage conscious action or merely reflexive responses born of either indoctrination or the requirements of an unrestrained Id?

The notion of selfishness in this context is nothing more or less than a fight for the ego, the assertion of it and the encouragement of healthy development of it.  When society evaluates those who are “selfish” people often interpret this as inappropriate greed [will do a post on that one too…  maybe…] and that those who do goodness in our society are selfless. The word itself is fraught with problems in that the people who do good can only do so by the rule of not considering themselves; that these actions are not done in honor of one’s ideals and ethics, but either contrary to or not in consideration of them or simply at the behest of someone else’s morality and imposing self.

In the context of the healthy ego a selfish person could be that person who volunteers at a soup kitchen, makes clothes for orphaned children or even just bakes for library fund raisers.  That a person who did all these things did so with the full weight of their consciences upon them, actively pursued aiding in causes of value to themselves, is not a reason for disdain or claims of martyrdom but celebration.  To act on behalf of one’s self is not easy.  It requires understanding and acceptance of consequences, a commitment to certain philosophies and/or organizations.  When a person acts in such a way it is selfish.  They’re doing it, not because they want to be selfless, but because they want to give a gift of themselves to themselves through their own notions of right action.

I close this particular series with a quote from Ayn Rand:

“Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice–which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction–which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.”

** There are more philosophical posts coming as I realized, almost bemusedly, that every aspect of the self and discussions there of necessitate still more ideals to be acknowledged.

Coming on Friday:  My review of Graceling!

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9 responses to “Selfishness, Part III: The Balance

  • Hart

    Very intriguing post. I remember a conversation with a former boss in Portland, oregon (a fairly religion-free place) about the role of religion. I posited that for people who are ‘pre-complex thought’ that religion was necessary, because otherwise people wouldn’t do the right thing, because their reasoning (pre-complex) would say ‘only wrong if I get caught’ where religion says ‘God watching, you are being caught’. Where people with more developed thinking grasp the wrongness of certain things in broader social justice terms and don’t need religion.–your fully formed thinker idea coincides nicely.

    My only PROBLEM with this balance, is ‘greed’ is a slippery slope. While self interest at some level is optimum and ideal, at another level, it is Enron–where is the line? If we each define our own line, then those crooks did nothing wrong… but they DID. Somewhere in this formula there needs to be a more objective ‘greater good’ piece, I think.

    Is working in a soup kitchen just for something for your college application wrong? Absolutely not. It was probably character building and good, no matter the original motive. But if somebody is harmed…

    • sara

      As a Christian, I suppose I’m one of those who is or who possesses “pre-complex thought” but don’t worry, I like being simple. (I feel like inserting a smiley face here so you know that my tone is light, but emoticons feel silly to me right now, so please do understand that I’m just bantering.)

      It’s odd to me that the beliefs of millions of people spanning thousands of years can be wiped away with a single swish of post-modern hubris. We know better, we’re so much smarter because we live now.

      I do think you are onto something in your wish for an objective standard of right and wrong. Clearly just doing what feels good in the moment is a failure for society. Actually, I think many people actually have a pretty good idea of what constitutes moral behavior and if people were honest, I don’t think it varies that much from person to person. In some circles it’s called the Golden Rule, and it’s taken from the Bible, but perhaps we could rename it for our post-Christian culture.

      When people transgress the Golden Rule, they know there is a moral law being broken, and even prove that they know they are doing wrong, by trying to rationalize why it was OK in this particular instance. “I hit him because he hit me first.” “I cheated on the test because the teacher is unfair.” The speaker proves knowledge of the law against violence by providing an excuse. The speaker proves that he knows that cheating is wrong by giving an excuse.

      Now about doing good for purposes other than the purely altruistic… I seem to want to quote Kant but can’t. Ha ha. Seriously, didn’t he address this in some way? I can’t quite remember.

      • kimberlyloomis

        Sara – Kant had a lot of things right, but in my opinion failed when it came to notions of altruism. The notion of altruism, at least in its modern context, is that it is something done regardless of the interest of the individual. I don’t view this as possible. If one desires to NOT do something, yet does it anyway, then that person has merely decided to martyr themselves while still BELIEVING in the action they made. This is a paradox I can not reconcile for myself. Thoughts?

        I try to leave “society” out of things such as definitions (I apologize if in my posts I didn’t) simply because it then comes down to what a group of people seem to embody. Talking about it in finite terms as “group a believes x,y and z” works fine, but we can not take on and interpret accurately what the meanings of these things are based upon a democratic notion. To do so puts the responsibility of the terms upon someone else and that requires a certain amount of faith I just don’t have.

        As for a morality that many people, I think, might get behind or are behind – I simply don’t know. The Golden Rule was touted a lot during my upbringing and I can say quite matter of factly very few people lived it. This applies to my childhood and even through now. That the why of the rules aren’t given proper vent seems to be a potential reason behind it. The way things function now rules in social settings like schools seem to boil down to some children being victims and others bullies.

        If a person strikes out, the person who strikes back in defense becomes subject to equal penalties, thus discouraging a person to assert/protect themselves. Should a proper authority not be around to immediately protect, etc, then to avoid arrest or suspension the person becomes a necessary victim (or out of fear of retribution) and the bully is potentially given a pass since he wasn’t “caught”. I think it might be an overly simplistic way of describing it, but can not prove to myself it is otherwise.

    • kimberlyloomis

      Hart – Greed is definitely a post I’ll be following up with. The word, much like selfish vs selfless, has seen many different evolutions that need to be addressed. Of course none of these things should be considered without a basic understanding of ethics or morals and that’s where things get sticky.

      As for the religion aspect it fails on many levels anyway. Many religious individuals I know don’t have a concept of WHY even their faith states that some things are wrong (same goes with the law) and thus will only follow that which they decide to. In order for those beliefs to sway action in the first place one has to have internalized the notions. Some of this can be done without hard intellectual conversations about the premise of these things within the faith, but in order to avoid the quagmire of only doing “right” because we’re afraid of punishment those rules do need to be questioned and understood. It’s for that reason also that our criminal system doesn’t work. Avoiding being caught, the ability to dismiss wrong action because it’s “only wrong if you get caught”, is what keeps aiding and abetting a lot of this.

      Social justice is an interesting term and not something I feel I necessarily grasp completely. Could you clarify that term for me?

  • sara

    I kind of wish I could follow you here, but this psychological stuff is a lot like a foreign language to me, though I’m trying to keep up. The only thing I know about selfishness is that I am – selfish that is.

  • sara

    Well, Kim. Hmmm. About Kant – I agree with you – I DON’T think it’s possible to have pure motives in anything, not even for a martyr. I think it would be impossible to tease out just how much of this motive and how much of that really contributes to a person’s actions.

    For clarity, let me define the Golden Rule so we’re on the same page: “Do unto others as you would have other do unto you.” (Turning the other cheek is a separate issue, I think. But if you want to talk about that we sure can!)

    And of course, you are right about no one really living the Golden Rule – at least not well. Whether we are threatened with the long arm of the law or eternal damnation or just our own consciences – it doesn’t matter, even when we want to do right, we are imperfect. And there is no philosophical, psychological, medicinal, or social program that can fix that. To do it requires love. Love motivates the keeping of this law and no one on earth loves perfectly.

    Now, this is personal so bear with me – I cannot speak for all religion, but I can say that I am a Christian BECAUSE I do not, cannot, keep the law. This doesn’t seem like quite the right forum to discuss it, so I won’t go into too much detail here – but knowing as I do that everyone does wrong, including and especially me, and that everyone deserves the penalty of knowingly breaking the law, I am in awe that I am counted as righteous because someone who HAS kept the law perfectly was willing to pay my debt. There is no greater love than that.

    What a nice conversation for someone who is really having to exercise her brain to understand! Thanks, Kim!

    • sara

      As an aside, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity is a book that helped me to clarify some of my thoughts about what I believe. It was short and easy for this amateur to grasp. 🙂

  • RD

    Nothing more to add.

    Loomis and Sara-what a TERRIFIC discussion! Thank you for allowing us to read.

    Would have like d to hear more about the ID, though. 🙂 I like emoticons, too. And simplicity.

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