Someone recently posted a graphic version of this quote that made it onto my Facebook account: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” (attributed to John Kenneth Galbraith). This struck a chord with me in terms of my distain for those who try to eliminate protection of the weak at the expense of the wealthy from political discourse, but it also made me stop and think about how we toss around this particular S-word.
Truth being told, I’ve been accused of it a fair number of times myself, mostly by those whose agendas I’ve prioritized lower than my own. I see the same thing happening around me all the time: X is angry at Y because Y refuses to offer X help with a particular project she’s having difficulty with –– even though, as X sees it, Y is not doing anything particularly important just then. Thus X tells everyone how selfish Y is in refusing to help her. It can be a matter of giving money to someone who feels in need, allowing someone to use your durable goods, letting the other person set the agenda for your shared time or any number of other things. If you don’t do what the other person feels entitled to expect of you, you’re selfish, at least as she sees it. (I don’t know why it is that these accusations tend to come far more from women than men, but it does seem to happen that way in my observations.) What justification is there for that?
The most obvious, and cliché explanation for the charge is that those who accuse others of selfishness are simply jealous of them, for reasons of varying validity. If someone has been “blessed by fortune” with wealth, beauty, important talents, power or other valuable things, those who are less blessed consider it to be “only fair” that the blessed person gives a share of his fortune to them as well. Moving within the realm of this basic explanation of things, the “modern conservative” referred to above follows the standard rhetoric of saying, rather naively, that people make their own fortunes; and in any case if a fortunate person wants to give to someone else because he cares about that person, it really should be up to him to decide to do so. There are many levels on which I disagree with the structure of this whole debate, but I think it needs to be peeled apart backwards to make sense of the matter.
To start with, whether or not we personalize the forces that give some more tokens of value than others –– whether or not we consider the distribution of wealth, strength, intelligence, etc. to be the work of the God of monotheists (or any other god), or even the workings of karma –– it will always be a moral imperative for the one in a position of privilege to use what he has for the benefit of others, and not in a capricious way. The Christian message, and that of any other monotheistic religion worth its salt, will tell you that what you receive in these terms is according to God’s mercy and his plan for this world, not according to your own merits. Therefore, to show yourself worthy of such favor, you must pay it forward to others in need of such mercy. If you show mercy to others merely as a means of gaining further influence, however, that hardly counts as a way of proving yourself worthy of the mercy you have received. If you pick recipients for the favor you pay forward based on whatever form of favoritism you care to use it’s probably rather unrealistic to expect that to earn you favor with the higher power you believe in.
If you believe in karma, on the other hand, then regardless of which of Hinduism’s off-chutes you follow, the most credible way to further improve your karma is to have compassion on others, whether or not they conform to your taste. You hurt them, or fail to help them overcome their suffering, and you can expect that it will come back to bite you in the ass, if not in this life then the next one. Magical incantations to keep this from happening are popular, but not particularly credible.
And if you don’t subscribe to any particular religious understanding of where your blessings come from, that doesn’t mean that you yourself are the source of all of them or that you are entitled not to care about others. On the contrary, atheists too must acknowledge themselves to be part of something bigger than themselves –– part of a culture and economy, fast going completely global. Within such an economy it is necessary for those who by random chance have ended up in more advantageous positions to contribute to the stability of the whole through making sure that those without such advantages are still able to have dignity and hope in life. (More on this to follow.)
So regardless of a person’s ethical premises, I categorically reject their moral right to choose not to care about those who are most vulnerable and in need. That makes me an anti-conservative in many respects. Whether it makes me an all out liberal is a different question. Just because I don’t subscribe to excuses for indifference towards the rights of others doesn’t mean I subscribe to liberal dogmas of complete egalitarianism or absolute pacifism. There is, for instance, a matter of balance required when looking at the question of whether or not we make our own luck. Sometimes we undoubtedly do; other times we really can’t take credit for all of the good things we manage to experience and accomplish for ourselves.
Against stereotypical liberals I would say, I believe jealousy is just as bad a vice as selfishness. Wanting others to have less just because you don’t want them to have more than you is hardly more virtuous than them wanting to keep all their toys to themselves just to prove that they have more than the next guy. Both are fixated on childish motivations of comparison, not recognizing that there are more important things in life than that.
That isn’t to say that all selfish people are that way merely to prove their place in the competitive games that they play. Sometimes it’s just a matter of such folk feeling comfy with what they’ve got and not caring about anyone else enough to inconvenience themselves. And if it truly is a matter of their merit and the “have-nots’” laziness, why should they bother to chip in? I mean, didn’t Aesop have a point with his fable about the ant and the grasshopper?
Short answer: he might have at the time, but things have changed a lot in the last two or three thousand years, and they’re changing faster all the time these days. The fable works as an analogy for those of varying motivational levels within a non-mechanized herding or subsistence farming community perhaps, but in the age we live in success is never about pure individual accomplishment, but rather about finding a place within the culture where you’re particular contributions are valued and where you are fortunate enough to get something in exchange for what you are able to do for others.
When it comes right down to it if you’ve got more than the next guy it’s not because you did more lifting than he did. You have what you have either because you’ve found people who happen to like what you have to offer enough to pay you for it, or because you’ve figured out how to screw the system to get what you want without giving anything of value in return. Either way, it really can’t be put down to individual merit. At best the rich show superior social adjustment and self control, but they have what they have only because of playing a particular role in the society they are in. Thus caring about the others in the society would seem like the only morally consistent and responsible perspective one can take.
But the problem comes when “caring about others” is used, not as a basis for requiring active participation in the maintenance of the society one is part of –– contributing to the protection of basic human rights for all other members as well –– but as means of manipulating people to live according to the tastes of those others, preventing them from having any form of satisfaction that the others don’t approve of. When the “selfishness” accusation is a tool in the power struggle to keep people from enjoying anything that could incite jealousy in others, something is fundamentally wrong.
Let’s be clear about one thing: there is nothing wrong with being happy or seeking for satisfaction in life. The problems come when this search for happiness is conducted on the basis of comparison with others, in ways that isolate us from others and even from ourselves. In order to prevent this our pursuit of happiness really needs to include the factors of confidence and connection: We need to be able to believe that we are working to make this world a better place, not just using whatever it offers as a source of passing amusement; and we need to recognize that, as John Donne put it, none of us are islands unto ourselves –– we are all part of the mainland of humanity, and the rest of creation. When we fulfill ourselves as much as possible by seeking to have a positive purpose in life and seeking harmony with the world around us, if someone labels us as selfish for not doing what they had in mind we don’t really have to worry about their opinion.
But then there’s a certain amount of truth to the line my high school English teacher used to say: “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.” If you are carelessly destroying the world I have to live in, I have a right to object. Everyone else also has the right to object. We don’t get to object to your having your own kind of fun, as long as you’re not damaging the world we live in. What counts as “damage” in such cases might even be a matter of extended negotiations. The main point is, if my children and future grandchildren, and others that I care about, cannot have a safe and sustainable life because of stuff you have done without really giving a damn, you should expect me to challenge you about your selfishness.
It took me a longer time than usual to write less than usual here. I guess in part that would be because I’ve allowed myself to get distracted from pretending I’m responsible to enlighten or entertain people here with less productive uses of this machine. Feel free to rebuke me if you feel I have selfishly failed to live up to your expectations here, but if you want me to take your rebuke seriously you may have to help me understand why I should. Meanwhile, for reasons of my own selfish motivations, I’ll try to do better next week.
And if you need further mental stimulation here, try seeing how fast you can repeat the name of this essay 10 times without getting your tongue tangled.