On the Nature of Selfishness
I’m sure many have encountered the idea that “Communism fails in practice because humans are inherently selfish.” I tend to get annoyed whenever somebody says this (especially if they declare it with an attitude of intellectualism, as if to show off the understanding of an incredibly advanced philosophical concept), for two reasons. First, the saying is cliche. Second, this concept is too easy; it’s an answer that blindly undermines the complexity of human nature. If I wanted to be pompous, I could say that believers of this idea lack a basic understanding of humanity. But, because this contradicts the spirit of the claim itself, I will refrain. In this post, I explore the second reason.
Put simply, I believe selfishness, or egotism, does indeed exist as an intrinsic characteristic of humans, but that there are thresholds, or degrees, of selfishness. Selfishness cannot be represented by any single parable, it does not appear as one color. Rather, it manifests itself in a multitude of ways that, according to its simple definition, may not be perceived as selfishness.
Consider the situation in which a group of high school students found an organization that raises money for a charity. The organization ends up raising a decent amount of money. However, the students’ primary motivation is not that of philanthropy, but to augment their college application. While the integrity and principle of their motives are controversial, the utility of the resulting action removes any doubt of its benefit. It is strange that human selfishness can manifest itself in beneficial actions, one of many seemingly impossible contradictions of ideals that humans are capable of.
As previously mentioned, I think selfishness exists in degrees. The shallowest thresholds of egotism express themselves in the most corrupt ways, in situations able to be categorized as simply “bad.” For instance, murdering for money. On the other hand, the deepest thresholds of selfishness transcend superficially crass motives. Instead, such thresholds are selfishly motivated by metaphysical ideas of justice, love, and empathy. At the deepest levels, humans exhibit a selfishness for preserving their own morality. It is a self-indulgence in being “good,” for few can deny the unparalleled satisfaction from charitable actions. We tend to classify such behavior as “selfless,” but I think altruism is closely connected to the self. Would I be going too far in saying, “Altruism is merely a veiled selfishness?” Perhaps, with an expanded definition of selfishness, the idea is not too far-fetched.
But why understand these dialectics, besides the philosopher’s job of finding consistency to explain ostensibly irrational human behavior? The stake, as I see it, lies in reforming society. I believe the shallower tiers of selfishness can be eliminated through a combination of education and the insurance of survival necessities. There is no necessary provocation for an educated man, who has food, clothes, and shelter, to commit crimes. As the two bottom-most levels of