PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The beauty of selfishness.

The beauty of selfishness.

Selfishness is supposed to be evil, wicked, and at the very
least, negative. However, if we object to selfishness being
beautiful, it is not because there is something
contradiction with selfishness being beautiful, but because
we misinterpret the word beautiful. We mustn't read
beautiful to mean good here, a very common mistake we all do
in life, but maybe to mean neat, cool, symmetrical,
effective and intellectually exciting.

We can safely assume that there are three major types of
selfish behaviour. The standard issue selfishness when one
refuses to share one's things with others. A child refuses
to share his chocolate with friends or an employee does not
share his skills with colleagues.

A second type of selfishness is where we try to acquire
things at the detriment of others. For example, a pupil or
an employee ingratiating themselves with teacher and boss,
respectively, to get any favours that may be handed out.

A third type of selfishness is when faced with a choice to
help others or to further our interests we choose to further
our interests. For example, given a chance to get involved
with an NGO or to study for a master's degree, we choose the
latter. This sort of selfishness can also be described as
self interest and can easily be justified with such things
as it's good for my career or the family.

Selfishness, self interest and egotism are used to express
degrees of disapproval, with self interest being the mildest
of the lot. However, is our disapproval the same as wicked,
evil or wrong? Is selfishness evil because it is an
intrinsic evil act or it is evil because it affects our
personal feelings or our personal well being? Or it is evil
only when it affects us in a bad way. There is, however, a
more interesting question we can consider. How prevalent or
how common is selfishness?

We are all familiar, more or less, with the prisoner's
dilemma. Two thieves were caught by the authorities, and now
the police are offering them a deal they can't refuse. They
are locked in separate cells and cannot communicate between
themselves. The deal is if one of them cooperated he would
go free and the other gets five years in prison. If both
cooperated each would get two years in prison. The standard
answer is to cooperate. One is no better or worse off than
the other if one gets two years. One does not know what the
other person will do under pressure so might as well
cooperate just in case the other person gives up. And
finally, of course, two years is better then five. Is the
prisoner's dilemma a form of selfishness based on some
objective criteria, in this case, game theory? Could this be
a case of selfishness being a virtue?

There is an even more complex scenario which asks the
question, when is the best time to cheat? This usually forms
part of social choice theory, and is also known as the free
rider problem. Imagine a group of twenty friends organising
a party and they agree to pay fifteen Euros each for the
goodies. Of course, the free rider pays nothing; he might
reason 285 Euros is more than enough for a party. The
objection to this line of reasoning is that if everyone
behaved as the free rider did there won't be a party, for no
one would pay their contribution.

If we substituted ''party'' to such things as taxes,
conscription, highway code and so on we end up either in
chaos or demanding for some sort of referee or authority to
enforce agreements or mete out punishment. Of course, in a
large society that is functioning normally we can safely
assume that not everyone will refuse to cooperate. Just
because everyone can cheat it does not follow that everyone
is going to cheat.

One factor that might compel us to cooperate is that we are
social creatures and it seems that most of us value this
social bond much more than any short term advantage we might
get from cheating. Can we assume, therefore, that if we let
selfishness go unchecked, say in the form of corruption,
we're heading on a slippery slope of social disconnection
and into lawlessness? And how many selfish individuals does
it take before we reach that point of lawlessness?

We already know that cooperation is the best strategy, so we
can safely assume that the tipping point towards lawlessness
is when we stop cooperating. Of course, it is not within our
scope to come up with figures, proofs and irrefutable
hypothesis. However, this should not stop us from giving a
real life illustration. I suggest that a collective panic
attack in a crowd is similar to a state of lawlessness in a
society after the social bonding has collapsed.

When a crowd panics, the individuals know very well that
cooperation is the best thing to do but this is the last
thing that happens. We also know that the panic starts when
a few people react from a perceived fear, which may or may
not be justified. We also know that the fear factor spreads
much quicker than the facts which might go to consolidate
the panic attack even further. From the fore going we can
suggest that fear plays an important part in generating
chaos and lawlessness in a society. Could it be that given
enough selfish people in a society there comes a point that
we are afraid for our own survival? For example, by
introducing a fear in us that not enough food will be
available for everyone or not enough personal security will
be given by those in authority? Could this be what happened
with the French or Russian revolutions? People just panicked
about their social and welfare conditions, so they revolted.

Can we go even further and suggest that rampant selfishness
in a society is a good predictor of possible social
collapse? But then again, how can we compel people to
cooperate; is punishment the best tool we have?

Maybe punishment is not the only tool we have. How about
patriotism and nationalism? Can these be seen as tools that
induce us to cooperate in a society? For example, an appeal
to patriotism can have a positive effect during a national
crises. 'Your country needs you,' was an effective poster
during the first world war. But as we all know nationalism
does not have a good track record compared to patriotism. Of
course, I'm not even going to try and define what patriotism
and nationalism are. What matters for our debate is that
problems seem to start when things are done in excess. But
for me the underlying problem is that moral paradox which
basically says that bad effects are not necessarily the
result of bad intentions.

Despite the important place cooperation has in an argument
on selfishness, there is, in my opinion, a very serious
drawback with the cooperation argument. Cooperation, at
least in a society, assumes agreement between members, but
also an investment, maybe even at the individual level, in
the methodology and outcome of the cooperation. In other
words, not only does it take time and energy to arrive at a
state of cooperation but also a moral commitment to
cooperate. However, what about those who join a society,
maybe by invitation or tacit consent, after an agreement has
been reached, are they bound by our agreements? Do they
still get the rewards of cooperation without having invested
in it in the first place? For example, most societies have
always welcomed political refugees, but economic refugees do
not always fare that well, especially in the short term.

So what's the beauty of selfishness? First of all, its an
efficient indicator that tells us that someone in our
society in not cooperating and is a threat to our social
harmony. In other words, it's a good alarm call to battle
stations to reinforce our social bonding or to extricate
errant individuals from our fold.

Secondly, it seems that as a society we are prepared to
tolerate some degree of selfishness, i.e. self interest. In
other words a bit of well managed selfishness can do us some
good. We might feel sorry that our colleague is not joining
the NGO, but we understand his motive to study for a
master's. It seems that selfishness, the behaviour and not
the word, is not always evil, even if we have to use a
different terminology. Furthermore, we don't seem to have a
law compelling us to be altruistic, thus mitigating against
this mild form of selfishness.

Paradoxically, maybe, when faced with imminent danger, a
panic attack triggers our selfish instinct as a means of
self preservation. Once again, maybe nature triggers this
instinct of selfishness as a survival strategy of the last
resort. It's as if nature does really want us to cooperate,
but even still, it left a back door open in case of an
emergency. Hence, the beauty is not only that selfishness
can sometimes save our lives, but can be effectively
mobilised to full strength at a moment's notice. How about
that for a rapid reaction force?

Seeing the value and effectiveness of a little bit of well
placed selfishness, we can once again ask ourselves that
very telling question. How much selfishness are we prepared
to tolerate in our society? I still think that Louis XVI and
Nicholas II are the best people to answer this question.

Take care


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