In exploring what is wrong with the world, I think we must discuss the aspect of selfishness. It’s not difficult to realize that we live in an incredibly selfish society, mostly because selfishness drives our economy. Unfortunately, thought it has created a good economy, it has also created a morally bankrupt society, which ironically enough is leading us to a financially bankrupt society as well.
What is selfishness?
Selfishness can best be summed up as, “Looking out for myself first and all others second.” A selfish individual is someone who will look to his own desires first with little to no consideration for other people’s desires or feelings.
The other night I was walking into a store and saw a young person trying to wrestle away a case of beer from a security guard. When other people began to intervene, the young person dropped the case of beer and ran off. In this case, the young person represented what it is to be selfish; he gave no regard to the people who would lose money by him stealing that case of beer (most notably the store employees), but rather only cared that he got what he wanted. This, however, is an obvious and extreme example of selfishness.
Another form of selfishness is when we ask ourselves, “What can I get out of this?” For instance, if someone asks for you to donate money to the crisis in Haiti or to some other crisis and you respond you don’t have the money, you might have a legitimate excuse. Of course, if we find out that you’re paying money to keep your cable TV, your internet, to buy new clothes (when the ones you have aren’t tattered), or other uses to spend on yourself, it becomes apparent that you are selfish.
Some might read that and go, “I worked hard for that money so I should be able to use it how I desire.” And that is true to a certain extent. There’s nothing wrong with having luxury items or being rich – the problem is when we fail to use that money for good as well. It is popular in our culture right now to lament against the rich and accuse them of being the epitome of selfishness, but most of the people who complain about the rich are just like the rich, only with less money. It doesn’t matter if someone is a millionaire or lives from paycheck to paycheck; if both use their money for luxury items (like cable TV or a yacht) and barely come to the aid of those in need, then both are selfish, regardless of their income.
Even in our ethics we have become selfish. The ethic of hedonism has invaded America in full force. The belief is that so long as you don’t bring physical harm to someone, who cares what you do? If it makes you happy then do it. This argument is often used in the debate on homosexual marriage, that since two people getting married doesn’t impact anyone else (since we’ve forgotten that marriage has major social consequences), who cares what two individuals do? If an individual wants to use drugs, so long as he doesn’t hurt anyone else, who cares? Look at how many men and women don’t want to have kids because it would ruin the lifestyle they enjoy, of going out late, not having kids crying in the home, and so on. Or how many women don’t want children because it would ruin their body, or how many men bolt when they find out their girlfriend is pregnant or become emotionally distant when the wife is pregnant. The reason is we’re selfish and can’t imagine sacrificing our desires for someone else.
This ethic, however, is ignored in other cases. In the case of abortion and even some proponents of infanticide, even if the individual’s desires brings harm on the fetus or infant, that’s fine. We irrationally and unscientifically declare that the fetus or infant is not really a full human or not a person and therefore justify our selfishness. In the case of Judith Jarvis Thompson, she even acknowledges that the fetus might be a person, but still allows harm to befall the fetus in the defense of personal happiness and comfort.
We can look to the numerous cases of a man leaving his wife for another man or a woman leaving her husband for another woman and, regardless of how much that action hurt the spouse or the children, such an action is celebrated because it brought happiness to the offending party. Or what about when adultery occurs, but we justify it because “It makes the person happy!” In these cases, harm is done to an individual and a victim is created, but so long as happiness exists, for the offending party we don’t care.
So even the hedonism in America with the one clause, “Do not harm others in your pursuit of happiness” is not consistently followed; even if our pursuit of happiness will harm others, if we can justify such a harm, then we can continue our pursuit. We allow the harm to occur because we are selfish.
Selfishness is found in all aspects of our society, from the rich to the poor, among all races, all classes, and all business structures. We are a society founded upon looking out for ourselves first and other second.
Why are we selfish?
Diagnosing the problem of selfishness isn’t enough, we must also find out why we got here. In the Great Depression it wasn’t uncommon for neighbors to help neighbors, even when no one had anything. There were cases in the Dust Bowl that when a bank foreclosed on a farmer’s house, all the other neighbors would get together and bid one or two pennies on the property and let the previous owner bid ten cents on the property, allowing him to buy his property back. Rather than making a grab for property, the neighbors put each other first.
In the almost 80 years since the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, what has happened to our society to make it so selfish?
First, our society has not only done away with virtue ethics, but we’ve turned vices into virtue. In doing away with virtue ethics, we no longer have a reason to be selfless. Pride is the ultimate cause of being selfish, but when pride (a vice) is valued as a virtue and a good thing, selfishness is what ultimately follows.
Secondly, selfishness is good for the economy. If people were convinced that they should spend money on other people before spending money on themselves (unless it comes to needs), then how many people would buy an iPad, an iPod, a new computer, or an HDTV? Understandably it is not always wrong to buy these things, but when the focus of our luxury purchases becomes focuses solely on “me,” then we have bought into our selfish society. But such a society creates a booming economy, with people looking out for themselves first and trying to compete materially with their neighbors, companies promote selfishness in their advertising (e.g. “You deserve it,” “Treat yourself,” etc).
Third, we are raised to be selfish with our emphasis on self-esteem. I remember in elementary school that we were given “warm fuzzies” to hand out to people when we thought they did a good job on something or when we thought they needed encouragement. The thing is, we were never allowed to criticize an idea because that would hurt someone’s self-esteem.
With such an emphasis on having high self-esteem and not hurting someone’s feelings, is it any wonder we have become selfish? We’ve raised a generation (my generation) and are currently raising a generation that receives little to no criticism over their actions or beliefs because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. At the same time, we encourage them to act as they please so long as it makes them happy. In short, we have two generations that have been raised like only children under parents lacking a backbone; we have raised these children to be selfish.
What does selfishness accomplish?
Even if raised to be selfish, we wouldn’t continue to be selfish unless there was some benefit to being selfish. The sad reality is that there are temporal benefits to being selfish rather than selfless (though there are no eternal benefits to selfishness).
By being selfish we can guarantee that our desires will always be met. When I’m selfish and putting myself before others, I know that I will generally get what I want. Whether that means a better parking spot, a promotion at work, or a Saturday night not having to deal with my kids, being selfish will get me what I want.
Likewise, as indicated earlier, being selfish can be very good for business. Rather than working with co-workers, I can give myself all the glory and in so doing get a promotion with a raise, even if others deserve the glory. I can put other companies out of business just so I can raise the prices later, rather than being honest with my product.
Finally, I feel better about myself when my desires are met. I get to do the things I want and have a feeling of autonomy from my ethical obligations to the world. Being selfish helps “free” us from any overbearing ethical obligations, this explains why people enjoy being selfish (and why it’s so easy to be selfish).
What’s wrong with selfishness?
The first problem with being selfish is that all things ultimately belong to God and He is ultimately greater than us, so it makes little to no sense to be selfish. Even though our society has done away with God, this doesn’t mean He no longer exists or doesn’t hold us up to certain standards. Saying, “God made me selfish” or “well if being selfish were wrong, why did God allow me to be born when He’d know I’d be selfish,” might make sense to the masses, but it doesn’t make sense logically or theologically. Just because we make a non-sequitur justification for our actions doesn’t mean God will somehow look over our offenses. God is greater than us and all things belong to Him, so to be selfish is to be selfish with what does not belong to us.
Secondly, a selfless society is better than a selfish society. A selfish society is one that focuses on the individual whereas a selfless society is comprised of individuals looking out for the common good. A bank manager might realize that he can keep his salary the same if he lays off three people. He may further realize that he can lay off four people, keep the bank running as is, and make extra money on the side by not having to pay a fourth person. In a selfish society, though SEIU and others might condemn this action, he’s fully justified in acting this way (and SEIU and honestly have no moral ground to object to such an action since they’re also based on selfishness). In a selfless society, the bank manager would see that he can take a cut in salary and still have his needs met and so instead of firing people, he would cut his own salary first. A selfless society creates better jobs and in the end creates a better economy. Most importantly, a selfless society creates better people.
Third, selfishness ignores that we all have a common good, or a overall ethical obligation to each other. We have an obligation to help one another so long as someone isn’t taking advantage of the situation (i.e. relying on other people’s help without at least attempting to contribute to society). I have an obligation to help my neighbor when he’s in trouble, even if that help will cost me something. Unless helping will force us to forgo taking care of our family or would cost us our needs, we have an obligation to help. When we’re selfish, however, we cannot fulfill such an obligation.
Fourth, it ignores the plight of our fellow human. While we might be aware of someone’s struggle, very rarely do we step in. Instead, we ask, “Why isn’t someone else helping” or we try to guilt people into helping. The best example are the multi-millionaires in Hollywood who ask that the millionaires be taxed to help the poor. All the while these “stars” fail to help others out and fail to use their own money to help the poor. They build multi-million dollar mansions and go on extravagant trips, buying the most expensive clothes and driving the most expensive cars. Their humanity makes them realize that there are people in this world who need help; their selfishness prevents them from actually helping these people.
Finally, being selfish puts man at the center of the universe. Humanity is flawed and almost every philosophical system known to man recognizes this in some way. Since humanity is flawed, what sense does it make to place ourselves in the center of the universe? Why should we be the standard for happiness? Why should we get to decide what makes us happy, or better, what is good for us? We’re admittedly flawed, so how could we possibly be adequate in determining what is good for us?
What’s the solution?
The first thing we must do as a people is humble ourselves before God. For some, this means they must acknowledge His existence. For others, it means they must begin to live with the knowledge that He exists and has set a certain moral code for us to follow. We cannot humble ourselves to humanity unless we first humble ourselves to God.
Secondly, we must humble ourselves to our fellow man. We must put the needs of others first (within reason) before looking after our own desires. While this doesn’t mean we should sell all our belongings and live in a commune or get rid of our nice things, it does mean we should consider the needs of others first before we spend money on luxury items. If we have put time, effort, and money into helping other people, then it’s not wrong to get a luxury item. But earn that item, not just by working at your job and getting a paycheck, but by helping out with your community as well. If an item cost $60, why not volunteer 30 hours of work in your community and donate $60 to a local charity first, and then buy the item? It’s not easy, but it something we should do.
Third, we should realize that we shouldn’t be prideful over our accomplishments. We must always remember that someone somewhere else has done far more than we currently have. There is always someone who is better than us and could do more than us, so there’s no reason to be prideful over what we have accomplished.
Finally, we need to actually do something on a consistent basis before taking pride in what we do. We might take pride that we went on a missions trip or gave $5 to a homeless man, but if our lifestyle is not one of selflessness, what does it matter? Why take pride in once-in-a-while actions? And once we develop a lifestyle of selfishness, we can take pride in our work (that is, we’re pleased with what we’ve done), but we can never become prideful over what we do.