It’s important to note that in the context of an emergent system, selfishness and selflessness is a false dichotomy. Indeed, to think in terms of selfishness and selflessness is to be trapped in dualistic, centralized, either/or thinking. We are all various degrees of selfish and selfless at various times or in various contexts. There is also such a thing as selfish selflessness and selfless selfishness. It all depends on the observer, the relationship, and the context. What we should universally abhor, instead of some arbitrary idea of selfishness, is manipulation and coercion. When we lie, mislead, manipulate, and coerce, we deny the other the opportunity to make a free choice about whether to move towards us or move away from us. True community based on free associations can only be built on honesty. Even a selfishly made invitation, as opposed to a manipulation, is a noble thing, for it speaks to the other person as a Man or a Woman rather than as a thing to be manipulated. To invite is to exercise our freedom to move towards, and to invite the invitee to exercise their freedom as well. Invitations are humanizing, whereas coercion is dehumanizing, even if we flee from it, for in doing so we must move away from relationships and into a state of exile. To invite freedom and connection with self and with others in our communities is to create points of departure, it is to invite others to explore their own roles and selves.
All seemingly altruistic drives, such as the care a parent gives to their child, arise from these inner impulsions. In the minds of some, this precludes selfless and altruistic behavior, and points to the fact that human beings are inherently selfish.
And what of it? I agree that we are inherently selfish. We are also inherently selfless. The desire to freely give must emerge from somewhere. No act is purely selfish or purely selfless. The fact is, it is in our nature to be useful to those around us, those we feel connected to and those that we love and identify with. We are social creatures that evolved to work in small, tight-knit communities. Of course our inner experience would reward us for behaviors that tighten or strengthen our communal bonds. This need not diminish the beauty of a generous act.
Drawing a distinction between selfishness and selflessness is a false dichotomy, a complete red herring. Sometimes being selfish helps other people, sometimes not. Usually altruistic actions are selfish at their core anyway, because they make us feel good. Again, this does not detract from the value of the act itself. On the other hand, a completely dispassionate “altruistic” act is either sociopathic manipulation or disconnected, anesthetic behavior coerced into us as the appropriate thing to do. I do not see much point in an “altruistic” act not accompanied by a feeling of generosity, abundance, and aliveness, for feeling and acting on what is within is the basis of human experience. If there is no aesthetic (literally, “felt”; also seen in anesthetic or “unfelt”) sense, there is no experience, there is no relationship, and no meaning to anything. Any relationship is in the act of feeling and relating in each moment. If there is no feeling, there is no relationship, only things moving independently of one another, like a rock that happens to fall next to another rock.
Ultimately everything we do is selfish in some way, if it is felt, and if it is not felt, it is coerced and someone else’s decision. And this is not a bad thing, for it is our selfish drive towards connection, community, beauty, and being useful to others that creates the actions that we would consider selfless. In a healthy human being that is a part of a healthy community, where both are free to move towards what they value as good, selfish actions occur in a selfless context, where the individual actions of moving together towards a common vision with common values create a context where what is good for one is good for all. In a community-less world, and with nothing to move towards together, human action (by nature selfish) can only seem negative as it is in common movement with no one else. Rather than abhor selfishness, we should ask how we have a society where it is so hard to feel useful and in connection with those around us. It will require honesty, however, a virtue we often are not willing to exercise.
A selfish desire admitted and expressed honestly and guilelessly is a beautiful thing. For who is to say that the other does not want the same thing? Honest expression of desires turns those around us back into human beings, capable of freely choosing what they want to move towards or away from, rather than treating them as things to be manipulated, or as things incapable of freely choosing what is best for them. Accordingly, it is manipulation and dishonesty we must abhor, for it is manipulation that robs another of their opportunity to freely decide for themselves. A “selfless” act done dishonestly or manipulatively is coercive and dehumanizing because at the point when we stoop to that level, the other ceases to be a person and begins to be subhuman to us, a thing rather than a man. Because of the limited perspective of our consciousness- we cannot after all even completely comprehend our complete self- we cannot ever know the entirety of another. Instead, we can only act based upon what we know, and we can only ever know our experience of the world: our felt sense of what to move towards and away from, the effects we have on those around us and on our context in general, and the contents of those relationships that we are able to agree on in order to improve or change the texture of the relationship itself, such as science as a framework for working together to understand deeper patterns and thus be able to manipulate them for our own ends.
Why on earth would anyone want to play music? It seems that good music must come from within. No one can tell you to play music without removing your ability to play it well and beautifully, for then it would not be from within, and no life could be expressed through it. An instrument cannot be played selflessly. Yet in the process of becoming a musician, because that transformation occurs in relationship to others, to your environment, to other musicians, you inevitably find an orchestra and an audience that you had been searching for and that had been searching for you. Perhaps the difficulty and struggle is as that of the wind buffeting the seed about to precisely the place where it could bloom into a tree, shade the earth, and share its fruits.
Read my previous thoughts on selfishness here.
...sees much and knows much