Does selfishness get a bad rap? How much do intentions really matter?
At a bar a few nights ago I got into a conversation with a stranger on precisely this topic (among others). He pointed out how a friend of his mentioned giving money to a homeless guy, and how he felt good after doing so, so he liked doing it. He saw this as selfish, and by extension a bad thing, because the intention wasn't to help the man but to feel good. Ideally, the intention would be completely pure.
I disagree. I think the selfish/selfless debate we constantly hear about is malarkey, and a clear case of a false dichotomy. The problem is we've come to associate selfishness with manipulation and taking advantage of others, and we've equated selflessness with good deeds.
First of all, we're social creatures programmed to live in communities. It wouldn't make any evolutionary sense for us not to feel good after helping our neighbors in need. To be human is to be selfish, otherwise we would starve to death, die of thirst, or freeze to death in our sleep. We could not take care of our basic needs. And we are better able to take care of our basic needs when we work together in communities. What is good for one is often good for all, muddying the waters. Oftentimes selfishness can be altruistic. Certainly intelligent selfishness is focused towards community building and creating allies, not foes.
Selflessness, on the other hand, can be quite destructive. It can drive us to help those who don't want or need it, or to cause more damage even to a willing recipient. One can see this in international aid. The U.S. donates surplus food to needy countries... and we put local farmers out of business, swelling the problem. We send shiploads of spare sneakers to Africa... and put local cobblers out of business, destroying millennia-old shoemaking techniques in the process. We come over with all the answers rather than asking questions, and our solutions go unused and ineffective. Oftentimes what those we're "helping" really need is a dose of good 'ole fashioned selfishness. How else can someone learn to learn to stand on their own two feet, and become free, independent humans? Ellen Langer wrote in her book Mindfulness, "Well meant protectiveness undermines any autonomy. And more coercive interference... defeats any shred of initiative." If we are truly a free country, then we want to help others become free. Autonomy can only come from not being constantly interfered with. How else will children mature into adults? And yet we have an entire, nationwide institution that voraciously consumes 12+ years of everyone's life in this country. We think it was designed around selfless motives (it actually was not). But because it altruistically never trusts us with basic decisions about our life, the only thing it clearly succeeds at doing is keeping people dependent, passive, and obedient.
We say we are the freest country on earth (false in many respects) yet part of freedom is respecting other people's right to choose- to be selfish or selfless as they see fit, to ask for or reject help as they see fit. Freedom means the freedom to be selfish, and the trust that it will be used responsibly.
So we see that selfish motives can often be at the root of a deed well done, else we could never build effective communities, and altruistic motives often cause more harm than good. They often deprive others of the very circumstances they need to become free, independent, responsible humans. The Savior complex so many of us have all too often damns.
Do motives and intentions even matter then?
Confusingly, it seems like they do, in some circumstances. For example, ever notice when someone does a kind deed for you, but you can tell that it is really because they want something from you? It is a slimy feeling. And what makes it slimy is that it is an act of manipulation being performed in the guise of an altruistic deed. I want something from you, but I'm going to pretend like that's not the case and that it is unrelated to what I'm doing for you now. Unfortunately, we almost go to this feeling as a default nowadays. We become immediately suspicious of any kind deed.
I should point out that this is selfish behavior- but, it is ineffective selfish behavior, because of the clear attempt at manipulation that makes it harder for the manipulator to achieve his goal, or at the least poisons the relationship and burns the bridge, so to speak. It is not building a long-term collaboration. Unfortunately, this is what people think of when they hear selfishness, because it is the most obvious example, giving rise to the false selfish/selfless dichotomy.
The issue here is not that the act is selfish. The issue is the dissonance between the actions and the intention, not the intention itself. It seems like a altruistic deed, but the intention is not. It is in the dissonance between the two that the deplorable manipulation arises.
My theory then is that intentions do not matter as long as they are vocalized.
In the example of giving money to a homeless person, this isn't really that important- you're probably not going to see them again anyway, and you didn't want anything from them other than the nice feeling. You can be fine knowing that you performed a good deed, even if it was so you could feel better about yourself. Anyone who says that the act was poisoned by the intention is being foolish and naive, and doesn't understand human nature. If you don't feel good after doing something, that's probably a pretty good sign that you shouldn't do it again, at least not in the same way. For example, ever give money to someone because you felt coerced? It does not feel good. It would probably do to avoid that situation again. Though the same rule of calling out intentions can still serve. I wonder what would happen if instead of blithely handing over the money, someone in that situation were to say, "I feel an inordinate amount of pressure to give money. I feel coerced, and I do not like the feeling." No excuses, no complaints, no judgment or insults, just a plain expression of how they were feeling in the moment. But suddenly the burden is on the other party to explain their motivations and intentions, and from there an honest discussion can arise. If their not willing to engage in that conversation, that is a clear sign to disengage and not fork over one's money.
But let's go back to the example of doing a favor for someone in order to get something back from them. I wonder what would happen if, before performing the favor for that person, someone were to say, "Listen. I am happy to do this for you. But just so you know, I really need this other thing from you a week from now. What would you think if we traded the one for the other, as it were?" The other party might disagree- which is fine. They have the right to do so. But they also might find the request to be completely reasonable. Even more importantly, there's no manipulation, no bullshit psychological games. It doesn't feel slimy- it feels honest. Two people freely engaging in an exchange of value, which is a basic human endeavor. And so the relationship grows stronger as a result.
Unfortunately we are taught that we often have to hide our intentions, or we risk being judged for them. This comes from the false dichotomy I described above, that somehow everything we do needs to arise from some higher, altruistic motive. But that's just not the way humans work, and the more we fight against our nature (rather than working with it) the more we are setting ourselves up for failure, for dissonance, for manipulation and games. If we are all up front about our intentions and aims, then the easier it is for us to find willing accomplices. When we're direct about our intentions and what we want out of life and out of others, we can cut out all the bullshit. Being indirect or hiding how we're feeling in the moment can only ruin relationships.
That we're taught to hide our intentions is abundantly clear in our dating culture. Rather than admitting our attraction and being direct about asking someone out, we say, "let's hang out." If the other person asks if it is a date, we say, "no, no, I just wanted to get to know you and maybe be friends." Some guys deplore women for "friendzoning" them. But the fact is that women don't friendzone men- we do it to ourselves, because we somehow learned that sexual attraction is something to hide, not to celebrate. So we resort to manipulative games, for example, favors we think will make them feel indebted to us. Even something as simple as buying a girl a drink at a bar so they feel like they have to talk to us. We think we have to buy their time (being indirect and hiding intentions), since we cannot simply ask for it (being direct and honest).
Again, the issue is not the intention. Human beings are selfish creatures, and this is not a bad thing. We are capable of amazing acts of sacrifice, and the fact that they arise from selfish OR selfless motives is irrelevant- ultimately even selflessness is a form of self-service. One only need look at those with the savior complex to see how much self-worth they derive from it. And selfless motives often lead to cruel, diminishing, and enslaving behaviors on the part of the altruist. So let's stop villifying selfishness, and instead recognize that what we need is a more direct, honest culture where manipulation (hiding of intentions) is despised and we can instead have open conversations with one another about what we want and need. That is freedom and a fitting topic for the Fourth of July.
Happy Independence Day,
Dillon Dakota Carroll
...sees much and knows much