By James Clark Ross
Born, live—reproduce—die: every action, all behaviour, is underpinned by this primordial paradigm. Behind each thought, no matter the façade, your fundamental endeavour is to achieve the amoral self-preservation of your genes. To this end you’re hardwired to be self-serving.
It’s inherent: your genes—short, repeated sections of DNA that genetically code everything about us—strive solely to survive. Even when we act with reason and kindness there is philosophical reason to suggest that we’re only thinking about ourselves.
Yet this perspective doesn’t have to bleak! If you allow yourself to understand these self-interested predispositions, you might be better able to direct your rational motivations for ‘good’. The question is: how?
To label ourselves selfish isn’t to say we only consider ourselves—evidently, we care for others—however, our intentions naturally favour those who are biologically closer to us. We place greater precedence on the survival of other humans, whilst our families, who share particularly high concentrations of our genes, are afforded special deliberation.
As an example of its influence, creating or raising a life together—life which may contain genetically half of us—is a significant driving force behind our romantic relationships. Further, we behave with paternal and maternal instincts to enhance the genes’ survival chances.
The selfish gene manifests to the fore of our thoughts every day: it’s written into our cognitive reward systems, fears, sexual desires. Such evolutionary programming has been essential to the proliferation of not just the human race but all life with whom we can trace back to the same genealogical origin. Its persistence is the lifeblood of survival. As human animals we cannot be so self-righteous as to dismiss the influence of this instinctual selfishness.
Nonetheless, if our motivations are only ever self-serving, how can we explain our desire to help others without the expectation of reciprocation, a notion we define as ‘altruism’? Well, it was such cooperative behaviour that enabled our distant ancestors to survive under harsher conditions—to purvey their DNA. Hardly selfless. Is there such a thing as altruism?
Altruism in nature is underpinned by the gene’s own selfish drive to propagate, not unconditional kindness. Interestingly, we tend to sever individualistic connotations when we discuss humans and altruism because we see ourselves as kind and compassionate. Are other animals not?
At this point you might fairly argue that this is pure evolutionary talk which only deals with primal behaviours of an elapsed epoch.
We’re capable of thinking beyond biological impulse: where other animals are compelled into action by their desires (unless they are trained by us), we’re able to refrain from acting upon ours. In fact, we can distinguish ourselves in a number of ways: we demonstrate self-awareness, we understand morality and justice, we possess the ability to rationalise, we appreciate beauty, we comprehend consequence and its multitudes of possibilities, we contemplate the past and the future, we ponder reality, and we despair at mortality.
Even so, Sigmund Freud, in his Project for a Scientific Psychology, asserted that our motive is always to satisfy the individual’s biological and psychological needs. He argued that we operate according to the ‘pleasure principle’, whereby it’s our instinctual animalistic drive to seek pleasure alone. However, it’s clear that we can derive more-reliable satisfaction from deeper and more-fulfilling sources, including love and beauty, than from simple pleasures, such as food and sex. Furthermore, his perspective cannot explain why we intentionally expose ourselves to media that are known to elicit negative emotions, such as tragedy, horror, fear, and disgust.
Clearly, we’re rather complex organisms—persons who exercise reflective thinking. Our cognition is so advanced that, through the sophisticated power of reason, we always possess the potential to do ‘good’; yet this isn’t always implemented. Instead, to somewhat vindicate Freud, we often hunt for superficial personal gratification.
The pertinent question here, then, is: why do we suppose that we’re intrinsically moral creatures?
Although we frame ourselves to be morally superior beings, humankind, unwatched, cannot be relied upon to protect and augment its own wellbeing. We will reason to deliver acts of harm for our own gain: we exploit non-human animals for our own short-term satisfaction in the form of food, clothing, experimentation, and entertainment; we exploit faceless members of our own species for materialistic personal gain; we will even deliver destruction for the sake of our own ideologies. We are gluttonous and we will destroy the Earth.
But, equally, we’re capable of bringing happiness to others—with jobs that provide value through security and joy to others, with charity, with random acts of kindness. Yet, even when we act in ways that are considered to be morally virtuous, there’s reason to suggest that an ulterior motivation is at the helm of our thinking: namely, the pursuit of our own wellbeing.
We’re not selfless
The argument goes as follows.
We only act morally to build our own self-esteem.
We behave with agency. We believe, at least, that we’re responsible for influencing our lives with our choices. So we develop our own ethical frameworks; and when we enact them we believe that we are acting morally. This is validating since we’re operating under the guidance of our own moral codes. The result is a sense of fulfilment.
Self-esteem is an inherent human impulse that has always played an important role in our decision-making. We may recognise its manifestation as a ‘good feeling’ when we behave cooperatively. In a world that we’ve constructed for ourselves, self-esteem is our incentive to behave in what we deem to be morally-correct ways.
It’s our moral purpose to pursue happiness; Ayn Rand called this ‘Objectivism’. Our moral choices reflect an attempt to increase personal satisfaction through ‘rational self-interest’. In her collection of essays titled The Virtue of Selfishness she posited:
‘The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value…’
Robbing is usually considered immoral—but replace the ‘evil of a robber’ with ‘the compassion of a nurse’ in the example and the argument remains unchanged.
‘Selfishness’ can be understood as concern with one’s own interests, regardless of what we consider to be virtues. It’s in our nature, as rational beings, to think and act successfully in order to live and be happy; but it’s morality’s task to identify the kinds of action that reap benefit.
Although I disagree with her push for humankind to be more self-centred and recognise that she was a strong advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, I see some sense in her philosophical position. Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, in stark opposition to Rand, labelled fans drawn to her ideas as ‘malignantly selfish’. In what was ostensibly a counter argument, he said: ‘A wisely-selfish person more and more begins to recognise that he or she is committed to the happiness of other people…their happiness redounds to their own happiness.’
While Harris might not see value in her view—I acknowledge the limitations—I can marry their two philosophies to form a moral conglomerate of self-servitude and decency.
The arguments may become less arbitrary and more easily understood if we flesh them out with some examples of supposed selflessness.
Why do we keep pets? Is it because we like helping animals or is it because their company is linked with better mental health? However well looked after some animals are, we compartmentalise our thinking to ignore the wellbeing of other animals of similar intelligence to enhance our own utility.
I can hardly talk. Given the impact of climate change and an ever-growing population, all life on the planet is at risk of eradication. If I was completely dedicated to my convictions, I’d stop eating as much as I do. I’d never catch a plane for environmental reasons. I’d ensure that my actions were never detrimental unless I was sure that they could ultimately bring positive changes over my lifetime. If I was truly dedicated to my beliefs, I’d go beyond sustainability to sacrifice my own life to render my impact on Earth to zero. But I possess a will to live. Again, I’m selfish and I want to survive; it’s how I’ve been assembled.
What about our political convictions? What do we truly believe in? We dedicate ourselves to our own causes (as much as we may think we don’t). It would be objective and fair to allocate most resources to campaigning against the issues that adversely affect the most people in the most significant ways. Yet we don’t; we have our own motivations. In this regard, why don’t I vocalise my opposition to more human rights violations abroad instead of criticising, say, the UK’s monarchy?
We value topics that relate to us the most. I care about other animals, maybe because they were always around me as I grew up. I care about inequality because I believe I faced some social adversity growing up.
We want to instil our visions and implement our ideas to make ourselves happy. Why am I writing this article? Why do I write any article? I want to impart an impression of my particular vision; perhaps to illuminate, to enlighten, to persuade, or to learn something for myself. I want to see the growth of my own ideas—a reflection of myself—the fruits of my ego—in the world that I see fit for us.
The rational road to righteousness
Darwin and Freud offered inward-looking insights: the theory of evolution beautifully describes the selfish gene’s dominion over humankind; the pleasure principle elucidates the physical draws of sex and explains the chase for superficial, materialistic pleasures. However, the story is incomplete. The vast potential of human reasoning is there to be harnessed for the sake of decency. We’re selfish, yes, but we can still behave morally.
First, we must accept that we’re irrational creatures who can’t control or suppress selfish animal instinct—that much is necessary for our mental health. Instead, we should seek to understand irrationality and be culpable to it.
I’ve argued that we’re innately selfish. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t build an ethical framework which reaps objective ‘good’. The essence of morality can be found in reason. However, defining universally-accepted moral behaviour—standards that are objective beyond an individual’s framework—isn’t easy: our moral standards are conditioned by society’s nurturing hand; and what’s moral to one group might seem immoral to another. Moreover, ‘good’ can be contrived to exhibit individualised advantages and is subject to manipulation.
Nevertheless, prevalent moral standards dictate values of kindness and compassion—sharing, giving, listening, understanding, considering—to be virtuous. This is a strong foundation. If we, too, assign importance to these values, we will help others whilst promoting our own self-esteem.
It’d be fair to ask why you’d ever lend yourself things that didn’t make you happy. But, propelled by reason, concern for others needn’t be a hindrance: compassion is conducive to the growth of our mental and physical wellbeing.
Don’t question it: pander to your innermost selfish self to, effectively, be moral, for selfishness and morality don’t have to be discordant. Commandeer your human instinct to harmonise your conscience to the wellbeing of others. This will evoke fulfilment, lasting satisfaction, and comfort with one’s self. Without a conscious moral compass you’ll be left shipwrecked—numbed by superficial pleasures and insulated by the absence of connection.
Embrace your selfishness
‘Selflessness’ is disingenuous since human beings can be exposed as inherent self-servers. We assign value to the wellbeing of others on the condition that we can derive personal satisfaction from them: either because its steeped into the very nature of our DNA or because it aligns with our own moral standards.
Everything we do is self-serving; each thought, rational or irrational, can be deconstructed to reveal this. If, however, the world becomes a better place as a result of our raised self-esteem, there can be no shame.
Self-servitude doesn’t invalidate positive impact since selfish morality is indistinguishable from ‘selfless’ morality. In the act of self-serving compassion you’re not masquerading as a good person, you are one.
Our self-esteem is a welcome by-product—no, an incentive. So correlate your happiness with others’. Rejoice at acts of kindness to feel buoyant. Welcome the desire to be perceived as a good person. Back this up.
Only we can seek moral justice for everyone and everything around us. Selfishness must be permitted. So employ it.
As Richard Dawkins put forward in The Selfish Gene:
‘We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.
‘Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.’