Originally published at Cogs & Neurons. You can comment here or there.
The other day I said something in passing, which I intended mostly as just a rhetorical turn of phrase, but which I have been thinking about more and more. Specifically, I said that money makes the world go round, but love makes people go round. It turns out that’s a (slightly flippant) way of expressing a pretty basic assumption I have about how the world works.
I always think of human society trying to balance two basic forces. The need of the self and the need of the other. We are born totally egocentric, only focusing on our own needs. As we grow up we learn to empathize with others, to see things from their perspective. We become increasingly exocentric. Whether that’s nurture or nature I couldn’t say, though, as with most things, I imagine it’s a mix of the two.
Still, to put it another way, I picture the world, and people, as being balanced between selfishness and selflessness.
There is an argument that runs something like this: selfishness is actually better for society as a whole. I’m not sure that’s the exact terminology that argument uses, but basically the idea is that if everyone just takes care of themselves then the whole of society will benefit. I’m tipping my hand in this argument a little, but Gordon Gecko’s infamous “greed is good” seems a nice way to encapsulate this philosophy.
I think this argument is all well and good as long as you assume people are completely isolated islands. But we’re not. Our personal good is often interdependent on other people’s well-being. As sometimes when others benefit, so do we. But we also sometimes benefit from other people’s misfortune. That’s just basic fact. And that’s the downfall, for me, of the selfishness argument. Not everyone benefits. The system is stacked so that some people have to fail. Money is a handy way of keeping track of that. The winners have more. The losers have less. Proselytizers speak of everyone becoming rich, but “rich” is a relative term. You can only be rich if someone else is poor.
To tie this a little into writing, which is what this blog is ostensibly about – in our stories, we usually have heroes. The most fundamental definition of a hero is someone who sacrifices himself for others (thanks Joseph Campbell for doing the research on that one). So the people we hold up and say we should emulate are those who behave in a selfless manner. All our years of culture, of history, of telling ourselves how to behave as societies, all that collected cultural wisdom is saying that the important people, the people we should be more like are those who sacrifice personal need for the need of others.
It’s hard to be selfless. Especially in a world that seems to encourage selfishness. It is easier to grab more for ourselves and not worry about the other man. To focus on the short term over the long term. This might sound in opposition to my essentially hedonistic argument yesterday for taking more pleasure in the moment, for less focus on what is around the corner, but as with everything, I think life is a balance. We must look to now and the future. We must be selfish and selfless. But all within reason.
The problem I see now, is that there is too much of an argument for selfishness over selflessness. Maybe that’s part of living in America, where the myth of the individual still beats at the heart of the American Dream. But as a society, I think our main hope lies in increasing the focus on selflessness.
To put this in more concrete terms… taxes are a form of selflessness. We sacrifice our money for our society. Money that pays for our immediate needs becomes money that pays for something everyone benefits from. (At least it does if the money is spent right, but that’s another rant entirely). The personal good we see may be less from the sacrifice, but that’s the nature of living in a society, of being part of a community. It’s about loving others more than money. It’s about letting love make the world go round a little more than it does right now. Financially poorer, but maybe our lives are richer all the same. Or perhaps nobody is rich at all. But nobody is poor.
It’s an impossible dream, of course, but that’s kind of the point of dreams. To be impractical and too big for this world. But even if we can’t achieve them, if we can just move towards them, then the world just might be a better place.