Saturday, November 10, 2012

The balance between selfishness and unselfishness

Once I had accepted that promoting human well-being should be the basis or morality, I faced a difficult moral dilemma. Any money that I spent on myself that could have benefitted Africans without clean drinking water meant that I did not care about those people or their needs. The requirement for truly loving your neighbor as yourself seemed impossible for Americans. I had a hard time seeing American society as any better than The Capitol in the Hunger Games. We have so much, and use so little of our means to help the people in this world that need help so badly.

While I still feel like American society does not do nearly enough for the needy in the world, I eventually came to a partial resolution to that dilemma. I realized that trying to be so frugal and generous was making me unhappy, and I couldn't promote a moral system that caused its own adherents to be unhappy. For this reason, I now think it's reasonable to buy the things that we really need for ourselves to be happy, and fit into the culture we are apart of, and save for our financial security, before donating to charities to help the less fortunate. I still think that spending money frivolously, on things that don't really add to our happiness or are unnecessarily expensive, is wrong. That money could have been used to help to destitute. I think being ostentatiously rich is wrong too, for the same reason. If you appear rich to those around you, you're spending more than you need to fit into your own culture. I still think we should each make a strong effort to become unselfish: to train ourselves to feel happy when we are helping others, not ourselves. But I do think it's reasonable to put our own happiness and security first, before helping others.


mostlyprobably said...

Please don't take this the wrong way, I'm not trying to be insulting. :) But I think you are a better person when you're an atheist. I can't see the Bennion I used to know saying any of this.

So kind of a compliment. Kind of a weird one. Just take it okay?

Bennion said...

Take it the wrong way? Why, that's one of the best compliments ever! Thank you!

gavinomics said...

Just to be clear, do you believe that the self takes precedence over others?

Bennion said...

I think that you need to balance taking care of your own needs and being unselfish. I'd say put your needs for happiness first, before other people's needs, but other people's needs before some of your wants.

jewelfox said...

"Helping others" is a good start. Building real solidarity requires that everyone know they have the right to be part of society, and not just if they jump through arbitrary hoops or beg others to be generous.

Plus, as you've seen, it's kind of mean to those who have more than they need to make them agonize over the "right" thing to do with their resources. They should be able to have fun every now and then without guilt.

Inequality isn't "someone having too much fun", though. It's a thing that destroys solidarity in a society, and there's a ton of research linking it to pretty much every societal ill. A book called The Spirit Level supposedly goes into this.

Bennion said...

Jewelfox, I think you are right on. I wrote the post about personal choices, but I feel similarly about the choices we make as a society. I realize some amount of inequality is a physical necessity to have a functional economy, but it should be reduced when reducing it makes people better off. The amount of inequality we have in America right now is more than is necessary or good.

gavinomics said...

You post reminds me of the story of the women who put others before herself by adopting 14 children from Africa. She did it out of a misplaced sense of duty and she was miserable.

I think that one's own life is the ultimate value, for without life, no other values including valuing other people is possible. I believe that rationality is the primary virtue because it is the primary means by which one sustains life, and the proper beneficiary of one's rationality ought to be oneself.

I think this (admittedly brief and crude) formulation is how we make the leap from "is" statements (facts about reality) to "ought" statements (ethical issues of how one should act). This is because the 'fact' that life is conditional and requires rationality to sustain it, leads to the ethical code that one 'should' use rationality and put their own needs and wants before the needs and wants of others.

Putting others before self (in an ultimate sense) is contradictory since the logical consequences of putting others prior to self means fulfilling the conditions of life of others before fulfilling the conditions of life for oneself. In other words, giving primacy to others over self ultimately leads to death and despair.

To be clear, this does not mean that other people do not matter. The self is primary, others are secondary. But in order to maintain one's happiness the self sometimes takes a tertiary role behind others. This is because one cannot be happy without relationships. This means that helping others ultimately must be grounded in a self-interested motive. You want to help others because you care about them.

I think selfish acts are only bad when they reflect frivolity and lack of foresight. I can't find anything wrong with selfishness if it is long-term. In fact I think it is our right and obligation to pursue our own happiness. I am also convinced that more wealth leads to more happiness.

With that as my premise, I do not believe that there is any fact about reality that justifies limiting our spending to reflect what others do. In fact I think it is socially good to seek wealth because one cannot obtain wealth unless the provide benefit to others. The incentive of wealth is what causes people like Bill Gates to produce products like Microsoft. If you take away that incentive, I am certain that society will be worse off in the long run. I think the evidence is pretty striking that there is a clear correlation between economic freedom (low taxes, strict property rights, free trade) and happiness and the theory is very convincing that freedom is what causes happiness.

Bennion said...

I agree that one's life is the ultimate value, but that doesn't mean anything that makes life possible in the be-all end-all of morality. After we've accomplished the basic goal of sustaining life, there should be some other objective, like human well-being. Rationality is a means, not an end. I don't see any reason why "the proper beneficiary of one's rationality ought to be oneself." That statement seems like it's assuming selfishness, rather than arguing for it. I think this viewpoint ignores a simple fact.

The fact is that the primary difference between people that live in luxury and those that live in abject poverty, is where they were born. This simple observation should remove any thought that we deserve our wealth, and that poor people deserve their poverty.

If we accept that the primary reason some people are poor and some are rich is that they were born into different environments, then I don't know how we could feel okay about failing to help your fellow humans. They are human and have the same types of feelings that we do. Our innate empathy should not allow us to ignore them if we're sufficiently aware of them and their problems. It takes a heavy dose of political ideology to ignore our natural sense of compassion.

The thing that really strikes me about you promoting a purely selfish morality, is that you are Mormon. The things you are saying seem to be in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus, and of the Book of Mormon. I think you have profoundly misunderstood the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Mosiah 4, and the principles of love and charity, if you think that helping others must be grounded in a self-interested motive. That certainly is not an idea that is taught in the scriptures. I find it quite ironic that it is left to me, an atheist, to defend the purely altruistic morality taught in the scriptures you claim to believe.

gavinomics said...

I have been planning on writing about this issue for some time on my blog. I wrote my previous comment too hastily which is why it wasn't very clear and full of sloppy typos. I will write more about it later. Until then I want to add a few brief thoughts to try to add clarity to the debate.

Points of agreement:
• Morality does not end at merely preserving one's life.
• Rationality is a means, not an end.
• Luck plays a major role in how much wealth one has.
• Humans do have an innate sense of compassion.
• Love and charity are good virtues to live by.

Points of clarification (perhaps disagreement):
1. The only rational foundation for any moral code is the belief that the self has primacy over others.***

2. Altruism is sacrificing one's values for something less valuable. I think the root of altruism is irrationality.***

3. Giving primacy to self does not contradict with valuing others and having compassion toward them.

4. The 'fact' that luck plays a role in wealth and the 'fact' that we are born with compassionate tendencies does not by itself logically entail that one 'should" give money to others.

5. I believe that helping the poor is a good thing, but my desire to help the poor cannot rationally be based on the fact that compassion is innate tendency. There are many tendencies that are innate—violence, empathy, grooming etc. The fact that one has an innate tendency is not sufficient reason to justify indulging in that tendency.

6. If you are arguing that luck and compassion alone provide a justification for promoting human well being, then because of points 4 and 5 I don't think you have any foundation for justifying your moral code as I understand it.

7. You haven't said it directly, but if you believe that one should give primacy to others over self, then you are contradicting the last sentence of your blog post.

8. No one is saying that we shouldn't be compassionate. I think it is an interesting fact that conservatives (who are often painted as selfish by liberals) are more compassionate than liberals. According to the economist Arthur Brooks, conservatives are significantly more likely to give to charity, to donate blood, to volunteer their time, and to help a homeless man on the street than a the average liberal. (I can provide the actual statistics if you are interested)

9. I believe that my religion does ultimately presume that self has primacy over others. This is aligned with the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets even though it is not uncommon to find members of the church who don't interpret the scriptures that way. It is like when members think that God is supernatural. Many believe it because they are influenced by "the philosophies of men", but they are mistaken.***

*** I will have to show my justification for these belief on my blog.

Bennion said...

Sorry for taking so long to respond. I just barely got back from Egypt...

So, stuff I agree with: the right reason to be compassionate is not that it's a natural tendency, conservatives are not necessarily selfish, sacrificing one's values is irrational, and points 4 and 5.

I'm not sure I totally understand what you mean by "giving primacy to the self." If you're implying that we either have to 100% selfish or 100% unselfish, I think that's a false dichotomy. I don't think true altruism is irrational. I think we're all better off if many of us choose to be altruistic. There are many times when a little effort on our part can make a big difference in well-being to someone else, like when you're stuck somewhere without gas and someone gives you $5. That's one example of when altruism can make a big difference.

I agree that we shouldn't be compassionate because it's a natural tendency, but I think we should be compassionate because we should value human well-being. Why value human well-being? Well, because our own well-being is what is important to us personally, and we know that other people are very much like us in that regard, so we can all achieve higher well-being if we help each and are compassionate and altruistic. So that's why I promote a moral system that values human well-being. All our other disagreements flow from that basis.

I'm very skeptical about conservatives being more compassionate than liberals, but at the least, liberals definitely promote policies that are much more compassionate than conservatives.

I think that you think that the scriptures agree with you because you're trying to force them into the same false dichotomy of "self has primacy over others," while I don't think the authors of the scriptures saw that as a dichotomy at all. The scriptures say basically what I say: if you're rich, you have an obligation to share your wealth, if you're poor, take care of yourself first. It's not 100% selfish or 100% unselfish, it's a balance between the two.

So those are my thoughts on the matter.

gavinomics said...

• I am glad that pointed out that "primacy of self over others" is unclear. I will have to find out a way of clarifying that. Alas, I will have to save it for my blog and I may not get to it for awhile.

• I know liberals believe they are promoting more compassionate policies than conservatives. I think this is due to the "oppressed vs. oppressor" story that liberals believe in. But the compassionate policies are compassionate in words only. They do far more to hurt the poor than to help the poor in reality. I think that if you were really concerned about human well-being, you would support more free-market oriented solutions to social problems. Sorry, but I had to respond to one quick jab with another. I am sure this will be the topic of future discussion.

• I agree with your paragraph that starts with "I agree that we shouldn't be compassionate because...". This point articulates what I call "primacy of self over others". Our desire to help others is ultimately/fundamentally grounded in some self-interested belief or desire. I think that if we get past the words we use, we can find a lot of common ground on this issue.

Bennion said...

We can definitely agree that both liberals and conservatives believe that their policies help the poor. So that can be saved for another day.

I now see what you meant by altruism being irrational: you mean that our actions should be in accordance with a desire of ours, even if that desire is for someone else's well-being. That makes sense. I'm just defining altruism as valuing other people's well-being. I don't call that self-interested, but yeah, it's pretty much a disagreement about terminology.

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