Selfishness And Identity
Selfishness as a trait means considering oneself entitled to selfish behavior including the justification for such behavior in the past and the planning or willingness for such behavior in the future.
Selfish behavior is
- subjectively beneficial for the one acting selfishly.
- subjectively or objectively harmful to the target, either physically, emotionally or materially.
- done without the consent of the target and not based upon previous consent as part of a deal.
Most people can agree with part 1 and 3 of the definition.
But the apparently paradoxical mutual accusation of being selfish between breeders and non-breeders (more in the other blog entry: Breeders, Non-Breeders And The Recipr...
) made me aware, that there is a wide discrepancy concerning the target of the behavior in part 2 of the definition.
Personally I can take two views on breeding. By projecting from myself to others, I consider breeders as self-harming fools, who waste their life away by their choice of changing dirty diapers, when they could instead read a good book. Taking a more objective view I consider those breeders, who do raise children in an appropriate way as the heroes, who do the dirty and unpleasant work for the survival of society, so that childfree people like me can enjoy the privilege to avoid the dreary and annoying interaction with children. Before I was in contact with other childfree people, it never even occurred to me to consider those child raising heroes as selfish.
Of course the following is no claim of any truth or facts, it is a model of speculations. (It is so much easier to express myself by using simple statements. Therefore whenever I write 'is', this needs to be read as 'it seems probable to me'.)
The difference in defining the target of selfishness can be explained by a difference in the perceived own identity. I am using another pseudo-dichotomous explanation model. It is a scale of a distribution along a bell curve. At one extreme end there are the persons with an individual identity, at the other end are the persons with the particle identity. The majority of people are somewhere in between.
The individual identity means, that a person experiences himself only as an individual person, living his life until death, when the entire existence ends. A person with such an identity perceives and experiences himself interacting with other individuals. Morality means the limitation of responsibility and consideration to individuals as the targets of behavior.
Only individuals consciously suffer pain when harmed. Not harming according to Epicurus' principle is the reason for limiting the definition of who is the target of selfish behavior to individuals.
When it concerns resources owned by more abstract entities like society or the ecosystem, the principle is the self-calculated balance of not causing damage without compensating and for not taking more than giving back. No instance of behavior without any individual as a target can be defined as selfish. There can only be the trait of selfishness leading to a long term lacking balance of taking more than giving. Taking long-term responsibility for this balance makes the difference between legitimate self-interest and selfishness.
The particle identity is different. Whatever there is innate in the brain as a part of animal instincts, it creates on the conscious level a vague feeling of interconnectedness with something higher, more significant and more valuable than the individual self. Most probably it is the instinctive identification as being one's eternal genes more than one's individual person in a one time body.
Feeling interconnected leads on the conscious level to create an image, attitude or idea, of what it is that people feel interconnected with. This can be anything from the eternal soul of religion and reincarnation, the creation, a system of cosmic powers, mother earth or the ecosystem. No matter which higher entity they ascribe their being a particle of, being only a particle makes people accept to be externally guided by morals given by and obligations towards that higher entity.
Considering their own individuality as insignificant, they apply this same insignificance also to their fellow particles. For them, the entire or any part of the higher entitiy is considered as a target in need to be protected from selfish behavior, and everybody else is supposed and sometimes forced to submit to this obligation.
When people, who had been brought up religiously and who had so far to their own satisfaction explained all their feeling interconnectedness to their immoral soul, become atheists by rationally discarding the existence of a soul, this does not eliminate their particle identity and their feeling interconnected.
For them, the ecosystem as something scientifically real and not requiring any faith, is a good replacement to feel interconnected with. Many of them are somewhere on the middle of the bell curve of the strength of the procreation and nurturing instinct.
This moderate magnitude of these instincts would motivate them to breed, when encouraged by their religion, even though they are sometimes unhappy with their burden. Then they call the non-breeders selfish.
The same magnitude combined wtih the knowledge, that the ecosystem is under hazard of the overpopulation, causes them to refrain from breeding, but they feel deprived of what attracts them to breeding. So they call the breeders selfish with the ecosystem as the target.
In both cases, selfish is defined by either god's creation or the ecosystem as the target, but not by the wellbeing of living individuals, who suffer.
This text is a slightly modified copy from my ERCP-blog.