Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Self Interest Wins the Day

So a close, long-time friend of mine poses a question on Facebook - to paraphrase:
Do you expect people to do the right thing and be disappointed when they don't, or expect people to be bastards and be pleasantly surprised when they do the right thing?

As you can imagine, answers were numerous and interesting. Replies ranged from positive to negative to non-judgemental to absolute moral relativism. Then there was my response, "Expect the right thing and ensure no good deed goes unpunished." I wrote it mostly because I was thinking very hard about this and I didn't want to write a book on this Facebook comment, so I was somewhat tongue in cheek.

I fall squarely in the first category. I expect the right thing to be done, and I'm perpetually disappointed when so many people don't do it. The more I think of it, the more this flies in the face of what I know of human behavior.

As Dr. Perry Cox says,

"Lady, people aren't chocolates. D'you know what they are mostly? Bastards. Bastard-coated bastards with bastard filling. But I don't find them half as annoying as I find naive bubble-headed optimists who walk around vomiting sunshine."

Well, maybe not. People are organisms. Organisms compete. To quote Michael Pollan, "All life is competition". Actually I'm leaving out "...for energy" because I don't want this to run off on a tangent about energy; it'll have enough tangents as it is. But to paraphrase him, plants compete for solar energy, herbivores compete for the plant energy, predators compete for the herbivores, blah blah blah. In other words, organisms are programmed to compete for what they need to survive.

In the case of us so-called "higher organisms" we compete with each other to satisfy our self-interests.

Man is fundamentally self-interested. I believe people do things largely out of self-interest. Even so-called "unselfish" acts have an element of self-interest. The unselfish actor feels that it is in his or her self-interest to do something for someone else, whether it directly affects or improves his/her well being / situation, or it provides a level of satisfaction knowing that you did something for someone.

When self-interests coincide and the individuals can (roughly) agree, they become a code of conduct of sorts, a law, a rule, an ethos, an ideology, what have you. They become "good" or "right".

So there it is - "right" or "good", an artificial classification of the self-interest of one or common interests of a group of highly evolved primates. If you're lucky, you get to be in a group that agrees on common interests and provides adequate room for you to pursue your self-interests.

Urgh. Dangerous ground. So I'll come out and say I am not into "relativism" and this "who am I to judge what is good just because I don't agree with it". These artificial classifications are necessary. How else would you know who the bastards were?

What's my point? I'm not sure, let me re-read what I wrote. Nope. Don't see one yet. I could go on forever but I need to wrap up, so I'll just say this - I don't think we'll ever overcome this "programming". So why am I constantly disappointed? Maybe my programming is better, and people really are bastards.


MRMacrum said...

Since this falls outside the parameters of my interests, I did not read it. Hope I did the right thing. That's obviously a lie. I am such a bastard.

I once had a two week forum battle on some political forum with an anarchist. That he was an anarchist does not really matter, but the gist of the debate was I felt that everyone was selfish in their beliefs. He aboslutely would not see that. To him there were selfish people and non selfish people. I still say we are all selfish in our beliefs. Your post brought that back up and in some small way seemed to reinforce my selfish opinion of my own opinion.

Or maybe I am reading your words in a way they were not meant to be read.

Bull said...

No, I don't think you're reading it wrong - ultimately, we believe what we believe for our own benefit. If it entails being unselfish toward others then great; but it's still to conform to the model YOU want for yourself.

B.O.B.(bob) said...

I expect people to do the right thing but have gotten over the disappointment part. This is due to a core belief of mine that I think I mentioned to you.

People are, in general, STUPID!

Once you've gotten past the fact that the average person is a complete fucking moron very little will surprise or disappoint you.

Julie said...

For me, it's not so much about being disappointed or surprised; it's more about whether I know what to expect (from people I know) vs. being in a crowd of strangers, where anything can happen. If I suspect someone's going to be a jerk, that's actually less upsetting to me than not knowing at all.

With people I don't know, I have no expectation. It's not so much open-mindedness as anxiety. I hope they will do the right thing, but I have a sneaking suspicion they'll do something awful.

But I suppose I wouldn't have that anxiety if I didn't expect a significant portion of the population to behave badly.

Randal Graves said...

We're all bastards. This should be self-evident, even to the anarchists out there. The trick is to, while being a bastard, minimize the effects of said bastard-dom upon others. You know, unless they deserve it.

In all cases, assume the worst beforehand and be pleasantly surprised 1 out of every 732 times.