We must guard against the siren song of self-interest if we are to live in a fair and equitable society.” – Here On Earth, p. 14
With due respect to Flannery, unfortunately this is just the kind of thinking that’s causing many of our problems. We don’t need to AVOID self-interest, we need to RETHINK our self-interest.
We need to see that in reality our self-interest is consistent and in harmony with the good of the community, others, and the environment.
I don’t mean this the way Ayn Rand would. Please let me explain.
If I go around with the feeling that what’s in my interest, what’s to my benefit, is bad for others – in other words, that in order to be loving and ethical to others I have to sacrifice myself – then I’m going to feel and be eternally at war with society, others, the environment, and myself.
I’ll constantly be setting my self-love at odds with my love of others, and feeling I can’t have both – I can’t be a good person and survive or thrive in the world. I’ll feel that goodness is for suckers. I’ll feel that God is an idiot, if He even exists. I’ll feel that love is an empty concept or that it’s not for this world.
The truth is that if what I want is detrimental to others or the community or the environment, then it’s not self-interest – it’s not good even for me.
I know it doesn’t look that way a lot of the time, and I could write pages about the dynamics of different situations (and maybe I will!). But even in daily life we often see how people’s choices that seem self-interested come back to bite them in the ass. We’re seeing this on a global level with anthropogenic climate disruption.
Self-interest, self-love, is a good thing. It is consistent with love of others.
Love is not a balancing act. Love benefits all concerned.
What’s not consistent with love of others is self-absorption, where we lack awareness and consideration of others and the environment. What’s not consistent with love of others is selfishness, where we think only of our own profit or pleasure. What’s not consistent with love of others is arrogance, where we refuse to feel and face the consequences of our choices – the pain both immediate and long-term that unloving choices bring.
These things aren’t consistent with self-interest – love of oneself – either.
There are immediate negative personal consequences to causing damage to others or the environment – or even not doing what we could do on their behalf: the pain of remorse and the grief of the choice or omission we made. It’s called the Law of Compensation.
These emotions are not to be trifled with. They are the building blocks of Hell, as anyone who has been there can tell you.
It seems that pain doesn’t follow from self-absorption and selfishness only because we numb ourselves out of feeling it: we’re arrogant. The pain doesn’t go away. It’s waiting for the effects of the alcohol or coffee or drugs or whatever other addictions we use to avoid feeling what we feel (TV, shopping, partying, reading, music, exercising, Facebook …), to wear off – which eventually they will. Because the pain will be there till the day we die and then it will still be there.
Were we not arrogant – not avoiding the immediate pain of doing wrong – we could never be selfish or self-absorbed.
Self-absorption is not in our self-interest. Selfishness is not in our self-interest. Arrogance is not in our self-interest.
Look at it this way: Assholes have to go through life being assholes and not even knowing it. Is that really self-interest? Really?
This isn’t just semantics – it’s about how we think of ourselves in relation to the world. Our default thinking has put us at war – each of us against the world.
No wonder our world is dying.