FUN FACT: It is when food became scarce that our brains started getting bigger (because we had to get creative and problem solve finding food). This is also when we started to evolve as a heavily tribal/ social species. The ancient version of us realized that we are more likely to take down giant wooly mammoths as a group vs alone, and ultimately survive. This enhanced survival both for us as an individual and as a species, was the beginnings of our tribal nature.
The problem is that what is best for us individually is not always consistent with what is best for the tribe at that moment. This gets even more complicated when we realize that how well we are accepted by our tribe is in turn also a factor in our individual survival. And so the dance between safety within ourselves and safety within our tribes began.
How does this connect to selfishness you ask. Well, as we evolved and developed more and more complex systems for communication, including language, moral development also started. There needed to be some way of regulating that most of the tribe would act in the interest of the tribe, most of the time. This is where the concepts of selfishness and altruism came in.
Altruism is seen as a positive quality that is respected by others. It means that person is putting the needs of others above their own. Theoretically, being recognized as an altruistic or “good” person, increases our acceptance by the tribe and will ultimately increase our individual survival too. It is easy to see how this would benefit the tribe as a whole.
Unfortunately, if I am altruistic (self-sacrificing, putting others before me) then I have to rely on other tribe members being similarly self-sacrificing in order to get my needs met. Even worse, I’m left to judge what is best for others and I hoping that others can guess what is best for me… after all the altruist does not voice their own needs (that would be selfish!). When your other tribe members do not reciprocate, or fail to correctly guess what your needs are, the scene is ripe for resentment to build between you and your tribe mates. Basic physical and emotional needs can go unfulfilled and our sense of independence can become compromised. This in turn becomes damaging to both us individually and to our tribe. When we are not in-line with what is healthy for us, because we are ultimately survival machines, we get weaker (see Pleasure-Pain Mechanism below).
Altruism, requires self sacrifice and does not allow for any concept of individuals making HEALTHY choices for themselves. In fact, taken at its’ most extreme, it argues that human’s desire to live and survive is selfish because it is ultimately for their own gain.
Selfishness is presented as Altrusims’ evil opposite, where an individual acts in their own self-interest. It is also equated with acting impulsively and instant gratification, although objectively this is not necessarily the case. Selfishness presents as if there can only be two types of people: victims and aggressors. It is presented as if any act that could benefit ourselves is necessarily trampling on the needs or wants of others and is consequently going to lead to rejection by the tribe, so it is unsafe.
So here is the problem, we are at our root, survival machines. Moreover, we survive largely based on a “Pleasure-Pain Mechanism”, which guides our well-being and survival. Generally speaking, when we experience pleasure, it is the “right” course for our survival. When we experience pain or distress, the trigger is somehow working against our survival and is the “wrong” course. This is not completely fool proof, because sometimes things feel good in the moment but make us feel weaker in the long term, this is where the Stronger/ Weaker concept of the Strong and Healthy Self connects in with all of this. The “Wrong” course of action REQUIRES ACTION TO CORRECT IT.
Author and Philosopher Ayn Rand illustrates this by highlighting that children who are born without the ability to experience physical pain do not live for long. Without this automatic self-regulating mechanism, they end up dying early, usually from injury or infection because they could not take appropriate action when their survival was threatened.
1. We have seen why and how it became adaptive for humans as a species to vilify selfishness.
2. Vilifying selfishness is actually damaging to ourselves and our species in the long term because it works against our hard-wiring to survive and do what is healthy for us. It teaches us to ignore our strong and healthy self as a society.
So what if selfish and altruistic are not so opposite?
We are the most adaptive species on the planet, and there is clearly something about this set up that is not enhancing our survival. This is seen by the prevalence of physical and mental health issues in the world right now. There is currently a mismatch between us as an organism and our relationship to our environment.
What if selfishness was re-defined as when we act in our own self interest while still respecting another person‘s right to act in their own self interest. Instead of seeing it as a stomping on other people’s needs, it is merely rising ourselves up to start interacting as equals. How would the world change if we all started using our own voice, if we adopted …
My experience personally and professionally is that when people are empowered to listen to what is healthy for them, to their strong and healthy self, they are healthier, happier and this helps others too. Basically, when we care for the instrument, it plays better music for all to enjoy.
So really our survival AND the tribes’ survival are helped. Even if you don’t believe me, look historically. All of our progress throughout the centuries has occurred when people stood up and had THEIR voice counted, did what was healthy for them, stood for their convictions, even though it was not always well received or popular at the time.
We are coming now to a point in history where we are realizing that this self-sacrificing story we have been living by is no longer serving us. Tiny tweaks can make a big difference. We can agree that trampling on the needs of others is not OK.
Let’s also agree that being ASSERTIVE, standing up for ourselves, speaking to our own experience and needs, is HEALTHY AND ALTRUISTIC.
“A new tomorrow starts today… Everything that happens now is in YOUR hands!” (X-men movie, Days of Future Past)