Saturday, 7 July 2007

Is Society Becoming More Selfish?

Before getting on to answering whether 'we are becoming more selfish as a society' let us first look at defining the antonym of selfishness, that is - selflessness.

Selflessness is believed to be a moral virtue. But the full extend of the meaning of selflessness, is self-sacrifice. Thus, in reality to be selfless is to be unconcerned about one's own welfare. From this understanding of the real meaning of selflessness, one should realize that by the false identification of self-sacrifice or selflessness as a moral virtue, then by holding this definition as true, one has defined morality out of existence. If one is fully capable of self-sacrifice then by what means could one be moral.

Morality can only exist if we are capable of empathy and empathy is a reflection of our own inner self-worth. The very reason we can empathize with others is because we can put ourselves in their shoes.

When we empathize, what we are basically doing internally is applying the 'Golden Rule' - Which says: 'treat others as you want to be treated'. Now if an individual was a selfless person, by definition, he or she would have no concern of how they were treated and it would naturally follow on from this, that they could not empathize with others either. Such a person could not possibly be moral and would be incapable of applying the Golden Rule.

The definition of selflessness held up as a virtue by most moral philosophers, is exactly the definition held up as a moral virtue by the three major monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. One is supposed to selflessly sacrifice one's self to a 'higher-cause' at the expense of one's own ego.

Now let us define a misunderstanding of what it means to be selfless. The often made claim is that, to save a loved one's life at the risk of one's own self, is an act of selfless, self-sacrifice. This is quite clearly false. The reason that one has an overwhelming desire to save a loved one, even at the expense of risking one's own life, is not because one has an overwhelming urge to sacrifice oneself, it is a selfish act; yes! - I will say that again, it is a selfish act. How can this be so?

...When an individual risks his or her own life to save a loved one, it is for the very reason that they love them. They are saving someone that they cherish and they cherish them so much, that they are willing to put their own life on the line. In other words they have put a value on a person in the 'currency' of love. This cannot be selflessness. A selfless act is the sacrifice of a higher value for a lower one, such as in the earlier example of giving up your ego to God (This is also a misrepresentation of love. Love itself is thought of as self-sacrificing, but it is not. We love something or someone, because it or they reflect our own inner values).

Let me give an example of a selfless act in its true definition: Imagine you are sat at home and a film is starting on the television. You have been waiting all week to watch this film. Just as it starts there's a knock at the door and it's your neighbor. They ask if you can go round to their garden and help put up their new shed. Now if you value watching the film more than you value helping your neighbor put up a shed, but out of politeness you decide to help the neighbor, that is an example of selflessness or self-sacrifice.

Now, imagine the same scenario as above, but with one small change. The neighbor offers you money to help them put up the shed and you put that at a higher value than watching the film. Now in this instance, if you sat down and carried on watching the film, this would also be an example of selflessness or self-sacrifice.

Now earlier I said: "to save a loved one is a selfish act and not a selfless one". This is not actually strictly correct. I should of substituted selfish with rational self-interest. This is because selfishness like selflessness is an irrational behavior. Selfishness really means gaining a value at the expense of someone else, thus selfishness can be just as immoral as selflessness.

Now, having defined definitions lets get onto the answer of the question: Is society becoming more selfish? - I would say; more selfish no... more self-interested yes. But self-interest unlike selfishness is a virtuous trait.

A self-interested person, is simply someone who cares enough about themselves to have pride in their own ego. And despite what religion has to say about pride being an immoral character trait, don't believe it. Pride is also a virtue. Pride itself is simply self love. To the degree that one has pride in oneself is the degree by which one loves oneself.

Look at the most civilized societies, they are run on self-interest. What is free market competition? ...It relies on self-interest of business owners. But this self-interest is not selfish, neither is it self-sacrificing. It is not selfish, because a successful business relies on happy consumers. If a business owner became selfish and greedily increased his prices above market value, not only would this be a selfish act, it would ultimately be a selfless one; as he or she would quickly go out of business by sacrificing his or her products to above market prices, that the consumer would be unwilling to pay.

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