On Selfishness

HW Edwards
Jan 24, 2017 · 5 min read
St. Petersburg

I was reading an article from NY Mag the other day when a particular passage struck me.

“Russian life, I soon found out, was marked less by fear than by cynicism: the all-pervasive idea that no institution is to be trusted, because no institution is bigger than the avarice of the person in charge.”

It so perfectly encapsulated my worldview, specifically with regards to politics, that I went out and immediately got a DNA test to make sure I wasn’t part Russian.

When I was on the phone with my mother a week or so back, I put it this way.

If someone has a choice between two actions, with all other things remaining equal, they’re always going to pick the one that benefits them either directly or indirectly.

Going a step further, I think that a person’s inherent selfishness can offer unconscious or subconscious pushes towards decisions that, while on the face could be seen as selfless (to someone less cynical), do benefit them in some way.

Do I think that everyone that attended the Women’s Marches across the country this past Saturday were doing so out of the need to virtue-signal?

No, that’d be ridiculous.

But I saw far too many posts of heavily styled and perfectly shot people on Instagram that were obviously more about showing off the person at the center of the photo (either their protest-style crop-top and artfully torn jeans or their pithy and perfectly drawn signs) than they were about raising awareness for the issue that led them to attend the march in the first place to completely dismiss the fact that some of these people were there for reasons that weren’t entirely selfless.

A show I love to watch is The Good Place. It about a woman, played by Kristen Bell, who accidentally winds up in The Good Place after a life of making decisions that should’ve landed her in The Bad Place. One of the co-stars plays an ethics professor, so there were a lot of (surprisingly deep for an NBC sitcom) treatises on ethics and morality, specifically the difference between Consequentialism (think The End Justifies the Means as the thesis statement) and Virtue Ethics (in which inherent goodness lends moral weight to an action) and which is morally superior.

For instance, if you start a foundation that saves the lives of underprivileged children living above the Arctic Circle in Canada, but do so out of the desire to be viewed as a good person, is the act good or bad?

Consequentialism says it doesn’t matter what your reasons were, the end result was good, and thus morally good.

Virtue Ethics says that your reasons, being selfish, make the action morally bad, even if the end result was good.

Let’s say that you really just want to help give these kids a chance, and your foundation decides to provide internet access to these underprivileged communities, but these kids end up all becoming huge Justin Bieber fanatics who don’t care about anything else but Bieber Fever, leading them to move away to Toronto and Los Angeles, thus depriving the community of their youth and inadvertently destroying an indigenous culture spanning back to the first humans that walked across the Bering Strait.

Consequentialism now says that action is morally bad, and Virtue Ethics says your action is morally good.

Whether you believe one side or the other (or Kant’s Categorical Imperative), we can all agree that sometimes good things happen from bad motivations and bad things can occur from good motivations.

Determining whether something is good or bad (morally) isn’t what I’m interested in, I’m purely interested in the why of that motivation.

Divorcing motivation from morality makes it easy to understand why someone made the decision they made without being forced to categorize it as good or bad.

I like to know what makes people tick, because (selfishly) it allows me a glimpse into what’s important to a particular person when they’re making decisions, and that knowledge can only help me.

If, however, I don’t actually know why someone made a particular decision, I default to because it benefited them in some way.

There’s a reason one of the first things detectives ask themselves in a murder case is “Cui Bono” (Latin for “who benefits”), because whoever benefits has motive to commit the crime.

When I look at the President of the United States of America (whether that’s Obama or Trump) and some of the decisions made, I try and think about what’s in their interest.

Obama might have made some compromises on aspects of governing that I disagreed with (namely the mass-surveillance apparatus he neglected to dismantle), but he could have been banking on the support of certain key senators to pass the Affordable Care Act which he viewed as his legacy, and attacking the NSA or publicly doing anything but severely chastising Edward Snowden would have lost that support.

When Trump, earlier today, signed an Executive Action order to restart the Keystone Pipeline, I didn’t have to think hard to figure that he probably had financial motivation to do so. The guy loves money more than he loves talking about how great he is or how hot his daughter is, so that wasn’t a big leap.

I don’t actually know exactly what went through their minds when they made these decisions, but my worldview leads me to believe that there must’ve been some selfish motivation behind them.

Shit, Trump could actually believe that the Keystone Pipeline is in the best interests of America, and that could be his only motivation, and Obama could’ve kept XKEYSCORE around because he loved looking at underage girls’ Facebook pages while furiously masturbating.

This probably isn’t true though, and assigning an even more selfish motive to Trump than to Obama is purely a function of looking at past behaviors and actions.

Looking at some of Trump’s picks for Secretaries in his Cabinet, I see selfish motives around each one, even though some of these selfish motives are better (morally) than others.

Mnuchin is a former partner at Goldman Sachs, so financial deregulation and the easing of corporate tax avoidance penalties (he’s a fan of stashing money off-shore to avoid paying taxes) are things that selfishly will benefit him.

Mattis, on the other hand, as a former Marine Corps General probably bumps the Marines up on the logistics and supply chains, and ensures that any Reduction in Force hits the other branches maybe a bit harder than it hits the Marines. Shit, we might see the Marine Corps ranks swell in the next few years, and after the clusterfuck that the under-supplied Marine Corps dealt with during the Invasion of Iraq, giving them more men and materiel support is (in my eyes) a good thing.

Now, I’m not saying you need to uncover the selfish motivations underneath each and every action everyone in your life from your mother to your girlfriend makes until you’re a quivering mass of paralyzing self-doubt, just that you recognize that sometimes, selfishness can look a whole lot like selflessness.

And maybe, just maybe, your ability to look objectively at a decision has some inherent bias due to your own subconscious selfishness.

Or maybe I’m just a cynical asshole. That’s possible too.

HW Edwards talks about writing, books, life in LA and marketing here at Medium, and writes short fiction at Fictum. He quit Twitter and Facebook and has never been happier.

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HW Edwards

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