Two Principles

I think all belief systems that deal with human conduct are attempts to reconcile two principles. One: self-centredness, our tendency to prioritise our own experience, our own feelings, our own needs. Two: empathy, our ability to recognise that the feelings, needs and experience of others are equivalent to our own. I guess some other animals have no capacity for empathy at all. They experience themselves as being the entire universe. (I wrote a story called ‘Ooze’, in which I attempted to think myself into the mind of such a creature.) But very few humans are completely devoid of empathy.

Some people say that what we should strive for is to be completely un-self-centred, and completely empathetic, treating other people’s needs as equally important to our own (there are even those who would have us treat other people’s needs as more important). Such people might argue that self-centredness is not a principle at all. It is simply a falling short. This strikes me as somewhat empty piety. I say that not just because most of us are incapable of being entirely selfless, but also because I don’t think that would even be desirable. Happiness is only possible because we are able, at least sometimes, to shut out the suffering of others. At any moment of time, someone is being tortured, someone is starving. How could we ever laugh or fall in love, if we were never able to set that to one side, just as we set aside our own future and past suffering?

But to be completely self-centred is of course also monstrous. Even our limited capacity for empathy is, for most of us, enough to make us very aware of that. So our belief systems are all designed to allow us to think of ourselves as ‘good’ even though our behaviour suggests that we are quite largely motivated by self-interest. Christian theology for example includes the idea of original sin -we can’t help being bad- but also includes a way of nevertheless being redeemable by faith, even if not by deeds, a formulation that also rather neatly serves the self-interest of priests. Under all the theological elaboration, though, this idea does contain a simple truth: we are bad (selfish), but we are not completely bad. It also has the effect of burying the unworkable morality of absolute empathy which some sayings of Christ rather inconveniently imply. (Easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… etc)

Or, another example, Adam Smith argued that the mechanism of the market place meant that more good was done by people pursuing their own interests, than by people trying to be good. This idea is as comforting for rich people as the idea of salvation through faith alone is for Christians, (and of course it isn’t unusual to combine the two). How nice to think that buying nice things and having lovely holidays are actually morally good things to do! But then again, attempts to impose economic systems that are not driven by the pursuit of personal gain have tended to end in tyranny. And, since fear of punishment is no less selfish a driver of human activity than the pursuit of pleasure or status, but is a lot less efficient, maybe Adam Smith had a point.

Anyone who ever spends any money on nonessential things -and I don’t know anyone personally who doesn’t- is placing his or her own pleasure or comfort in that moment above the needs of people who are hungry, or homeless, or unable to afford treatment for illness. Our awareness of this stops most of us from being entirely selfish, but we remain selfish all the same. One way out is to blame the unhappy for their own misfortunes. Another is to look for others who are more selfish than we are, and build up a sense of moral superiority by condemning them. (Many people for example condemn as selfish the extravagance of folk who are richer than they are, even though they themselves are many times richer than most people on the planet.) In this way, morality becomes not a system of guidance for ourselves, but a means of proving our superiority to others, a technique that is as old as history -think of colonisers justifying their actions by the belief that their Christian faith makes them superior to those they invade and enslave – and now forms a staple of arguments on social media.

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