Selfishness vs Altruism; an outdated dicotomy?
Tue, 16 Nov 1999 23:55:30 EST

I have been thinking lately about the whole selfish vs selfless debate, and about how both sides seem to me to be missing something. I used to preach what I referred to as benevolent self-interest (yes this is very similar to certain ideas in venturism and extrosattvaism), but even that seems less than complete of a description now to me.

I believe that the most important quality in the universe is self. But not my self alone. All selves are valuable to me (though I do have favorites). I am interested in bettering the lives of all selves, mine and others. Of course, my main focus will be on doing what is best for myself and those others I have the closest contact with. I believe in responsibilities of proximity and scale and competence. The closer you are to a self, the greater your responsibility (and who is closer than yourself), the smaller the scale, the fewer people need act (and a single person is the smallest scale, so you and a few others should in general be able to help with most problems that effect just you), and of course the greater your ability to render assistance in any situation determines responsibility (as I have had medical training, especially ACLS, my responsibility to respond to an injured person is greater than that of someone who has only seen CPR on TV). Now, this theory puts great emphasis on taking care of yourself as much as possible because 1) you are usually, but not always, in the best position to do so and 2) by caring for yourself, you help lighten the burden of responsibilities on those around you. But it is not a sink or swim concept, nor does it forget the other person.

Essentially, what I am saying is that each and every person is important. I have heard it said before that each person is a universe within themselves, and when they die, a whole universe dies. I believe to a certain degree this is true. Further, the ability to care, to feel, to desire, this is in my estimation the most valuable thing in the universe. It must be used with care, and it must be afforded respect.

Altruism is unsatisfactory because it usually misses the trees for the forest, ignoring the person you could do the most good for, yourself. Selfishness is as bad for it often doesn't even know there are other trees, much less a forest. I believe we must always remember that we are, if you will, a tree among trees, who all together are the forest. We are not diminished for being this one tree, nor are the other trees devalued just because they aren't this one tree, nor are they diminished because they compose the forest, nor is the forest lessened because we discern it is composed of trees.

So I say leave behind the question of whether to aid others or look after yourself. Do both, as much as you can. Look about yourself and see what you can best do to make our universe a decent place to be. True, more often than not we will be able to do precious little in any one situation, but if we keep striving great things can happen. I plan to. How about you?

Glen Finney