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How Does It Benefit Me? (Newsletter 015)

We are not entitled to unlimited freedom at the expense of our fellow citizens.
How Does It Benefit Me? (Newsletter 015)

Greetings friends.

It seems to me the world is suffering from not one, but two epidemics. We hope the first, visible, epidemic is already waning, due to the success of vaccines and other measures. The COVID pandemic must eventually end (or change its nature) because of the simple fact that its march through human hosts has been rampant. There are only so many people left to be infected.

The other invisible epidemic has been growing slowly but steadily, largely unremarked and unobserved, but still having powerful effects on humankind. I think of it as an epidemic of selfishness, or perhaps self-centeredness. More and more I observe people approach situations that affect them and potentially others with one question foremost in mind: "How does it benefit me?" If the person does not see a direct benefit to themselves, then they act accordingly. I will give examples in a moment. But first, let me explain why this is a troubling development.

For a long time, I considered altruism to be largely illusory. Altruism is defined as "disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others." I assumed some people simply feel better than their fellows in paying attention to the needs of others. If such people get personal satisfaction out of helping others, then they are not acting out of "disinterested and selfless concern." In other words, because they benefit from helping others (feeling virtuous, satisfied, gaining higher moral standing, etc.), they are not being completely altruistic. Only the rarest of people, my thinking went, are genuinely selflessly concerned for others. You can count them on a couple hands: people like Mother Teresa, who are so unusual that we consider them miraculous and literally call them saints.

Even if my thinking was logically correct, I see now that it is far too stingy in giving credit to the benefit society as a whole gets when people act altruistically, even if the individuals get some personal satisfaction out of doing so. And ironically, it is the steady decline in altruistic behavior that has made me realize how much helping others contributes to a healthy society.

Let me acknowledge that my assumption about altruism in any event was no doubt wrong in at least one large way: parents behave altruistically towards their children all the time. They work, and sacrifice, and generally demonstrate in countless ways that they care for the well-being of their children at the expense of their own. Among mothers, it is only the exceptional cases where we do not see this. Even a mother who gives a child up for adoption does so out of a belief that the child will be better off in the hands of parents who can care for it properly. (I am not omitting fathers from behaving selflessly, because obviously the large majority do; but in our modern world, there are more absent fathers and single-parent households than at any time in history. Not sure what this means.)

And it's not just parents. The visible pandemic has highlighted many other people demonstrating what sure looks like selfless concern for others: nurses and doctors working without rest, workers of all kinds taking unknown risks and coming into factories to keep essential goods in production, and many more. Do I care that a firefighter feels proud of their service, and so is not purely altruistic in putting on their gear and running towards a fire? It would be petty and mean to even suggest it.

So with these good examples of selfless behavior, where does the invisible epidemic come in? Who are all these self-centered people I am worried about? A fair number have been outed by the visible pandemic. For every person who decided that their personal freedom and individual rights outweighed the need to, e.g. wear a facemask in public, or quarantine after an exposure, or get vaccinated, you have someone who asked the question "How does it benefit me?" and decided their personal needs were more important than those of others. Indeed, one indicator that a person may be infected with the invisible virus is their insistence on asserting their individual rights to justify self-centered behavior.

It pains me to say this, for two reasons: first, I know anything related to COVID is highly divisive. But we are having a philosophical discussion here, so I trust we can keep an open mind. The second reason is that I believe the development of the modern concept of inherent rights and individual liberty was one of the most important steps of all time in bettering the lives of humanity. So any criticism of the assertion of those rights feels like an erosion of support of individual freedom in favor of more heavy-handed approaches by the state.

It sometimes helps to remind ourselves of the many ways in which we already stifle our individual desires for a broader societal benefit: from wearing seatbelts, to driving the speed limit, to not smoking indoors, to recycling our waste. Laws and the systems we use to enforce laws serve to protect all of society from the acts of selfish individuals. Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a point when he said that the state should have the power to "force people to be free," to subjugate their individual interests in some cases to that of the "general will," or the greater society. The trade-off for individuals in giving up some of their unlimited freedom is a society in which they can more safely interact with their fellow citizens.

What this implies is that personal freedom in modern society comes with strings attached. We are not entitled to unlimited freedom at the expense of our fellow citizens. No, we are not necessarily behaving altruistically when we give up certain freedoms, because it is to obtain a greater expected benefit. But as I described above, society as a whole benefits when people act in ways that reflect the needs of others, even if they get a personal benefit from acting in ways that only appear altruistic.

Thus, people who make decisions that have societal impact primarily through the lens of "How does it benefit me?" risk violating the social compact where we all voluntarily limit ourselves for the benefit of broader society. Put differently, let's assume you decide in a specific case your individual interests outweigh those of broader society, even though the majority of society believes the societal interests are greater: what is to keep you from deciding in favor of your individual interests again? What is the principle that allows one to responsibly follow some rules of society and not others?

I can give you no easy answer to these questions. In this week's Moral Letter 29 On Easy Lessons, I offer you rather the message that you should beware the easy path. Tough topics require diligent effort and thought to work through. If you cannot maintain your attention span long enough, you will arrive at rather superficial answers.

029 - On Easy Lessons - Moral Letters for Modern Times
Everywhere we turn, we are confronted with the incredible shrinking attention span.

You don't want to be thinking superficially about your career. This week I have added an article in my series about how to more effectively manage your career, Are You Globally Competitive In Your Career? Among other things, I discuss this dynamic of whether you are focused on yourself, i.e. "How does it benefit me?" or whether you can set your sights higher.

Are You Globally Competitive In Your Career?
These questions will help you objectively benchmark yourself.

If it is hard to work through such questions, it may be because many things in life are uncertain. One thing, however, is not, and that is the fact of our own mortality. In Moral Letter 30 On Reaping What Has Been Sown, I set out some thoughts on how to face the one thing we can be certain of.

030 - On Reaping What Has Been Sown - Moral Letters for Modern Times
For all the time that we spend worrying about things that may never happen, how much do we contemplate the one thing we can be sure of?

I think the advice here can be used to work through other fears as well, not just the fear of death. That's something to be optimistic about in these tough times.

Be well.

PS - If you could use a laugh this week, check out If You Did Your Performance Review Like A Central Bank. I wrote this spontaneously, prompted by yet another outlandish excuse given by a feckless central bank. We need our government officials to remember the "service" part of government service and be less self-centered themselves.

If You Did Your Performance Review Like A Central Bank
This one is for everyone who’s wondering what’s up with “core inflation” and “transitory” inflation.