On Altruism and Egoism

LiveScience reports on the research of Brick Johnstone and Bret Glass of Missouri University:

“… the right parietal lobe — is responsible for defining ‘Me,’ said researcher Brick Johnstone of Missouri University. It generates self-criticism, he said, and guides us through physical and social terrains by constantly updating our self-knowledge: my hand, my cocktail, my witty conversation skills, my new love interest …

“[Their research] looked for correlations between brain region performance and the subjects’ self-reported spirituality. 

“Among the more spiritual of the 26 subjects, the researchers pinpointed a less functional right parietal lobe, a physical state which may translate psychologically as decreased self-awareness and self-focus.

“In addition to religious practices, other behaviors and experiences are known to hush the Definer of Me. Appreciation of art or nature can quiet it, Johnstone said, pointing out that people talk of ‘losing themselves’ in a particularly beautiful song. Love, and even charity work, can also soften the boundaries of ‘Me,’ he said.”

This link between selflessness and spirituality is echoed in the Bhagavad-gita:

Those who are unwise act out of attachment for the results of their action, so the wise should act without attachment for the sake of uplifting the world.

Chapter 3, Text 26, translation by Swami Tripurari
And in the Philippians 2:4 of the Bible:

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

In Islam, the term used for selflessness is al-‘eethar, and is mentioned in the Qur’an 59:9

Those who entered the city and the faith before them love those who flee unto them for refuge, and find in their breasts no need for that which hath been given them, but prefer (the fugitives) above themselves though poverty become their lot. And whoso is saved from his own avarice – such are they who are successful.

One antagonist of selflessness is Ayn Rand, who states:

Men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.

The ethics of Rand’s objectivism, rational egoism, hold that human reasoning leads to selfishness. Why would someone put others’ interest before their own? A person’s life would end quickly if all of their actions were geared towards the preservation of another’s life. Therefore, if someone acts for the benefit of others, they are being unreasonable. She even applies the idea to love in her March 1964 interview with Playboy:

“When you are in love, it means that the person you love is of great personal, selfish importance to you and to your life. If you were selfless, it would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you. […] Love is not self-sacrifice, but the most profound assertion of your own needs and values.”

Although Rand makes excellent and inspiring points about individualism, self-sufficiency and the avoidance of animalistic hedonism throughout her writings, the extremes of altruism and egoism can be balanced.

If we ignore the needs of others we will be indirectly affected. If we do not properly educate children or provide social services for those in need, our economy may suffer and crime may rise. We cannot deny our interdependence. No man is an island.

The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.

Independent thinking alone is not suited to interdependent reality. Independent people who do not have the maturity to think and act interdependently may be good individual producers, but they won’t be good leaders or team players. They’re not coming from the paradigm of interdependence necessary to succeed in marriage, family, or organizational reality.

Meeting the needs of our fellow man requires that we clearly understand those needs and are capable of meeting them. It requires that we direct enough attention towards our personal well-being to make a contribution to humanity at large. Ignoring our own needs is not part of the equation of interdependence. How can we help others without having helped ourselves?
Regardless of how much reasoning we apply in our own narrow self-interest, the end result is the same: death. We may have lived a well-reasoned life, but for what purpose? The whole of humanity will outlive the individual. If our sense of self is not broadened to include others, particularly those who have not yet been born, then a tiny life of selfish acts has little meaning.
May I continually improve all aspects of my physical, emotional and mental individuality, as well as my capacity to communicate with and understand others, so that my existence remains humble, meaningful and benign.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for carefully placing these ancient traditions and contemporary thoughts together in one space. It provides an enlightening glimpse into the interdependence of the individual and the whole – opportune (and hopefully continuous) reflections for the New Year and beyond …

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