For a while now I’ve been pondering the nature of selfishness; why it’s so prevalent and why it’s so hard to eradicate.
There are of course some people who don’t believe that selfishness is a problem. Indeed, there are many people who believe that selfishness is not only normal but is actually a desirable state of affairs.
Well, I don’t just disagree with these people. I actually think that they’ve been infected by a meme plague called ‘selfishness’.
Of course before I can explain what I mean by ‘meme plague’ I first have to explain what I mean by ‘meme’.
A meme is basically an idea.
This is not a meme, because it’s not an idea:
This is a meme, because it is an idea:
But this is also a meme: “teen pregnancy”.
Because “meme” just means “idea”.
The concept of a meme was created by Richard Dawkins to explain the fact that ideas spread in a way that is similar to the way genes spread though a population.
I shall summarise my understanding of the term like this:
A meme is a contagious idea.
It’s an idea that has some characteristic that makes people both remember it and pass it on to others.
Urban legends are the best examples of this. We often know (or at least suspect) that they aren’t true but there is still something about them that makes us spread them to others. These can include scenarios as unlikely as terrorists filling handsoap dispensers with acid or child molesters putting cocaine in halloween candy to the idea that a small group of powerful banks secretly possess a controlling stake in the global financial system.
Oh wait, that one is actually true.
Anyway, memes are contagious ideas and it’s important to realise, as with the urban legend examples, that just because a meme is successful doesn’t mean it’s true.
Genes have a similar problem. I mean think about a peacock’s tail. Yes, it’s awesome, but the reason why it’s so huge is because this attracts a mate, meaning that the genes for huge, colourful tails get passed on more often than the genes for more useful things like speed, immune response, or mind-powers.
The same holds true for memes: a meme’s ability to pass from person to person has nothing to do with its accuracy or inaccuracy.
For example the myth that the Great Wall of China is visible from space is highly successful at passing from person to person, and remaining in one’s memory, but it’s completely untrue.
Memes don’t spread because they are true, they spread because they are appealing, compelling and memorable.
And so it is with the meme at hand: selfishness.
You see along with the concept of the meme comes the concept of the ‘meme plague‘.
A meme plague occurs when a meme arises that is both harmful and unstoppably effective at propagating itself.
Many people misuse this term, or invoke it too lightly.
I mean is the popularity of Justin Bieber really a meme plague?
No, it’s not, this is just part of another meme plague called “arrogance”.
But moving on we get at last to the topic of this post: selfishness.
Hard line believers in selfishness are people like Ayn Rand who believed that using taxes to pay for vital services like healthcare and education was literally immoral.
I find it endlessly ironic that someone so completely in love with their own abilities (which, I admit, were impressive) still believed that any person, in any situation, would have been just as successful as she was, regardless of any obstacle in their way, if they just worked hard enough.
You know, because the reason why salt miners in west Africa are poor is because they aren’t working hard…
Rand believed she was better than everyone else, but she never grasped what this meant: she succeeded despite adversity because she was exceptional.
And just because someone is less capable than you doesn’t mean they are less worthy.
The slightly less hard line on selfishness was proposed by Milton Friedman who believed that helping all people in society is a desirable outcome. This was in sharp contrast to Rand who felt that those who could succeed should be allowed to and that everyone else should just go fuck themselves.
But it would be wrong to believe that Friedman was somehow a ‘nicer guy’ , he wasn’t. Sadly, the truth is that Friedman was an even more effective infectious agent of the plague of selfishness than Rand was.
How can this be, when he felt that uplifting everyone in society was a good thing? Simple: he pushed the idea that the only way to help everyone in society was if everyone in society was completely selfish and only interested in helping themselves.
If you think that this doesn’t make sense that’s because it doesn’t.
Rand and Friedman make the same philosophical error in that they both believe that everyone has an equal chance of success and that hard work is the only difference between people.
Let’s get some perspective here: Rand escaped Soviet Russia, a place where people were persecuted, executed and generally disempowered. Friedman grew up in the US in a time when it was recovering from the Great Depression and many people could not make ends meet no matter how hard they tried.
Yet they still both believed that hard work was the only factor separating rich from poor; they did not consider the effects of power at all.
And unfortunately the ideas of these two thinkers have something that their opponents’ ideas do not: the characteristics of a successful meme.
You see selfish people don’t like the fact that society criticises them for being selfish, and they are constantly on the look out for some argument that they can use to rationalise their own behaviour.
The meme of selfishness gives them everything they need.
Firstly, it tells them that they aren’t actually wrong to be selfish, because selfishness will end up helping everyone in society. Thus, it convinces them that selfishness is actually altruism!
Secondly, it feeds the ego by convincing those infected by it that they are actually smarter than other people.
Thirdly, by giving people the freedom to act selfishly it allows them to obtain tangible, physical benefits by taking advantage of others. And furthermore because of the first and second points this interaction is perceived by them as being both morally desirable and as proof of their own superiority.
So the behaviour is self-reinforcing and works to prove its correctness to the infected person.
The really disturbing thing is how pervasive this meme infection has become. On TV we constantly see characters who are portrayed as evil, selfish and successful. It is taken for granted being an asshole will help you to succeed in life.
That is how far this infection has progressed. Even those who believe that selfishness is a bad thing have come to believe in one of its central tenets: that the more of an asshole you are the better off you will be.
And I am regularly confronted by people who believe that all humans are selfish (it is in fact a central tenet of free market economics) and that not being selfish means that you are less intelligent than those who are.
Well, I disagree.
Because I (and you) can take a look around the world and see what kind of planet selfishness leads to. When one considers how monster capitalism has lead to the erosion of personal rights, the institutionalisation of economic malfunction and the destruction of the environment the flaws in the approach are impossible to miss.
The fact that, right now, action on global warming is being blocked by powerful people who believe that their selfish desires are more important than anything else in the world, should be a huge fucking wake up call to everyone.
And it seems to me that when one considers all these flaws in the selfish approach it is impossible to reach any conclusion other than that selfishness is a very stupid approach to the world indeed.
No matter how fashionable it is to believe otherwise.
[Standard Disclaimer: this post was entirely my own opinion and was not paid for in any way, directly or otherwise, by anyone or anything that stands to gain in any way from the ideas expressed herein.]