Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Limits of Selfishness

A long time ago, a chain smoker named Ayn Rand wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness, which has been a favorite of college sophomores ever since. Her contention is that altruism is a sham. Even those who claim to care about others are just in it for themselves (reward in heaven, etc.), so you might as well give up the charade and just go for shameless self-interest from the start.

Sadly, Ayn is dead now, succombed to smoking-related heart failure. I harp on smoking because if she was so self-interested why couldn't she quit? The achilles heal of selfishness is that it doesn't really give your life meaning or motivate you to move one step beyond your hedonistic desires. If you know an Ayn Rand fan, they are usually isolated and emotionally restricted people, with a bent toward the paranoid, who don't seem to be taking much pleasure in their selfishness.

Say you accept selfishness; then what do you do? You can make a lot of money—Ayn's all for that!—but then what are you supposed to do with the money you've made? Is it really satisfying to buy another boat or mansion, and how many times can you visit Antarctica? You could give your money to charity, but—Oh no!—that would be altruism rearing it's ugly head.

Altruism may be an illusion or selfishly motivated, but there just isn't any other worthwhile objective in life. You will live and die on this planet, so you might as well do what you can to improve it. It may be selfish to think this way but you want people to say after you're gone, "He made this world a better place." It seems so much better than, "He screwed people over," or "He didn't make a difference at all." Your motivations may be less than pure—You want others to appreciate you, care about you and remember you after you're gone.—but even an illusion of altruism feels better than none at all.

It turns out that a lot of our self-interest is tied up in other people. To relate to others, we have to give them something they want, so we have to start thinking about other people's needs apart from our own. The Randian merchant—represented by Frito Lay and Coca-Cola—is going conduct marketing research and give the people exactly what they want, sufficient only to make them turn over their money. A more altruistic merchant is going to give people more of what they actually need, even if it is less profitable. Selling quality rather than crap is just more satisfying to the seller. It lets him sleep better at night than the Randian merchant.

Selfishness, processed through intelligence and foresight, begins to look a lot like altruism. If you care about other people, then they will care about you and often give back things that serve your needs. Ayn Rand may teach you how to make money, but if you want more subtle rewards like love and personal satisfaction, you have to start negotiating with others. You have to at least pretend to care, and after you pretend for long enough, you actually will care. In spite of your selfishness, it will matter to you what happens to others.

The main problem with altruism—wanting to help mankind—is how to go about it. There is very shallow altruism where you simply take every resource you have and give it to someone else. If other people are hungry, then you feed them, up to the point where you can no longer feed yourself. The trouble with this simple form of caring is that it doesn't work. It doesn't really improve the planet. Feeding people doesn't improve their self-sufficiency or address the underlying problems that made them hungry. Airlifting food and dumping it on hungry people has certain value in crisis situations, but in the long run it doesn't help them. For one thing, they're probably going to procreate and produce even more hungry people.

To really be effective in the world, you have to be clever and strategic, outwitting the many forces that work against altruism. That's where selfishness comes in. Before you can realistically help others, you have to help yourself. You have to build up your own resources, knowledge and skills. The smarter you are, the better equipped you are to help others. If you are significantly advanced and socially connected, then you're not just going to feed the starving people of Africa; you're going to marshall the diplomatic forces to stop the civil war that makes them hungry. That's a complicated task, and to address it you've got to become a complicated person. You have to make a huge investment in yourself before you get to the point where you can solve those higher-level problems.

So selfishness is good, at least in the sense that it's good to invest in your own skills and resources. Your body and mind are the tool by which you help others. For maximum effectiveness, you have to refine and maintain this tool, and this can involve a huge investment. Instead of spending 100% of your time and resources on others, you might spend 90% on building up yourself, on the assumption that the remaining 10% given to others is going to be more effective. One strategic diplomatic move—or one well-placed missile—can sometimes do more than billions of dollars in direct food aid. Deciding where that move should be made requires a long-term investment in your own education and social positioning.

Altruism isn't just feeding one hungry person but all of them. If a beggar comes up to you on the street and asks for money, the simple-minded altruist is going to give it to him. The smarter, more self-conscious altruist is going to say, "Wait, is this really the best use of my money?" Maybe the best use is to retain your funds, guard them for yourself, and invest them in your own education and skills.

Altruism may be an illusion, but so is selfishness. The best route is in the middle, using your selfishness to pursue higher altruistic goals. By this philosophy, you can quit smoking! If you care about others, then you'll have the motivation to change yourself.

Sad thing about poor Ayn: She just didn't have anything to live for in the end.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Just Hit the Ball! (The Philosophers' Football Match)

Do you remember The Philosophers' Football Match? It's a Monty Python sketch about a soccer game that pits the Greek philosophers against the German philosophers.

The ball is placed in position, and the whistle blows. Both teams then begin furiously debating amongst themselves, pontificating about what to do. This goes on for most of the game. As many theories are concocted on both sides, the game remains locked at nil-nil, with the ball still untouched in the middle of the field.

Then Archimedes with Greeks gets in idea. "Eureka!" he shouts, and HE KICKS THE BALL! After that, the game is all with the Greeks as they breeze past the dumbfounded Germans. The Greeks hit the ball into the net and win the game in the final seconds.

It's a perfect metaphor for one of the main problems of human behavior: taking initiative. Most people just won't do it. They dream of great things, but they won't take the steps to make them happen. They won't even take that critical first step: hitting the ball to get the game going.

People expect success to be delivered to them. They want to follow someone else's plan. Humans are basically sheep. It's in our nature. As long as we can follow a leader and a plan, we're reasonably happy. It's the leaders that are rare. Everyone has the opportunity to be a leader in his own life, but most just don't do it.

When people dream of success, the dream usually includes someone delivering success to them. They dream of being "discovered" for their latent talent. Someone else makes them a star or gives them funding or hands them a plan. Alas, the chances of this happening are extremely thin, because there aren't many "discoverers" out there.

If you want success, you have to make it yourself. You have to step out of your comfort zone and take the initiative. YOU HAVE TO HIT THE DAMN BALL!

Imagine there's a little structure in the human brain that controls initiative. If this region is damaged, people can still respond to events thrown at them, but they can't initiate events. (There may be some clinical evidence for this, but I'm just theorizing here.) Throw a ball at these people, and they'll catch it, but they can't throw the ball themselves.

In most people, this section is a tiny little pea-size thing. They can follow the plan, but they can't make the plan except in very limited circumstances. These are the sheep of society—i.e. the vast bulk of mankind. Give them some free time to use as they wish and they'll watch TV or do a crossword puzzle or engage in some other programmed entertainment. They can't intiate and maintain a productive plan for themselves otherwise.

This class of "low initiators" can include some very intelligent people, like engineers and college professors. In fact, especially engineers and college professors! A person can have brilliant mathematical skills, adept at solving any problem placed in front of them, yet be totally inept at deciding what that problem should be.

The world is full of pseudo-artists—people who claim to be writers, musicians, painters, filmmakers. What they really are, however, is technicians, people who follow the plan. They go to school, learn an instrument, form bands, go to gigs, but they never become what they intended to be: creators. They'll never write a great song, because they requires independent initiative, which they just don't have.

Give these people a great creative opportunity, and they'll let it pass. Dangle a carrot in front of them, and they'll sniff at it, but if it wasn't part of the programmed plan, they won't reach out and grab it.

They want to become great writers, but they won't write. They'll feebly do the assignment given them by their creative writing teacher, but if the opportunity arises—today, right now—to write something meaningful without the teacher, they won't do it. Their little pea-size initiative center can't push them to do it.

A few members of our species—and I mean very few—don't have this problem. They've got big, grape-size initiative centers. They just think about something, then do it. They don't dream about where they should go, what they should do or who they should be; as soon as they know, then it's done. They change course instantly and become that person.

Think of Leonardo da Vinci. That dude did stuff! Painting, sculpture, engineering. He just thought of things and did them. Within the contraints of his resources (primitive by our standards), he kept going and never stopped. The rest of humanity is more like those dithering German philosophers: talking endlessly about doing things but never actually doing them.

So how do you develop a grape-size initiative center? Easy: you just exercise it! You think stuff, then you do it. You hit the damn ball! Then you hit it again and again. The more initiatives you take, the easier it will become and the bigger that brain structure will get.

It sounds so easy, hitting the ball, but you have to do it yourself, you can't be led. That's where most human sheep can't pull it off. No college course can teach you to take initiative. No self-help book can do it for you, because if you're reading the book you're not acting.

There's a big philosophical connundrum here: If you think you have initiative, you'll have it, but if you don't think you have it, then you won't. The trouble with most of those pea-brain people is they've got a million excuses for not doing stuff. Give them a great opportunity, and they'll hem and procrastinate, like the Germans, and come up with some excuse why they can't reach for it. Once you recognize this in your fellow man, you see it everywhere: people who could change their life in an instant but don't, who prefer to suffer in a rote path when a simple course correction could change everything. They are addicted to the status quo, even if it is painful, and they won't change unless change is forced upon them.

Turns out, initiative is scary. Whenever you do something out of the ordinary, there's a risk of screwing up. Truth is, there's also the risk of disaster if you don't do anything out of the ordinary, but if you take the initiative, then failure is your fault; you have no one to blame but yourself. People hate this—being responsible for their own destiny—because it's so emotional and so damn important. They can take little initiatives, like eating when hungry, but the big, emotional initiatives overwhelm their little pea brain. They'd rather skip the stress and let others tell them what to do.

People also make investments in the way things already are, and taking initiative threatens those. If you try something new and it works, what does that say about everything you've done so far? It means you've been a failure! Change means you have to let go of the past and accept it as a miscalculation. To step into the future, you have give up something from your past, which most people are loath to do.

If you're smart, if you want to develop the skill of initiative, then you've got to use your initiative, not tomorrow but today, right now. If you screw up, so be it. The low initiators quit at that point, but the high initiators press on. At least you have exercised the initiative part of your brain, made it a little bigger and made bold moves easier next time.

It's okay to theorize, but to get the game going, you have to hit the damn ball!

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