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The way to build a better world? Be selfless and selfish


ALTRUISM is often thought as a good and Godly act, and in many instances it is. Altruism comes from good intentions, but the consequences may not always be what one expects. Sometimes the outcomes can be far from positive and indeed can have undesirable effects.  

Charitable giving, for instance, may on the face of it seem a good thing, but the act of charity is a transaction between a giver and a receiver. The giver may feel satisfaction in giving, but the receiver can feel the inferiority that comes from getting something not earned and at the whim of someone else. Charitable giving does not consider the pride and self-respect which is needed in a genuine arrangement that provides lasting help. Whilst it may alleviate desperate circumstances on a temporary basis, the long-term effects can be disappointing and indeed be counter-productive due to dependency of one sort or another.  

On the other hand, enlightened self-interest is a philosophy. It has its roots in all the major religions and also in ancient belief systems. The ancient Stoics saw the direct link between helping others and the wellbeing of oneself. Working to further the interests of those around them and hence promoting harmony, co-operation and wellbeing would enhance one’s own quality of life to a similar degree.  

Enlightened self-interest refers to the understanding and trust that what a person does to enhance another’s quality of life enhances one’s own quality of life to a similar degree. ‘Do as you would be done by’ is a basic theme throughout religion and philosophy, which leads to the idea that ‘what goes around comes around’.  

But why not just ‘self-interest’? Why insert ‘enlightened’ into the equation? Human beings are first and foremost concerned with their own welfare. They have a selfish gene. It is a natural state of affairs to be aware that happiness, health and general welfare are the prime motivators in a person’s consciousness.  

Self-preservation is a primitive urge and without it humanity would surely have died out long ago. For an individual body to function well, the cells within that body must co-operate and get along with other cells; if they don’t, the body will become sick and may die (cancer is an example).  

Similarly, at the social level, humans desire co-operation and harmony. Without cohesion, mutual respect and consideration of others, society becomes ill and eventually dysfunctional. If the selfish need to survive becomes paramount at the expense of others, the whole extended body (society) becomes disordered and is separated by winners and losers and the ‘I’m all right Jack’ greasy pole syndrome, based on competition rather than co-operation.  

No one likes to admit that they are selfish, for the simple reason that it is seen as unattractive and ugly. Moreover, selfishness to a high degree is dangerous to society, when the gap between the haves and the have-nots reaches huge proportions.  

Human beings are far more complicated than meets the eye, because they also have an inherent ‘social gene’, which could be said to be in conflict with their selfish nature. How to resolve this and how to balance the two so that selfishness and selflessness are balanced in a win-win scenario? How easy is it for people to recognise that generosity, compassion, thoughtfulness and consideration when practised towards others enable our own lives to be enhanced and enriched?  

The answer is that we help others in order to help ourselves. By seeking to improve and alleviate the suffering of others, or simply treating them with courtesy and respect, we elevate our own lives in the process and can find joy, happiness and peace of mind that can never be found in the selfish pursuit of material possessions and fleeting pleasures – which, once obtained or experienced, are profoundly lacking in fulfilment.  

Returning to the selfish side of us all: if we did not have this ‘me first’ attitude and an inherent will to protect ourselves and further our own interests, we would not survive. After all, if I don’t attend to my own interests, who will? However, if we pursue this line of behaviour without thought for others, be assured it will sooner or later catch up with us and when we find ourselves in need of help, support, and friendship it may be slow in forthcoming.  

The answer of course is to understand fully and ingrain it in our psyche, that the only way to satisfy our selfish gene is to be more selfless. By taking into account the interests of others and treating them the way we would wish to be treated, they will be more likely to reciprocate these actions.  

By treating others well and going out of our way to help them when we can, we are far more likely to build up a store of goodwill from them. This attitude can be evoked at the family, community, national and international level and the benefits can be enormous.  

Seeing the other person’s point of view; trying to ‘walk in their shoes’; seeing the situation through their eyes and gaining an understanding of their wishes and desires and then taking account of them in attitudes and actions will pay huge dividends for all concerned.  

In these times of world insecurity, instability, political and economical uncertainty, the world needs a hefty dose of enlightened self-interest. Ultimately, my future wellbeing is directly connected to yours and if I fail to recognise this and do not behave accordingly, then I will be the one to suffer.  

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Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins
Harry Hopkins is a furniture designer/maker who loves to write.

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