Monday, April 6, 2009

the paradox of selfishness

This is something that I thought about for a while... and finding the answer to this delimma seemed to have become more urgent when I saw this talk on TED.

It's a delimma between individualism and ... well, one-ness with the world. Between "materialism" and spiritualism.

Around grade 8 or so, I was perplexed by the paradox of selflessness. If you cared for someone else, well, isn't it because that person is valuable to you, and hence you're really acting out of self interest? Your desire for someone else's happiness is still a desire that you own, and any action to fulfill that is really an action to fulfill your own desires - a selfish act. At the time, I was brainwashed by the thought that selfless=good, selfish=bad. I concluded, therefore, that the world was not capable of true selflessness. The world must therefore be bad. This is the main reason why I felt so liberated after reading Rand, who basically said - yes, we act out of selfishness, even when we care for others, and that is good. If one acted to benefit someone that we don't care about... then we've betrayed ourselves. Values are important, and the self is what creates and attains values.

Yet on the other hand - the abundance of compassion, mutual respect, and love for those you may or may not know personally is what makes the world a better place. We are interconnected in a great many ways - both physically and mentally, in more ways that we'll ever understand in our life time. I'm trying to find that article about monkeys dipping potatoes in sea water - the one where after one monkey found that it made the potato taste better... the entire island of monkeys started dipping potatoes in sea water. What's more astonishing was that the monkeys in a different island started doing the same thing - and the two islands are totally separated, and the monkeys had no normal means of communicating with one another. Another experiment showed that people do better on yesterday's crossword compared to today's, as if people could access a collective consciousness... well, does this mean that a collective consciousness does exist, that we really are one? Is that what Budhhism teaches? Even without the collective consciousness, community spirit makes the world better. We're affected by what people do and say, how they act. Many will say that compassion, respect, and understanding is a small commitment worth making.

So that's the paradox: in the "micro" world, selfishness is what would make a happy person: the application of ones effort in the achievement of ones values. Yet in the "macro" world, things would be better if everyone cared for one another. How do you connect the two?

Well, things would be good if all individuals judged the world as something worth caring about. Then creating a better world would be a personal value for everyone. I guess the question each person has to ask is: how much do I value the world? In what way?

With that being said, I don't think that it's a question of "Which side do you choose?" - and I don't think that Dr. Taylor is right in that the answer lies solely in the right brain, the spiritualism and one-ness. Both are beautiful in its own ways, and they do compliment each other - ying and yang, productive and thoughtful, present and past/future...

How much do I value the world? To say infinitely much is an outright lie, and to say not at all is naive. Where is that balancing point - my balancing point?

End of Entry