Enlightened Selfishness

Posted: June 27, 2005 at 10:13 pm in people, politics

Picking up on yesterday’s anarchy post, I was thinking about what it takes for anarchy (or even capitalism) to work as a society. I was talking with some other friends last week about the concept of enlightened selfishness, and I think that is one of the keys. What do I mean by enlightened selfishness? It’s the idea that being selfish may actually require going against my short-term interests for the sake of the long term, going against what’s best for me individually by doing what’s best for the community. It’s understanding that while I may profit individually, my actions have consequences and ramifications that will later haunt me.

This is somewhat related to my post last month about why crime sucks. In that post, I tried to make the point that while crime may benefit the criminal, it damages the fabric of society, a society that is built on trust. Dave pointed out in the comments that we may have to accept some level of crime to have the kind of society that we desire.

In my personal ideal world, anarchy would work, because people would be willing to sacrifice some fraction of their personal gain for the sake of community goals. It’d be some weird combination of Randian objectivism and free-form anarchy. People would do stuff because it needed doing, and because they would be rewarded by the community for doing it. I’ve always thought that TEP was essentially an anarchy when I lived there. We had house elections, but most of the time there was only one candidate, and stuff got done because somebody stepped up and took responsibility for it. And it worked. But only because we all lived together, and the social group was small enough that social censure meant something.

Do I think anarchy can work in the real world? No, not really. Too many people are dependent on being told what to do, and don’t really want to think for themselves. They don’t think through the long-term consequences of their actions (the amount of personal credit card debt sustained by people always staggers me). Plus, groups past a certain size lose the social cohesion necessary for our monkey minds to operate. There may be some cleverness we can play where we use “Fakesters” to stand in for real people, as I posit at the end of this post, but I haven’t figured out how to make that work yet (although thinking about it briefly, I wonder if that’s how the various successful tech companies work, using the cult of Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or Jeff Bezos, creating a personal bond between the worker and the company via the idea of a personal bond with the head. Interesting…)

I’m not really sure what my point is. I think I just really like the concept of enlightened selfishness. I may even use it as an organizing principle in my life. I mean, I already subscribe to it to some extent. I donate money to causes I support, whether the ACLU or Questionable Content. I could be a free-loader, taking advantage of the fact that others will cover costs, but I like what they do, and want them to stay around, and am willing to sacrifice some of my personal gain for that cause. I always buy CDs and shirts of bands I like at their shows, because that money goes straight to the band. I pay my taxes, and don’t try to cut any corners even though I’m sure I’m missing all sorts of deductions I could be taking. I often sit in traffic when I see a merge coming, when I could speed by all the stopped cars and then swerve in at the last second, because I know that such behavior makes everybody’s commute worse.

It’s an interesting idea. I may have to think more carefully about other ways in which it could be applied.

Updated a few minutes later: By the way, I’m well aware that I could and should be doing a lot more to benefit society. I feel like I do the bare minimum necessary as a responsible member of society. But I have to start someplace. And I still feel like I do more than many people out there, even if I rate rather poorly among my friends. That’s just my perception, though.

3 Responses to “Enlightened Selfishness”

  1. tstop Says:

    I *definitely* think you’ll find “Priceless” interesting.

    When you talk about TEP, anarchy and enlightened selfishness this way, I think you also need to start really thinking about wealth distribution and equality of security. TEP worked with its relative lack of gov’t in large part because everyone in the community was equally effected by the community related actions of each of the members. It also worked because there was a social fabric of rules enforced by the community; it certainly wasn’t anarchy.

    In a group where the people who receive the negative benefits of a hypothetical “selfish decision” are either largely distributed or personally unknown to you, it is very difficult for people to choose not to do something good for their security and wealth that hurts someone else. This can often be best seen with environmental issues.

    There’s a lot more to rant about here (especially about wealth distribution), but this isn’t *my* journal and I should be working.

  2. Bats Says:

    People would do stuff because it needed doing, and because they would be rewarded by the community for doing it. I’ve always thought that TEP was essentially an anarchy when I lived there. … And it worked. But only because we all lived together, and the social group was small enough that social censure meant something.

    I don’t know… I think that Tep taught me the failures of collective living more than anything else, and has beaten volunteerism and faith in government out of me. After all, if you have a collection of 30 people that you’re friends with, any they’re all really smart and of a similar political stripe, and yet a whole bunch of them are slacker leeches, what chance is there for a larger arrangement working? It also showed me that collective possessions are a failure (i.e., the tool room; that’s why I had my own tools and seldom loaned them out).

  3. Eric Says:

    Tstop: I’ll look into “Priceless”. On a similar topic, you might like Power and Prosperity by Mancur Olson, who makes similar points about the distribution of effects vs. gain in explaining why narrow interest groups subvert the public interest for their own ends.

    The environment’s a good example of how I totally fail to be a good person, given that I commute a long way alone in a car on a regular basis. I’m starting to take public transit more (once or twice a week – I bike/BARTed this morning!), but if I were truly environmentally conscious, I’d do it every day, despite the personal inconvenience.

    Bats: Remember that I’m viewing TEP through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia :). I guess I think that TEP mostly worked when we were there, partially because we had a number of people who were willing to step up and take responsibility. Yes, there were leeches. I think that there will always be leeches in any population. Unless we can either figure out a way to disincentivize leeching (very difficult) or teach people to look beyond their immediate self-interest.

    The collective possession point is interesting. One of the things that drives people is ownership. At work, I work much harder and feel more more personally responsible when a project is totally in my hands than when it is distributed over a large group. One of the reasons capitalism works is that people work harder for what they own than for any collective idea. I wonder where the idea of ownership got built into our psyches – is it evolutionary? Thoughts for another post, perhaps.

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