Why we need to be more selfish: Part 1

With the Christmas holidays fast approaching, work was more chaotic than usual. Like a pack of rabid dogs, my colleagues were intent on ensuring that all their respective loose ends were tied up before the winter break. I sat at my desk bewildered as to what was taking place before me. On a seemingly innocuous Thursday afternoon, anarchy had manifested itself in this tiny third floor office. But before lulling myself into a deep state of rumination I was met with the realisation that I too was in the same boat as my frantic co-workers. Like a flash of lightning, the mental pistons of my cognitive engine began to operate. A slight dilation of the pupils. A subtle yet menacing presence of perspiration. The chase was well and truly on.

Time went by and after an hour of chasing people for various documents and signatures I soon concluded that nothing I was doing, none of the emails I was sending, none of the calls I was making, seemed to be getting me anywhere nearer to my end goal. I was growing increasingly weary of the tedious email decorum us office workers are expected to incorporate into every single email we send. It simply doesn’t deliver the results you need. Being polite was pointless. Rather than using the somewhat tepid phrase ‘please could you get this to me as a matter of urgency’ all I want to say was ‘can you please give me what I fucking want right now you fucking little shit, You’re making my life so much more difficult than it needs to be just because you can’t be arsed. Fuck you.’

And then it dawned on me why the office was in such a state of pandemonium; we’re simply too nice to each other. Upon this realisation, an eclectic scent of panic and fury pervaded the room, filling me with nauseating dread and unwholesome woe. The situation left me with two questions:

  1. Does this selfish desire to get things done, largely for the benefit of oneself, subsequently lead to a more efficient economy and society in turn?
  2. why is the scope for expressing extreme emotions severely limited in most democratic societies?

Research swiftly ensued.

Question 1:

Bernard Mandeville. You may or may not have heard of him. An Anglo-Dutch philosopher born in the 17th century, Mandeville is best remembered for his impact on discussions of morality and economic theory, immortalised by his most notorious work ‘The Fable of the Bees’. Despite ‘only’ being a poem, Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees has gone further in explaining the paradoxical virtues of capitalism than most thinkers both before and after his time on earth.

Mandeville articulates, with eloquence and reason, that vices such as greed and vanity are the driving forces behind a thriving nation state. He forms a nexus between private vice and public benefit by arguing that without our inherently selfish desires, much of what we have come to take for granted in western civilised societies would cease to exist. Pride, for example, is a so-called vice. And while pride is marred as an undesirable trait by most, without it the fashion industry wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t have models or brands. Fashion as a concept would be alien to us for we wouldn’t see the need to impress people through what we wear or what we look like. Thousands of jobs and livelihoods would be lost.

This applies to almost every facet of modern day society. If dishonesty wasn’t a part of the human psyche, we wouldn’t need locks on our doors. Locksmiths would become extinct. If we didn’t argue over property, or if our relationships didn’t break down, there would be no need for lawyers. To be without vice would mean to be without government, schools and hospitals. Society would capitulate. Just because we don’t outright admit our vices to everyone we meet doesn’t mean for a second that we don’t exhibit them in less explicit ways. Humans have become very savvy at disguising vices in the form of virtue.

Do you seriously think students who travel to a sub-Saharan African state in order to help build a local school do so purely as a result of their altruistic tendencies? No. They do it because it looks good on their CV and they get a free holiday out of it. Not to mention that it presents a glorious opportunity to attract more likes on Instagram. If people had no desire to impress others, then they wouldn’t spend extortionate amounts of money on designer clothes, nor would they spend ten months of the year working out in order to look good when they finally get to spend a week in Ibiza. Vice is the stimulation needed to increase prosperity, improve relationships, and augment our egos.

To get your head around this, it’s best to think of what we wouldn’t have if vice didn’t exist. For one, our national pride would soon dissipate. We would lack to drive to make our country proud, forcing The Olympic Games to soon vanish. In fact, all sports would be threatened by the disappearance of pride, both on a national and domestic level.  Our desire to compete, and to prove both our athletic and intellectual superiority would be severely threatened by a world without vice. In many ways this could be a good thing (*cough* Brexit *cough*) but would humankind have reached the heights of achievement that we have accomplished today without vices such as envy and pride?

Despite this abundance of depravity, our perverted propensities have assembled to create a society in which most are fairly content. All this links to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, a notion which seeks to highlight the inadvertent public benefits of an individual’s self-interested actions. So too does the theory of egoism, which denotes the direct antithesis of altruism. We may or may not be inherently selfish sentient beings. But seeing your loved ones happy directly because of your own doings, and revelling in the delight you have caused, is selfish in a way, as it constitutes a means of satiating your own personal desire to be happy and fulfilled. It sounds paradoxical, and that’s because it is, but without it, much of the good we see in this world wouldn’t be so habitual. So next time you come across someone being so conspicuously self-absorbed, thank them, and tell them to keep up the good work.

Written by Tedd Askin

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