Archive for May 14th, 2008

The Cult of Individual Self-interest

One of my favorite duties here at Farmington is to serve on the Honors Council and be part of the panel that judges the theses of graduating honors students. Today a student from Myanmar presented a thesis entitled “Empathy and the Norm of Self-Interest: A Physiological and Social Psychological Approach to the Problem of Altruism.” I’m not going to talk about her thesis in particular, except to note it was excellent and involved really fascinating comparisons of psychological and physiological (brain study) approaches to empathy. What is especially interesting to me is thinking about this notion of self-interest.

To be provocative, I’ll call the “norm” of self-interest a cult of individual self-interest. It’s a cult because it is so engrained in our culture that few people even see it as a cultural trait, it’s seen as human nature. People who take courses in economics or psychology come away even more convinced that self-interest is natural, and that of course affects behavior. Seen this way altruism is a problem — it shouldn’t exist. And, while some try to find ways around this (arguing that altruism is done for self-interest — in essence interpreting every altruistic act into the language of self-interest), that ultimately makes the term ‘self-interest’ meaningless. It becomes an assumption and norm, one that guides behavior and goes unquestioned.

Those embracing the notion of self-interest use it to justify and rationalize behavior. Some even, perhaps trying to avoid instincts towards empathy, deride altruism and see it as bad, as if somehow helping others or sacrificing self-interest for another is by definition harmful. However, in the real world empathy is real, and it involves not just an emotional response to pain or suffering, but also a cognitive connection between the self and the other. Not just sympathy (feeling bad about someone’s pain), but a real sense that the suffering of the other is experienced by and understood by the self.

In this sense, altruism from empathy is self-interest, though not individual self-interest. It’s not that the individual wants to limit its own sense of guilt, wants to feel better or maybe hopes to get to heaven. Rather, it is self-interest because the notion of “self” is expanded to include others. This communal sense of self does not deny individual identity, but instead develops as empathy connects individuals. Consider: no individual can have a meaningful life outside of a social context. The evidence is clear that how one is raised, ones’ cultural surroundings, ones’ environment and experiences shape the tastes, choices, and actions of individuals. Those who understand this realize that their existence is on multiple levels — a biological entity whose fundamental beliefs, choices and ideas emerge from the fact they are part of a larger community.

So its not self-interest that’s the problem, but the belief by many that they can separate themselves and their interests from others. Our culture pushes people that way, and hences reinforces the myth that individuals are discrete and autonomous. While this is mitigated by other strong forces (the love of a parent teaches empathy early on — family relations are more important than cultural factors in creating basic values, I suspect), the result is that people become disconnected from others. I suspect this explains a lot of the problems we have with stress, alienation, low self-esteem, and anti-social behavior.

Moreover, it seems to me the cognitive aspect of empathy (the recognition that the experience of the other is part of the experience of the self) is probably necessary to develop political toleration and reinforce pluralism. Consider: to someone in a completely self-interested world, the suffering of Iraqis is not relevant (they are strange ‘others’), suicide bombers are evil (who would do such a thing?!), and self-interest in terms of our economy may require us to do things that cause violence or suffering. That’s just the way the world is. If one has a healthy cognitive ability to empathize (i.e., understand different perspectives and experiences, and thereby appreciate and understand how different people have different world views), then it’s not so easy to rationalize anything we do. The fact that launching a war in Iraq has led to probably more than 100,000 deaths and a huge amount of suffering is horrible, and should cause deep regret — what if those were 100,000 or more dead and suffering Americans? We would understand why young people living in a very different environment might fall for the belief that suicide bombing is OK, and understand why these kinds of things happen. These aren’t “evil others,” but humans like ourselves.

The cognitive understanding of others is a threat to the cult of individual self-interest. They want to claim it’s “moral relativism,” as if understanding why people do bad things condones those acts. Suicide bombing is wrong! But it’s often undertaken for reasons those involved think are noble. We can’t understand these acts, or make good policy, if we don’t learn about such diverse perspectives. Even our political system is built on a emotional ‘good vs. evil’ idea, where so-called “liberals” and so-called “conservatives” defend their perspectives against the other, ridiculing and belittling those who don’t think like themselves. That comes from a lack of empathy, the inability to truly understand a different perspective.

I’ve been thinking about cognitive empathy for a long time; my courses function on the idea that truly educated people are those who understand how others interpret the world, and why it makes sense to them. And morality and ethics have their basis in empathy, in internalizing that others have value like ourselves, and that self-interest is really a communal, inclusive self, not a discrete individual ripped from his or her social context: no such entity exists. And, at some level, this is my goal in teaching and future research: try to break down the cult of individual self-interest, and focus on the importance of understanding the moral and ethical nature of our existence. Yet even as I aspire to such lofty goals, I see myself thinking in terms of individual self-interest in my daily life; it is hard to recognize and work against the way society programs how we think. That critical ability is where our individual identity comes in — there is something within us that strives to find truth, even if that truth is that we are connected in ways that aren’t obvious. To Gandhi that truth had a word: love.