Friday, 15 March 2019

Why unselfishness should Not be regarded as the ultimate virtue

An astute insight from commenter Lucinda:

Unselfishness is a [bad] ultimate virtue because it contains no good judge. 

Selves judge experience. Selfishness at least has the ability to correct itself if the results are bad enough for the self. 

But under the rule of unselfishness, if any judgments are made, they must always be made by those without personal experience, by definition.

Unselfishness as ultimate authority is incoherent and/or impersonal.

There was an analogy that went around at some point of Heaven and Hell being the same, a feast with overly long spoons irrevocably affixed to the arms. Those who only thought of feeding self would suffer, those who learned to feed each other were blessed. It is an ugly portrayal, but beyond that, I think it pretty well exposes the basic feeling of permanent impotence of those who honestly espouse such nonsense. 

This comment makes explicit for me a long-standing feeling about the sinister way that unselfishness works for the destruction a person, institution or society; if once it becomes established as the supreme virtue.

This has often been a mistake made about Christianity - the notion that it is, or should be, primarily about unselfishness. The evil consequences of this interpretational error can be seen in the tragic, mistaken and self-destructive life of evolutionary theorist George Price. An error in understanding what Christianity was about - misapplied with zeal and rigour; apparently led him by steps to a increasingly sordid and deluded lifestyle, through depression to suicide.

But where does this error come from? Ultimately, I think, from the failure to recognise that the business of God's creation is love; that creation and love are supreme and positive values; and that both creation and love are rooted in the individual.

As children of God, we each have within-us that which is divine; so each person is a part of divine creation and the divine plan. It is necessary, therefore, that we each bear responsibility for developing our unique and irreplaceable part in the whole.

To try and live by an ethos of unselfishness, of 'putting others first' - would be a denial of this primary personal responsibilty.

No wonder that it leads to self-destruction.


dearieme said...

Unselfishness towards whom? Don't we expect a man to be unselfish towards his wife and children?

Bruce Charlton said...

@d "Don't we expect a man to be unselfish towards his wife and children?"

You and I believe that - but the people who run Britain (and the West) clearly don't.

To the extent they don't have a wife (unless they are shes) and children. Just look at the current crop of political 'leaders'. Most of them, it seems like a large majority, don't have a real spouse and family (And I mean *one* - not an open-ended series). Ted Heath set a trend, in this as so many other ways...

Dividualist said...

Which means unselfishness is always judged by others which means it naturally tends towards putting up a show for others, virtue-signalling etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Very good point.

Adopting unselfishness as a pure-core-value seems to entail handing-over your conscience to those who are given authority to judge your unselfishness - only they can tell you when you have done 'enough'.

Joe said...

Is it useful to distinguish between unselfishness and antiselfishness? If selfishness is defining good as that which benefits the self, then antiselfishness is the opposite: defining good as that which benefits others (everyone else before me). Selfishness and antiselfishness are motives, but unselfishness is an aspect a motive can have; it describes a motive that defines good independently of the self (or not primarily with respect to the self).

Dexter said...

"where does this error come from?"

Matthew 7:12?

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - A single verse in scripture would not make any difference unless there was a reason to prioritise it above th emany others. But - when there is a prior intent, then a single verse can suffice to rationalise it.

@Joe - That seems like a valid distinction. The anti term might be a better one, but un is the one people have used.

Francis Berger said...

Great post. Max Scheler's book Ressentiment tackles this at length. What I offer below are some of his ideas blended with a few of my own.

Perhaps the problem lies in a misinterpretation of "love thy neighbor as you love yourself", which has been hijacked by Leftism and repackaged as "love thy neighbor MORE than yourself."

"As children of God, we each have within-us that which is divine; so each person is a part of divine creation and the divine plan. It is necessary, therefore, that we each bear responsibility for developing our unique and irreplaceable part in the whole."

Quite right. This, to me, represents the epitome of Christian self-love. This is the duty we owe to ourselves and God. It is a positive value. Leftism perceives this as selfish egoism. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"To try and live by an ethos of unselfishness, of 'putting others first' - would be a denial of this primary personal responsibility."

Yes. As far as I can tell, a Christian's primary duty is to this individual, primary, personal responsibility you mentioned. Love of the neighbor is also directed primarily at the spiritual, at the neighbor's individual personality - the recognition of the divinity within him or her.

This occurs at the concrete level, with people we know or meet, and the love we offer the neighbor is voluntary and freely given stemming from the fullness within ourselves. It's purpose is to create more love, and bring forth more divinity. A Christian can love the neighbor only if it adheres to his or her primary responsibility. Doing otherwise would negate the "as yourself" part of the equation and simply leave "love others."

Leftism's unselfish "love of humanity" requires we love every single person in the world just because they are people like us. It denies this primary Christian duty and replaces it with altruism, welfare, socialism, etc. Leftism's unselfish love can only function at the legalistic and bureaucratic level. There is nothing sincerely personal or divine it (as far as I can tell). You don't really have to love anyone at the concrete level at all.

"No wonder that it leads to self-destruction."

No wonder, indeed.

Lucinda said...

"But where does this error come from?" I think it's definitely an old idea, a problem Christianity is meant to solve, not promote, since virtually all versions of it involve submitting to a particular this-worldly and corrupt power.

I don't think it really helps for a man to be unselfish toward his wife and children. What he should do is recognize his real and irretrievable self-interest in the welfare of his wife and children. Husband submitting to wife and children is a predictable disaster. It often becomes him evading taking responsibility in a way that is extremely taxing on everyone, but especially the wife. Since women are socially rather than task-function oriented, then the most important task-functions of the family don't get prioritized, which undermines all the social goals as well. The only reason modern people think this is a viable option is because of the prosperity that has allowed us to depart so wildly from natural fitness.

Still, it's just a part of the bigger battle against anti-Christian unselfishness-promoters who are really after power for themselves. And it doesn't seem to be a vital part. In a family where the proper rearing of the children is the priority, there is a lot of room for unselfishness-talk, as long as they don't follow through on its actual implications.

whitestone said...

i remember discussing selfishness with a truly madly deeply leftist PC lady that i knew. “If the plane goes down you have to put your own oxygen mask on first, before those of your children.” I suggested .“ I could never do that, “ was the reply.

Avro G said...

Perhaps tangentially this reminds me of the related notion, one variant of which goes, “If one person is not free no one is free.” It is the positing of a moral standard so high that it is impossible to satisfy. Therefore the individual is left in a permanent state of moral disequilibrium. Christians are meant to rest in the assurance that Christ’s sacrifice has satisfied the law.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - Yes, that's a very Hollywood kind of 'virtue signalling' comment (the Woody Allen persona made a similar, hypocritical, comment about 'happiness' in Annie Hall, I think - along the lines of: I can't be happy until there are is not one miserable person in the world).

It amounts to surrendering one's conscience to the mass media (because only they will be able to tell you whether all the seven billion people are 'free'.

Plus, it is Not the essence of mortal life to be 'free' (however that is being defined) - if it were, then our salvation could be kept from us by worldly conditions.

Being genuinely-free seems a matter of almost indifference to most of the people I have worked with - in the sense that totalitarian (bureaucratic) encroachments on actual daily freedom are almost-always accepted without protest or resistance; and most often embraced as possible career opportunities.

The freedom of *other people* means absolutely nothing to them; indeed most 'educated' people work as managers, whose whole working-life is spent trying to reduce the freedom of others; indeed, they regard the freedom of ordinary people as something to be overcome 'for their own good'. (See today's post on the Brexit/ Remain divide).