We all accept the idea that humans are ‘self-interested,’ but does anyone know what that implies? It’s a term whose meaning can shift at will, largely because it’s unclear what our interests are. Nevertheless, the fallback definition seems to be ‘grow my gain.’ We are taught in economics that individuals have endless demand, and so they seek to have as much as possible. This idea, and others like it, lend themselves to a cold-blooded notion of self-interest, one where we strive to take as much as we can while giving as little as possible. In this paradigm, the only time we help one another is when there is a clear benefit. Even altruism is a calculated maneuver: we give because it makes us better off. It’s not like there aren’t examples of people who act this way—look at anyone working in the US Congress. Even then, I’m not buying this definition; humans have other, better interests. In fact, I think that congressmen make an apt example to show how unnatural their actions are.
One thing the ‘gain maximizer’ model cannot account for is random acts of kindness. An obvious example would be compliments. Saying something nice to another person is immensely satisfying, and that feeling is distinct from our desire to be liked. I can’t imagine somebody complimenting a stranger’s shoes in passing in the hope of their approval. Rather, we enjoy being kind. This is a small thing, but if it’s true, then it proves the existence of a motivation beyond material or social gain. There is a desire to be ‘good’ which has nothing to do with self-interest, in the conventional sense.
This feeling exists, and is expressed, throughout society. Ask someone for help and, nine times out of ten, they will provide it. Not only that, they will be happy to have done it; it is a proven fact that people love being helpful. Gofundme, which has now provided more than half a billion dollars to countless health-related fundraisers, is the ultimate case in point. What is the tangible benefit of an anonymous donation of money to a stranger in need? There isn’t. Our egos drive us to be kind.
Even if that weren’t true, it is obvious that most people don’t act in the classically self-interested way. People who are only helpful when they see a benefit to themselves are an exception to the rule. Counterexamples—ones meant to disprove the theory that people are broadly kind—come to mind quickly because they are memorable, and they’re memorable because they are aberrant. Most of the time, acting selfishly ends badly. The people who do tend to lose friends, develop a reputation as untrustworthy, and are replaced by people who understand how to be sincere. In other words, it is unsustainable and irrational to be governed by greed. Conversely, the average, rational person is kind, and the long-term outcome of their behaviour tends to be much better.
This, unfortunately, is where we have to talk about congressmen again. Self-serving strivers do occupy the highest positions in society, which undermines any argument that humans are oriented toward kindness. Most CEO’s exhibit at least a few sociopathic traits, and the cynical class president is usually successful, at least for a time.
Isn’t that strange? If nobody likes the selfish type, and if nobody trusts them, how are they succeeding? I think the answer is simple: we have created a system that rewards their behaviour. That should come as no surprise, given that we have all assumed that humans are selfish. Trademark laws are an example of this. They are, at least partly, based on the assumption that we innovate because we hope to capitalize on our discoveries. Whether or not that is true, this institution has created a landscape of ‘selfish’ innovation. Research is conducted with the intent of making a profit, and now it is a lucrative industry. Diseases are cured on the basis of whether money can be made, and funds for research are allocated based on ‘usefulness.’ It makes plenty of money, but it’s hard to imagine that this system is right or efficient.
It is here that I think of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ a now debunked theory which, for the longest time, was assumed to prove the selfishness of humanity. For those who don’t know, it refers to cases where individuals deplete or mismanage common resources for their own gain; therefore, the model argues, we need private ownership of resources. Overfishing is a classic example: although fishermen are harmed by it, many of them will engage in the practice. They are guided by the logic that either they do it or someone else does. The problem with this theory was the assumptions it made, namely, that gains are privatized while harms are shared among the public. Obviously, people would act selfishly under this paradigm—how else can you hedge against the possibility of others being selfish? However, it is possible to imagine worlds where that isn’t the case. If everyone who worked the commons was guaranteed a share of the produce, and those who didn’t got nothing, wouldn’t that shift peoples’ incentives? If it was somehow impossible for fishermen to profit off overfishing, wouldn’t that eliminate the practice?
Throughout society, we see people adapting to circumstances like this one. External factors drive them to be selfish; their reasoning becomes ‘eat or be eaten,,’ and if they don’t act cold blooded, they lose their position to somebody who can. In responding to an unpleasant situation, they ‘confirm’ the theory that humanity has fallen and that greed is the name of the game. The tragedy of the commons does exactly this; it presents a problem tied to private ownership, and argues that it justifies the existence of private ownership. However, those same people, if given the chance, would not act this way; the fisherman who overfishes today could be responsible tomorrow, assuming they had a good reason to.
Every time a person is driven to be selfish by unfortunate circumstances, they contribute to this vicious cycle. Their actions affirm the perception that humans are selfish, and so we organize our society to accommodate for that belief. We then create the conditions which force people to be selfish in the first place. And that is the truly horrific thing about pessimism towards humanity: it perpetuates itself. In the classroom, this looks like a teacher assuming that their students have no desire to learn, and assigning busywork to ‘force’ them to engage with the content. Eventually, this accommodation for ‘bad’ students turns the entire class lazy, as anyone who has taken such a class would know, leaving the teacher feeling justified in their decision. Everyone in that arrangement suffers, and it’s all based on an attitude of cynicism. We set ourselves up for the worst outcome and feel vindicated when it happens.
Compare that to the times when we trust others. How often does that end badly for us? In my experience it doesn’t, especially if I exercise some degree of common sense. What’s more, it is a prerequisite for something good to happen; friendships are born from trust, and help comes to those who bother to ask. Now ask yourself how often cynicism has led to a pleasant surprise? The answer is probably ‘rarely,’ which shouldn’t be surprising. Once we start expecting the worst, we set ourselves up for that outcome. Then, it becomes difficult for anything else to happen. Without a leap of faith, you can’t expect change.
All of this is to say that we shouldn’t be surprised when people act selfishly, but we shouldn’t read into it either. Throughout society, we have prepared ourselves for disappointment. If we want to be freed from this cycle of disappointment, we need more cautious optimism. Most of the time, our faith in others won’t be misplaced.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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