Something that has long puzzled me is the fact that in our society the highest compliment you can pay someone is to say that that person is selfless. Anakin Skywalker did it in Revenge of the Sith “The Jedi are selfless. . . they care only about others.” My question is, as a society, why would we want to encourage people to have such little regard for themselves that concern for the self ranks so low on the scale of human values? This concept could only be good in a worldview that regarded the interests of the individual as being diametrically oppose to those of the group. A more rational view is that the interests of the individual and the group often coincide or at the very least don’t conflict which is why individuals choose to become members of a group in the first place. In this view, the dichotomy of caring about one’s self and caring about others proves too simplistic because it leaves out an option not properly identified in those options, that of cooperation (and you know it’s important because I put it in italics).
Contrary to what some may think, cooperation is not the antithesis of individual ambition. If I’m a baker and you are a cook and we discover that by working together we can sell hamburgers at a profit level higher than if we sold our wares separately, that is cooperation that is not likely to be mistaken for altruism. There are other forms of cooperation, however, that might be. Tit-for-tat reciprocity (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) might be mistaken for altruism if someone witnesses only one side of the dynamic (they see me lend you an amount of money while they don’t see you returning the money and perhaps extending me other in-group benefits later). Saving a fallen comrade in battle is a classic example of cooperation that might be mistaken for altruism. It is cooperation because the success of the group depends on such actions and since the individual has a vested interest in the outcome of the battle rescuing a fallen comrade cannot truly be viewed as selfless.
The problem with these examples is that the casual observer doesn’t necessarily readily distinguish between acts of altruism and cooperation. The most likely thing is that the people often misidentify these all as selfless and proceed from there. Our popular conceptualization of ethics reflects this which causes us to glorify selflessness as such with some drastic and unfortunate consequences. When selflessness is upheld as a virtue, it is a necessary consequence that self-interest comes to be characterized as a moral failing. This is a bastardization of the correct moral construction wherein cooperation should be extolled because it enables groups of people to voluntarily work in their collective self-interest. In this formulation self interest is not the enemy, it is actually the goal which is important because people are not then left with the choice of whether to be good people or to work in their own self-interest (a dilemma which could only be pleasing to an enemy of humankind).
As a hypothetical example, imagine a universe where Kevin Durant was convinced that selflessness was the highest virtue. In this alternate world his performance in team USA’s FIBA final against Turkey would have been one where he was constantly deferring to his teammates and passing up open shots even though he’s the best player on the team and in this scenario the US would have lost. As it stands, however, Kevin Durant acted in a cooperative fashion meaning that he did what was best for the team. What was best, in this case, is that he scored 28 of the USA’s 81 points leading the team to a gold medal victory. This is an example of the fact that cooperation is a more effective strategy than altruism both for the individual and for the group.
The point I am making is that our cultural and social mores should be changed to reflect the fact that cooperation, not selflessness, should rank among the highest of values for human society. This would work both to encourage traits that are actually useful rather than focusing on the negative by-products of heroic action such as the pain and suffering that is often endured by our heroes (we can all admire people like Dr. Martin Luther King but who in their right mind would encourage their children to get shot like him?) I would think of a better concluding sentence but if you’re gotten this far into the reading I think you get the gist of it. Peace out!