Last week we began to discuss the Myth of Self-interest, the belief that everyone acts out of self-interest, but the combination of all these self-interested actions results in the best possible outcome. Over several days I tried to show that Self-interest cannot possibly be at the root of human behavior, that Self-interest is just another name for selfishness, that Self-interest is not compatible with decent morality, that the modern starting-point for the predominance of this Myth was probably in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and that people tend to confuse the principle of Self-interest with “enlightened self-interest.”
Today we will see that those who believe this Myth most fervently live wretched lives, even if they don’t know it.
Despite all the reasons we found last week to reject the Myth of Self-interest, there are plenty of believers who are quite pleased with themselves for having understood the deep secret that the suckers have failed to comprehend—the power of complete selfishness. Unfortunately for them, nothing is harder to break, nor more certain to be smashed if ever broken, than self-satisfaction.
It is possible for such people to continue in this state until the end of their lives. If so, something will always be eluding them, and they won’t know why. No matter how selfish they become, no matter how proud of themselves they become for having the “courage” to treat others badly, they will ultimately also become isolated. Most decent people do not like to be around someone who treats them badly. Those who do are self-debasers, whose adulation could not really satisfy the needs of such an arrogant “strong” personality, since it is the adulation of a weakling who doesn’t know the Great Secret of being totally selfish.
Indeed, the only person who could possibly have a relationship with a die-hard believer in the theory of Self-interest would be another person who is in on the Great Secret. But a person like that would be totally selfish too. As a consequence, the two of them would never be able to form any sort of bond that didn’t debase the other in their own eyes, because as soon as the one of them did something for the sake of the other, the recipient would lose all respect for the giver.
But this is all mere theorizing, because a person who could consistently behave selfishly all of the time is an obvious impossibility. No one can be that single-minded. Even the most evil mass-murderer you can think of occasionally slips up and does something nice for someone else.
Leaving aside such obviously impossible people as those who could behave selfishly all of the time, we can still ask about normal selfish people, people who act selfishly most of the time: when will they ever learn that behaving that way makes them miserable?
Only, as we suggested, when they undergo the difficult experience of having their self-satisfaction smashed to smithereens. Only when they come to see that their habit of selfishness always leaves them feeling empty and unsatisfied. Only when the ache of loneliness or the sting of dissatisfaction becomes more painful than the pleasure of self-satisfaction at knowing the Great Secret. And if that never happens, then they remain the same predominantly selfish and self-torturing people until the day they die.
Tomorrow we will see why believing the Myth of Self-interest makes friendship impossible, and how this Myth poisons life unnecessarily.
Until tomorrow, then.
19 November 2012
by Alfred George