Neither Altruism, Nor Selfishness

Live for others, or for yourself? Such philosophical setup obscures other possibilities, such as living for one’s ideals. The dichotomy assumes that your ideal must embody one or the other – that the ideal is either governed by other people, in which case you would be living for the benefit of others, or that it is be governed wholly by you, in which case you would be living for yourself only. But what if one volunarily embraces the ideal of others, what if a community collectively embraces a mission that aims to pull every one of them upwards in concert, with a much greater speed and magnitude than each could accomplish on his own?

Voluntary participation is only possible when your values are reflected in that of the communal mission, when the success of the mission is of direct benefit to you, but the very nature of the mission being communal dispels the idea of participation in it being selfish. Yes, you may call this selfishness in the sense that everyone is pulling in the same direction for their own gain, but if we lift our gaze and look at the phenomenon as a whole, what would that be called if not a collective enterprise? From its conception, human civilization has been a collective enterprise, and its ills lie not on either side of the above dichotomy, but in forced ideals, beliefs and values, in the coercion of the will against itself and in the transgression of human rights.

Whether you call the workings of the collective enterprise selflessness or selfishness matters not a whit as long as the action is voluntary, as long as it is by choice, not by compulsion. The only difference between the two is that it is only under the banner of “selflessness” that man can force others to submit to his will – it would be absurd to tell someone that his actions are not selfish enough, but not so the other way around. The health of a nation or society can be measured in how freely its members embrace its ideals. Forced ideals sap energy, cripple willpower and retard progress – freely embraced ideals spark zeal, ignite passion and set in motion the wheels of civilization.

Share on Twitter Facebook Email

“For even falsehood, uttered by the tongue of man, seemed like truth and light before this hopelessly-deaf and unresponsive silence.”

My new book: a translation of selected short stories by Leonid Andreyev, the father of Russian Expressionism from the Silver Age of Russian literature. A piercing, pitiless glance into the heart of the human condition.

☛ Read online

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

Sign up to my email newsletter to receive regular recommendations of exceptional books on a wide range of topics including design, art, history and philosophy. A summary of latest site updates will also be included. Sign up below: