Friday, October 13, 2017

Reflections on self-interest

So, okay, we are all motivated, driven and directed by something called self-interest. Some would argue that all of nature is the expression of self-interest. Others would suggest that how we define self interest is a litmus test for our ethical and moral identity. Perhaps our highest ideals too often get immersed in the sea of our self-interest. For, if there is a difference between our ideals, our highest hopes and our best angels ad our self-interest, maybe we have not thoroughly thought through the nuances of our situation.

It says here that to the degree that our highest ideals and our self-interest are perceived/conceived/interpreted as supportive of each other, our light is visible and endangered. Self-interest, in terms of basic survival needs such as food, water, shelter and health, of course, are considered legitimate; that is why they are dubbed “basic”. Our need to learn and to become part of something like a family, a team or even a culture, is also considered legitimate and basic, if more abstract and psychological and emotional. And then there is the need, (and it is also a need, as well as a self-interest) to see the world take care of its weakest, most vulnerable and most in danger. And right now, that need, and that self-interest, has to include the protection of the planet’s health, including the air we breath, the water we drink, the food we grow from the land, and the systems (including the agreements, commitments, promises and collaborations) that offer the hope and the promise that our children and our grandchildren will have a future of which we can be legitimately and humbly proud.

At the same time, we have to recognize that for many people, including too many people in positions of leadership and responsibility, self-interest has come to be more stringently conceived as personal career achievements, salary/income, political/corporate/institutional status, connections and networks, and in general learning how to climb the metaphor and proverbial “ladder” by which others will consider “me” successful. Public discourse, including media coverage, endorses, supports and even enhances the exclusive importance of everything extrinsic…the measureable, the quantifiable, the conventional and the socially and politically recognized and endorsed things for which we teach our children is the fundamental purpose of their education in the broadest sense of that notion.

David Brooks can and does argue eloquently for our preference for joining the “informal” network, as compared with the official organization chart in our workplaces. We all know who are the real, as opposed to the titular, leaders in our workplaces, in our schools, in our hospitals, and also in our governments (although this kind of ‘secret’ is rarely exposed publicly, preventing the endangering of those formal and titular leaders. Nevertheless, our “preference” (innate, individual, unique, lasting and idealistic), if we were to be fully  honest with ourselves and the others in our lives, is for a self-interest that acknowledges, conceives, and aspires to the intrinsic aspects of our shared lives. “Achievements” that cannot be purchased, awarded, achieved through promotion, strategized, and verifiable through some form of empirical measurement device, even, and perhaps especially, the measurement device known as public opinion.

Of course, it is important that young people be introduced to the notion of finding their respective place among their peers, with respect to specific skill development. Whether they swim, run, jump, join basketball, volleyball, hockey, soccer or tennis teams, they will learn the specific training and agility skills deemed important for their participation, at whatever level they choose. Meeting their peers from other towns and cities, too, will enhance and round out their internal ‘view’ of who they are, as well as how they fit into their respective skill level.

And who they are, that intrinsic, inestimable, perhaps even ethereal and spiritual dimension is the one everyone hopes is and will remain the most significant in each child’s development. Not which church s/he will attend, nor which language s/he will speak, nor which sport s/he will master, nor which corporate “position” s/he will hold….nor which profession s/he will enter. It is not that each of these identifiers matter not at all; it is that they will never fully define one’s identity, one’s highest aspirations, or ideals or one’s potential.

Back to self-interest, in the light of one’s “achievements”….Of course, there is a significant impact on one’s sense of one’s self, one’s self-confidence, one’s sense of limits and one’s potential that accompanies one’s “formal” achievements. However, there is also a potential seduction that entraps one when “achievements” dominate one’s identity. Performance, often called “the human doing” is an intimate component of our human person. It is not, however, the fullness of our humanity. And, while we are busying ourselves thinking and believing that we are attending to our “self-interest”, we are really competing for the attention of others, competing with others for a limited and finite extrinsic reward and squandering time much better “spent” on our internal, intrinsic, spiritual, affective, and psychological well-being.

The game in which we are all engaged to a greater or lesser extent, is a classic example of blind, myopic hubris, dedicated to a short-term, narcissistic, personal and ultimately unattainable quest.

If and when we come to our senses, coming to the shared  responsibility for our survival, our planet, our fellow humans, the fellow creatures whose lives we are plundering mostly for hubris and greed and just as important a matter of self-interest and getting that new promotion and that corner office, or being recognized by that professional institute, or that publication, or that academic department, or that Supreme Court Justice.

Part of our dilemma, and our myopia is our enmeshment in a time frame that extends just about into the next minute, or day, or perhaps week…and not into the next century, when, of course, none of us will be here. We are so infatuated by our personal accomplishments, our personal daily goals and tasks, our immediate responses to our relationships and our immediate attention to the next birthday gift in our family. Defining ourselves, obsessively as “busy,” “dutiful,” “responsible,” “mature,” as demonstrated in our exemplary performance of those daily/hourly/monthly tasks that fill our calendars, while purportedly leaving those “big” issues to others to solve, (academics, politicians, financiers, journalists and public relations professionals) is one of the contributing factors that have led us into the mess in which North America finds itself.

We cannot and must not leave it to the diplomats to act as our agents in extending the boundaries of self-interest in their negotiations with other countries. We have to start with the personal, private and sustainable extension of our own self-interest to include every creature on the planet, and to include all of those natural resources that are essential for a healthy life. The dramatic and epic restriction of our concept/definition of self-interest is one of the primary blinders on our imaginations, on our ethical and moral compass, on our capacity to enter and to sustain healthy relationships, on our willingness to resist the highly sophisticated bullying and patronizing that comes out of every single one of our mouths, pens, laptops and phones.

Watching House of Cards, for the first time last night, I was appalled, because of my septaguinarian naivety, to watch a young reporter invite the Kevin Spacey character to have sex, in order to cobble the precise vote numbers on an environmental bill before Congress. And then, looking down into the camera, he proudly and sardonically asserts “she never meant anything to me” about the woman in question. She claims she had to do it to get the precise number on the vote, (presumably to meet some deadline in competition with a hoard of reporters pursuing the same data piece.

In “Grey’s Anatomy, a middle aged female doctor meets an old colleague, who wonders out loud in front of her current spouse, if her child is “his”….to the chagrin of the current spouse. When he presses her to stop this routine, she retorts, “I have seen many penises that were not yours and I like what this (teasing) does to you.”

Call me an innocent who is unable and unwilling to find these exchanges “normal” or “acceptable” not so much from a sexual (pornographic or power) perspective as they are from the perspective of the concept of self-interest.

In the first case, the reporter’s self-interest is defined so narrowly as to enmesh her person and her sexuality with the pursuit of a mere number, in order to further her journalist career. Spacey, of course, is demonstrably limiting his self-interest to demonstrating his macho-testosterone-driven “I do it because I can” dominance. (Have we heard this explanation as justification before recently?) In the second case, (Grey’s Anatomy) the female doctor is playing a blatant power trip on her current spouse, by using her former relationship as the club. Far from jocular teasing, this exhibits a degree of intoxicated and narcissitic self interest that takes great pleasure in the discomfort of her current partner. (It would be the last conversation I would have with her, if I were in his shoes!)

Self-interest, when defined in such narrow and brutal and demeaning parameters is little more than selfishness, perhaps having a tinge of the dramatic, but a dramatic palette that is devoid of a rainbow of colours, on the part of the writers, the actors and the audience. It is the poverty of fearing the extension of self-interest that is currently plaguing the trump administration and thereby endangering the American people if not also the planet.

By decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, in the face of strong evidence that Iran is in compliance, corroborated by the other signatories to the agreement, trump is incarnating such a narrow, myopic and hubristic/narcissitic definition of self-interest, presumably in order to polish his personal reputation as a ‘historic figure in American history. By gutting both Obamacare and NAFTA, arguing "self-interest" when really it is making his indelible and indefatigable mark on history, he is demonstrating again his looking down the telescope backwards to the most narrow definition of self-interest imaginable. When one’s reputation is the defining feature of one’s concept of self-interest, the rest of the world is, by definition, excluded, patronized, relegated to a colonial, second-class status. And this kind of abuse of power always brings about its own demise.

When self-interest is exclusive of the interests of the “other” whether that other is a partner, a colleague, a client, a supplier, even an enemy, there is only tragedy that comes from that exclusion. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago’s self-interest was in getting revenge against his boss for failing to appoint him lieutenant. And ultimately, his deceit was unravelled by his spouse. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman’s notion of self-interest had so devolved into a passing recognition by the “mayor” to demonstrate his importance in a vacuous social status scale.

trump’s self-interest is blocked by his own insatiable, yet hollow, ego that demands massaging every moment of every day by everyone within earshot. There is clearly no “other” in his “scope” so blinded by his own importance are his eyes, his ears, and his inflated yet hollow image of himself. The only “other” that matters is an enemy, examples of which he searches for and purports to find minute by minute, regardless of the truth and validity of his assessment.

In the White House, this is highly dangerous. Outside, the example of the “leader of the free world” adoption of this short-sighted, narcissitic definition of self-interest cripples any and all potential attempts at co-operation, collaboration, collegiality, compromise, and resolution of any potential conflict. It is the kind of attitude, and behaviour that characterizes a two-year-old whose whole world revolves around his person. However, in his case, he is seeing and hearing and grasping and discovering new things every moment of every day, and eventually he grows out of this “stage”.

The example being offered to young people, to aspiring graduates and even to the twenty-somethings who are trying to start a career, from this president is dangerous in the immediate term, but also in the longer term, as it legitimizes this kind of self-interest, masked as “national interest” and supported by others so blind in their hubristic anger and contempt for the “other” that they are willing to risk it all betting on this imposter.
We are already witnessing the spike in opioid deaths on both sides of the 49th parallel, perhaps in general as expressions of hopelessness in the face of the duplicity, the outright shirking of responsibility the failure to attend to the broader interests of the public good by so many in public life. If our public “actors” and models of leadership and moral example default on their definition of self-interest and their way of modelling that behaviour, can we expect anything less than hordes of young people emulating their example.

Unfortunately, for the world, trump is cemented into this stage in a kind of mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual sarcophagus of his own making. Living in both the world of the living and the world of the dead, however, is outside the bounds of reality, except the reality of his own mind.


Is this another extension of the proverb “children raising children” gone to its wildest length? If it is, permissive parenting, the current vogue, will be inadequate to bring the denoument we seek. 

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