Would our society be better if most of us were altruistic (did things genuinely for the benefit of others) or egoistic (put our own needs and wants first)?
And further, what about our own well-being? What’s the best way to live your own life?
University has challenged my personal values immensely. I’ve had to figure out really quickly how I want to spend my time, treat others, and perceive my accomplishments and failures. It’s also challenged my ability to adapt to the chaos of not actually having everything figured out, and to be comfortable enough with myself to let go of my sometimes torturous tendency to self-analyze and self-doubt.
From the moment I got here, I began somewhat consciously constructing the persona I thought I wanted to become my reputation. It’s always been something that’s been more or less under my control, and something I’ve more or less consciously manipulated. Or so I thought. The difference at university is that your tired and low days, or your bad hair days or no-makeup, don’t-give-a-shit days are no longer days you can hibernate in the comfort of your house with only your family having to see or interact with you. People see and talk to you at your best and at your worst. At first, I thought this meant I always had to be “on”. But, just as I realized that my face with makeup and without makeup looks virtually the same, I quickly realized that the same is true about my personality. I thought I was changing a lot from one persona to the other, but the change was smaller than I perceived it to be. Sometimes I thought being genuine, vulnerable and kind was the best way to be, and I acted that out. And then I might read a book about the topic or think about it some more and decide it was better in fact to not be an open book so quickly and instead be very self-assured and closed-off at first. But those little changes didn’t actually change who I was – they only changed how I was acting at the moment. The real me will always be there, underneath it all.
I also realized that people’s opinion of me is everything to do with them and nothing to do with me. Everyone creates an image of the people they interact with based on the place they hold in the grand scheme of their own lives, and in actuality, even in other people’s eyes, the essence of who YOU are never really changes as much as you’d think.
Letting go of the responsibility of what others think of me would have saved me a lot of time and anguish if I’d realized and done it earlier on.
One of the aspects of my reputation that has always bothered me has been my studiousness, or orderliness. For this reason, I’ve often tried switching between different “skins” to try to balance and manipulate how I was perceived. And yet school settings aside, even when placed in the least academic environments for the shortest periods of time, I’ve always had a way of somehow attracting descriptive words like “smart”, “studious”, “book-lover”, “serious”. Much to my chagrin, in every personality-building, confidence-boosting, sixth-grader activity where we were tasked to write a word describing what we admired about our classmates, my slips of paper were filled with “smart”. I hated that.
I assumed it meant that if my peers were seeing me as “smart”, they weren’t seeing me as “fun”, or “cool”, or “exciting to talk to”. At the time, it explained why I wasn’t as liked, why I wasn’t as popular, why I wasn’t invited to all the birthday parties and the fun get-togethers. Maybe it was my glasses, what I talked about, how I talked, how I dressed. I tried overplaying the crazy, fun things I’d done and downplaying the bookish, academic things I really enjoyed doing. I should have realized people’s words on those slips of paper actually had nothing to do with me.
After all, we can’t control how people perceive us. It’s a losing battle. We can only do our best to stay true to who we are, and in doing so, attract like-minded individuals. Those who try to constantly shape their image are fighting the true essence of who they are in the process. I think the strong individuals are the ones who aren’t looking around at every pair of eyes to double-check their reflection and ensure they all line up just the way they like it.
And yet, despite all of this, in my first few weeks at university, I found myself falling into a persona of sorts. Looking back, I was trying very hard to be liked. Sure, who isn’t?
Aside from trying to balance being interesting and fun and not missing out on any of the friend-finding, team-bonding activities, being liked meant being sweet, making others feel liked and cared for. After all, people like nice people, right?
In the most genuine way possible, (but in the act of consciously doing it, it practically became un-genuine) I made an effort to actively listen to everyone I was talking to, to lend my sweaters to people who were cold during our late-night walks looking for an open house party (oh how I hated those miserable nights), to help those who’d had too much to drink, to open my relatively large single room as a get-together space, and essentially to trust people I didn’t know because hey, maybe they’d appreciate it and trust me back. Someone had to make the first move, so why not be the kind one?
It’s the very foundation of altruism – doing things for the benefit of others. And I was letting my desire to be the ideal altruistic person rationally dictate my actions rather than simply trusting my instincts on what I felt was right to do in the moment.
I’d decided the world would be better if everyone empathized with others and was kind, so I modeled what I expected from the world. I’d found my one virtuous, hard-set value.
But I think there’s a limit – you’ve got to tune in to your own needs first before turning to help others.
I also saw that the people who were happy were those who’d gotten their work done first, didn’t compromise on their own values because of the tugs and pulls of the crowd, and were confident enough to say no without questioning themselves when someone asked them to do something that was not aligned with what was good for them at the moment.
Those that were unhappy were the expectantly nice people. It’s nice to be nice, but most people are nice with a catch – even if they don’t realize it. In my little experiment of being kind, I only got sadder and sadder as I realized that no one around me was the same. When our expectations about helping others and being helped in return, in the ideal cycle of kindness and generosity, it’s easy to get bitter. The truth is, the world is indifferent to the inner turmoils of each lonely individual. That’s why it’s so important, as that individual, to put the individual first!
In any case, this whole dilemma prompted me to think about altruism and egoism, and which is better (if one really is). Because as much as I just touted egoism, how can you possibly say that altruism – if actually it is possible to attain – is NOT the golden ideal we should all strive for?
First of all, the question we must ask if whether people can ever really be truly altruistic. Is it possible to do things purely with the genuine goal of helping other people? Or is every generous act accompanied by a (possibly subconscious) silver lining?
(As mentioned in a podcast I was listening to, it’s relevant to note though there are two meanings one might intend by the statement “it’s in his interest to do so-and-so”. Interest can mean for your own benefit BUT it can also mean simply being interested in something. And the latter isn’t always an indication that the action in question was done egoistically or that the motive was self-centered. We generally don’t do things we hate doing, but that doesn’t diminish everything we do to be motivated solely by our own desires.)
Reasons to be egoistic
Why, if you can be altruistic, would you ever be egoistic? Besides that it’s better for you (obviously). Also, could the majority of the world acting selfishly EVER be a positive situation for society to be in? I came up with two arguments.
You have no way of knowing what those around you really need. In fact, the only thing you really know is how to make yourself happy. So, if you’re going to expend your effort focusing on other people and helping other people, your contribution to the benefit of society will be minimal. On the other hand, focusing on what you can do really well – which is doing yourself good – will create a net positive contribution to society that will be much greater. An example would probably strengthen this argument but I really can’t think of anything at the moment.
On the same note, maximizing your own happiness by focusing on what you need and want first will make you a much more pleasant person to be around. Overall, I’m sure people would rather pick self-sustained, independently happy people to be around rather than fall-at-your-feet, generously kind but miserable people. Though the question is, are generous people ever miserable? I say yes, but the conspiracy argues no, I’m sure of it.
A not-so-well-thought-out theory on Awkwardness
If you think about all the awkward moments in life, they usually come down to one thing – overthinking. And that’s usually the case when an individual self-detaches in a sense and begins to see themselves from the outside. Their arms become clumsy extensions of their torso, their legs interfering objects, and their whole body seems to move in awkward, jerky motions. They’re thinking about how others are seeing them.
If you ask a very self-confident individual why they’re sitting the way they’re sitting – presumably in a power pose of some sort – they’ll likely give you a very “me” centered answer. “It feels good this way”, they’ll say. On the other hand, an uncomfortable and more neurotic (it’s a psychology term, I’m not suggesting anyone’s crazy) individual might be thinking, “I don’t want to invade the space of the person next to me”, or “it’s the most natural looking position I could think of”. One might even go as far as to categorize the two responses into those an egoist might give and those an altruist might give.
Perhaps the people who are more inclined to change for the benefit of others, or more worried about being a nuisance for those around them, are the more awkward ones by nature of the pure thinking it requires to be that way?
Just a half-formed thought.
Altruistic people are, in their noble pursuit of an ideal trustworthy persona, less trustworthy. I think it’s easy to either see through people’s motives or it’s somewhat of a red-flag when someone does something too nice to be true.
I remember seeing a social experiment where free food was offered to passers-by and very few would actually take up the offer. When something is too good to be true, we tend to assume it isn’t. I think the same is true with kindness. Though it’s important to value others and be genuinely kind where possible, oozing kindness is more of a problem than a good thing. It seems like an un-genuine disguise for something else that exists beneath the surface.
I haven’t read Nietzche, but he did describe a central concept of master/slave morality which is a perfect fit for egoism and altruism. The idea is described in the graphic below, and you can read more about it on Wikipedia.
Ayn Rand also wrote about altruism in her book The Virtue of Selfishness, in which she says the following:
Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute is self-sacrifice– which means self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial self-destruction – which means the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.
I have yet to look into this more, but it’s relevant to the topic so I thought I’d add it as a bit of an appendix for those interested in further research.
In the end, I’ve settled on an overarching conclusion that we ought to be self-aware enough to recognize our own egoism and kind enough to pursue altruism only once our individual needs and desires have been met, because after all – our responsibility in life is first and foremost to ourselves.
If you’ve got thoughts on the topic, please do share! I’d love to have a conversation about this, because my thoughts are (clearly) a bit all over the place at the moment (and also lacking in examples). And of course, especially so if your opinion is different from mine!