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Can selfishness and altruism be unscrambled? And what of love?

Common sense distinguishes between selfishness and altruism as a vice and a virtue. A selfish person is someone who has regard for himself alone whereas an altruist is someone for whom the interests of the other are more important than his own interests. We commend people who, say, work for the betterment of humankind at the expense of their own interests. We regard them as good and virtuous. In contrast, we think of selfish people who have regard for their pleasure alone as base and vile if not as evil, as contemptuous if not as downright vicious. 

This common sense distinction is doubtless limited, at least from a psychoanalytic perspective. It disregards this important fact, that the ego is shaped by identifications with others. 

What is it to identify with someone else? It is not to think or behave as they do. It is not playacting. It is to incorporate the other person into oneself and to be them. I do not act like a white man. I am a white man in virtue of the fact that I identify with others who are of this race. The same is true of my gender, sexuality, nationality, religion and ethnicity. I do not “have” these features. I am white, male, Belgian and so forth, because I identify with members of these groups. 

How is the distinction between selfishness and altruism to be understood in this connection? Selfishness cannot mean that I value my interests above everyone else’s. It means that I value the interests of those I identify with above the interests of those I identify with to a lesser extent or not at all. 

Consider someone who says, “my family comes first”. Another says, “my ethnicity and race come first”. Another says, “my country over everything”. I belong to various groups at once, but I have to rank them and give them an order of preference. The one who says “my family comes first” does not value only his family. He values his family above the other groups whose members he identifies with — above, say, his nation, ethnicity or guild. 

I can’t grant all of those I identify with an equal standing because I can’t serve them all equally, certainly not at the same time. I have to prioritise. I have to say, “my family comes before my country”, “my beloved is more important to me than my family”, “my race and ethnicity are more important to me than my attachment to my lover”.

Many of the conflicts of daily life are a result of these choices we make. They furnish dramatic topics for entertainment to playwrights, novelists and cinema directors. Once I have ranked and prioritised the others I identify with and the corresponding obligations I have to them, the likelihood of there being a clash is near certain. I am bound to be torn in different directions at once. 

For example, I find myself in a situation where I have to defend my ethnicity or race and my lover (who is of a different race or ethnicity) at the same time, but the current circumstances prevent me from doing so and I have to make a choice. I have to sacrifice one for the other. Or again, a situation arises. I have to take sides. I have to choose between my family and my country, or between my beloved and my parents. I am hurled into an impossible situation that, regardless of the choice I make, leads only to sorrow and despair.

There is nothing particularly pernicious about being selfish in this instance. It is simply a result of the fact that one is constrained to make a choice. One has to decide what part of the self takes precedence over what other parts.

There is a significant consequence that follows from this. What is typically called “self-interest” is, at bottom, the interest of several others. This is because the “self” is a product and result. It is a unity yielded by the sum of internalised others. Put differently, the common sense idea of selfishness is without basis in reality. When I put my interests before everyone else’s, what I’m doing is privileging the interests of those I identify with. “I” is always “I, my family”, “I, my friends”, “I, my church”, “I, my race” and so forth. 

Is there a limit to the ego’s identification? I become cosmopolitan when I identify with someone on the meagre basis that that person is a human being. I can broaden my identity beyond this. I can identify with the person on the basis that this individual is a living thing and member of this Earth’s biosphere. I can say, for instance, “your interests matter to me not because you’re human, but because you’re a living being dependent on the Earth’s resources”. We would esteem such a person highly who places the interests of living creatures in the centre of their concern. From being a cosmopolitan, I have become an ecologist. 

Yet, though an altruist, I am still selfish in a broadened sense. My attachment to the human species or to life on Earth is not distinguishable from my attachment to my ego. I identify with the human race or with life on Earth. Humanity or life is, in my eyes, my true self, which is inviolable and sacred. My individual life as a part of it is, in comparison, something merely fleeting and apparent. It is a part worth sacrificing for the good of my true self. By advancing the causes of humanity or of life on Earth, I advance the causes of my true self. I am, at bottom, a narcissist.

My intention is not to disparage the ecologist or cosmopolitan. It is to find a contrasting case. 

Isn’t the lover who sacrifices himself for his beloved in an entirely different situation? What inflames the lover is this thing about his beloved that he cannot put his finger on, this thing that makes her unique and different from the mass of women who sound like her, who look like her, who think like her. The lover’s passion is hooked on this thing that makes his beloved inaccessible and unknowable, a mystery. 

It is this fact about love that makes the lover’s sacrifice incomprehensible. He does not sacrifice his individual life to advance a cause he identifies with. On the contrary, his passion for her issues from the fact that he cannot identify with her. She is for him not another ego he can internalise. Veiled in mystery, she is for him entirely other. 

The lover who sacrifices himself for his beloved puts everything on the line. His decision is a leap taken beyond what’s reasonable. It cannot be explained. His sacrifice does not serve anyone, neither him nor her (he knows that she will still have to suffer and die regardless of his sacrifice). 

The ecologist is willing to die for the good of her true self. The lover who dies for his beloved does something profoundly different. He not only gives up his life for someone who remains a secret to him. He parts with his ability to identify with others, in other words, with what makes him an ego. This loss of self is not unrelated to the paroxysm and feverish pitch of love. 

Where does this lead to? The capitalist who goes to any lengths to make money is no different from the father who lays down his life for his family or the soldier who kills and dies on the battlefield for his nation. Money in the first case, the family in the second and the nation in the third incarnate the true self for which each person voluntarily sacrifices their fleeting existence. 

The type of person they are opposed to is the lover who sacrifices himself for his beloved. His beloved is the ultimate crucible. Either the lover will go to his ruin and lose himself, or he will remain self-possessed. But perhaps, as long as he is in love, he has no choice but to rush headlong into ruin.

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Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler
Rafael Winkler is a full professor in the philosophy department at the University of Johannesburg

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