Last week at the supermarket, I felt a bit greedy when I noticed I was taking all the good brussels sprouts. Most of them had yellow, wilted outer leaves, which would have to be peeled off, and some had tiny black dots that were either rot or the entrances to bug-tunnels.
But a few dozen were almost pristine, and they were all in my bag. It occurred to me that if I wanted to treat others as myself, I should take no better than an average group of sprouts.
I reassured myself that it was perfectly normal to take the best available specimens in the produce department. In many areas of civilized life, we’re expected to aim for fairness or better. We’re supposed to let others enter doors before ourselves, and never eat a larger-than-equal share of the pizza, at least until grandma insists that she only wants half a piece and that you can go ahead.
But the modern produce department is more like the prehistoric savannah than Grandma’s house. The rule is to take all you want and all you can get, even though you are sometimes the victim of that policy, and even though we know society would be better if we thought about the people coming after us to the feeding bowl. Mother Nature supports this system, however—evolution would be nowhere without competition. And competition means feeling no shame about serving yourself—and maybe your friends and relatives—the best brussels sprouts you can get your hands on.
This is the sort of philosophical reflection I have about twenty times a day. So I didn’t think of it again until I read an article from the Guardian about a woman named Julia Wise, who had an unusual dilemma. She believed everyone’s well-being was equally important, and so it wasn’t right to care more for herself than for anybody else.
At first, that doesn’t seem unusual at all. It’s really just a rigorous application of the golden rule, or something like it—don’t put yourself before others—a maxim which many people think is just common human decency.
In reality, it’s not common at all. Almost nobody lives like that. Most of us wouldn’t think twice about spending fifteen dollars on wine, even when we know it could have protected a dozen kids from polio. We routinely pass up chances to alleviate great suffering for some real person somewhere, in order to pleasure ourselves in some small way.
Apparently, Julia did not experience this normal cognitive dissonance. It seemed wrong to her to pursue her own luxuries at the expense of others’ necessities, and so from an early age she knew she was morally obligated to spend much of her life helping others.
She and her husband decided they could live on half of his salary, and donate the other half (and the entirety of Julia’s salary) to the best charitable causes they could find. Still, they always wondered if they could do more. Regardless of how much they were already giving, five dollars spent on an unnecessary indulgence still meant someone would suffer needlessly.
Nobody likes Ned Flanders
The article is fascinating, but not exactly uplifting. The more you learn about the couple’s dilemmas, the more tempting it is to dismiss them as crackpots. Aren’t these people just driving themselves crazy? Maybe, but even if their generosity does run them into the ground, their sacrifice has already saved many times more lives than the two that are being consumed for it. We admire self-sacrifice when it involves a burning building or a live grenade, but for some reason when it comes to striving to be ever more charitable and generous, we get suspicious.
Later in the article, the author explores this strange backlash effect: for a variety of reasons, we tend to resent people who are “too good”. We become suspicious of their motives, and worry that they will push the bar too high.
The creators of The Simpsons, when it was still groundbreaking social satire, designed a character to illustrate exactly this phenomenon. In a show in which every character was a familiar stereotype, Ned Flanders represented the neighbor who is impossibly, obnoxiously good. He made sacrifices happily, even for people who hated him. He took criticism with a smile, and even donated a kidney and a lung to “whoever needs them first”. Homer often resented him, because Ned’s earnest goodness only underscored the moral shortcomings of the Simpson family; they argue a lot and don’t always do the right thing, traits which make them a relatably normal family compared to the Flanderses. The Flanderses are the Joneses of the moral neighborhood.
We dislike it when people make us look bad, or feel bad about ourselves, even if they do it by being good. You may have even experienced this as a new employee somewhere. If you outwork your colleagues too visibly, you “ruin the curve” for everyone around you, and someone might tell you so.
When I was in New Zealand, I picked kiwis in an orchard to earn more traveling money. One day our picking crew, which included both rookie backpackers and veteran seasonal pickers from India and Nepal, was reprimanded for being too slow. Management told us they’d replace us all if we didn’t pick up the pace. The next day, my backpacker friends and I roared through the orchard, doing our absolute best. But we couldn’t help but notice that the Indians and Nepalis weren’t pulling their weight. They had sped up a little, but clearly none of them were doing their best.
Later, when I was on a different team, I learned from an outspoken Maori man what our Middle-Asian co-workers had been too polite to tell us: by picking too fast, we were making them choose between looking bad, and working harder than they needed to. Since they were paid by the hour, their strategy was to do it just slowly enough to not get fired. That way they get the most money out of the company. Raising the bar, whatever the reason, is often not appreciated.
Selfishness is no anomaly
I recommend reading the Guardian article. If you do, I’d like to hear how it makes you feel about altruism. I don’t want a life like Julia’s, at least I don’t think I do. But it seems like the alternative is to decide what degree of selfishness to settle on.
How good should we be? Is it wrong to spend eight dollars a month on Netflix when we could be sparing kids from painful diseases? It sure seems like it on paper, yet I suspect my binge-watching days are far from over.
I don’t have an answer for you. One thing should be clear though. If we acknowledge that we all exhibit some degree of selfishness (probably a large degree) then we should be much more forgiving of selfishness in others than we tend to be.
While the minivan owner who parked on the yellow line probably doesn’t have a good reason for his thoughtless act, maybe he isn’t quite a monster either. He was simply putting himself ahead of others, as we all do every time we treat ourselves to a sundae instead of feeding the poor. It’s just easier to appreciate the harm selfishness causes when it’s happening to you.
This kind of forgiveness doesn’t mean we ought to start ignoring moral lines (or parking lot lines), only that we stop treating every incidence of self-preference as though it’s an anomaly. Self-preference is the rule, not the exception, and it shouldn’t so easily surprise us or infuriate us. (We should also stop throwing around that awful word “deserve” so freely.)
We already know how to be more forgiving, because we do it out of habit with our friends and relatives. When a family member eats the last piece of cake (or the last three) from the fridge in the middle of the night, we aren’t pleased, but we don’t hate that person either. This is because we don’t see their flaws in isolation; we know that in addition to being gluttonous, they can also be kind, generous and remorseful.
With strangers and media figures, often all we know about them is that they did something greedy or unfair. We can be quick to crucify them, in our heads if not in public, as though the selfish are a separate class of person from our friends, relatives and ourselves. In reality, we’re all fallible, in pretty much the same way: we care about how we’re doing more than we care how others are doing. The differences are only in degree and style.
One simple way of putting this philosophy into practice is something I suggested here:
#28: When driving, pretend the other drivers are all friends and relatives. It makes the driving experience friendlier, and often hilarious.
I urge you to try this. It allows you to remember the good that lies alongside the bad, and it also reminds you of how ubiquitous selfishness really is. If selfishness seems common, it’s not because the world has gone to Hell, or because people don’t respect each other anymore, but because human beings are nowhere as good at being fair and thoughtful as we’d like to be. But it’s encouraging that we have such high expectations.