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The Selfishness of Altruism

Embracing the essence of helping.

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Where would you place yourself on the selfless-selfish continuum? Society seems to both implicitly and explicitly adore selflessness (or altruism) and abhor selfishness. From a very early age, we are taught about things like the importance of sharing and thinking of others and chided on those occasions when someone decides we are being too selfish.

By focusing on “selfishness,” we are missing the point of successful social living.

And, as an aside, I should mention that I could drop the word “social”—what other sorts of living are there apart from social living? Even people who live almost completely solitary existences have some limited social experiences. I like to continue to use the word “social,” though, as a reminder that living is, paradoxically, a uniquely individual experience and, at the same time, inextricably intertwined with a boundless kaleidoscope of other uniquely individual living experiences. My good friend and colleague, Rick Marken, and I discuss this paradox in our book, Controlling People: The paradoxical nature of being human.

Back to the selfish point: If by “selfish,” we mean acts that are performed in the interests of the actor, then all acts are selfish acts. Everything an individual does, every breath they take, and every move they make (with thanks to The Police) occur in the context of them keeping their world, as they experience it, in the states they individually prefer.

There are numerous words we have used to label these state preferences—goals, expectations, intentions, ambitions, targets, dreams, objectives, values, references, standards, ideals, inclinations, aims, missions, destinations, assumptions, beliefs, purposes, hopes—but regardless of the particular word label used, the function is the same. It might sound odd to refer to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit as our mission for body temperature, or it might not be exactly the norm to refer to the homeostasis of a marriage, but, astoundingly and ingeniously, the process by which body temperatures and marriages are kept in stable states is the same.

With this understanding, it becomes clear that there really is no such thing as a completely “selfless” act. Let me be clear that I in no way intend to belittle or demean altruism. Quite the opposite. I think if we understand the basis and function of altruism, we might be able to create a world where more people are more helpful more of the time.

One of my favorite, all-time quotes came from the writing of William T. Powers as long ago as 1997. Bill said, “The childhood of the human race is far from over. We have a long way to go before most people will understand that what they do for others is just as important to their well-being as what they do for themselves.”

I couldn’t express it any better. Why should we help other people? Because it’s good for us! We all thrive when we help each other flourish. Helping others might well be the ultimate act of selfishness.

We all have our own internal, individual, unique, private specifications about the way different aspects of the world are to be experienced. The entire business of living is a process of managing this menagerie of edicts. We do what we need to do to keep the world as it should be (that’s our individual world that we experience according to our own personal design), which often includes rectifying matters as they drift or are bumped away from their ideal. It seems to be the case that many people have “being helpful to others” as one of the important ways they like to experience their world.

So, when we understand the business of keeping the world as we experience it in the states we prefer, we can become even more sophisticated and nuanced in the way we understand and provide “help.” The “business” I’ve been referring to is the process of organic, autonomous control. You can find out how control works by devouring as much as you can about Perceptual Control Theory.

When my son was 10 years old, he started at a new school. On his second day at this school, as we were walking home at the end of the school day, I asked him what he thought of the school. He said, “You know dad, they’re really helpful. And it’s not just the help that they call help. It’s the help that I call help as well.”

How many people who are “helped” would describe what they receive as helpful? With an understanding of control and the inherent selfishness of living, we might be able to increase this number. In many subtle and not so subtle ways, we can, with our current understandings and the noblest of intentions, miss the mark in important ways. The ubiquitous Golden Rule, for example, says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or “treat other people the way you want to be treated.”

When we hook into understanding living as control, however, it becomes clear that the Golden Rule is exactly the wrong way around. Treating others the way you want to be treated is not the way to be as helpful as you can be (if being helpful is one of your personal mandates). Being helpful means treating other people as they want to be treated. The Golden Rule in the world, according to control, would say, “Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves.” We cannot assume that other people’s preferences are the same as ours. Sometimes they will be; frequently, they won’t be.

If people oppose or reject your overtures of assistance, it’s not necessarily because they are rude or ungrateful. It’s more likely to be because what you provided as help has actually translated as a hindrance from their perspective.

Understanding the selfishness of everything we do might enable us to consider the impact our selfish acts have on others. Rather than selflessness and altruism, we could, instead, promote “considered selfishness.”

Sometimes, the most helpful thing we can do is to get out of other people’s way. Beyond that, there are many, many times throughout the day when the presence and involvement of others really can make things not only easier, but far more satisfying and enjoyable when people are genuinely helping each other.

Perhaps the blueprint for successful social living could be: Providing authentic, genuine help through considered selfishness. When people are able to control their things of importance without preventing others from doing the same, everyone benefits. In the year 2020, is it too great an ambition to hold that we might begin to see things more clearly and set a more achievable but also more magnificent vision for humanity than we had previously imagined was possible?

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