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Does American Society Encourage Selfishness?

Our social institutions support a preoccupation with self.

Key points

  • American social institutions (like economics, family relations, and healthcare) support a private, even selfish vision of life.
  • Our capitalist economy, which encourages private wealth development and management, is fundamental to this vision.
  • In other institutions too, people focus on their own placement and self-functioning, sometimes at a a cost to their relationships with others.

In my previous post ("My Country, 'Tis of Me"), I emphasized that American society encourages people to pursue their dreams with an individualistic spirit. We are to look out for ourselves – and perhaps for a small circle of family and friends. This is especially true with regard to our economic relationships, our connections to jobs, property, and other sources of income and wealth.

Some of this may be admirable. However, it is problematic, even dangerous, when such commitments disregard, or worse hinder, the life-prospects of other people. At such times, self-concern becomes selfishness. Pride becomes indifference, or arrogance.

In this post, I comment on the ways in which basic social institutions ˗ like family life, education, healthcare, legal justice, and religion ˗ support our individualistic impulses.

Family life. Unlike traditional societies, modern societies support an individual choice pattern of mate-selection, based ideally on love for one’s partner. People considering marriage may listen to the advice of parents and other family members, but society expects the couple to choose as they will, in effect to make and then honor a contract. In the past, couples tried to endure (“’til death do us part”) what were sometimes very difficult conditions. Family, friends, and social organizations supported those “adjustments.”

That commitment, as we all know, has softened. Separation and divorce are now common; so is remarriage. In the current credo, people should not be prisoners of unhappy relationships; society respects everyone’s right to personal development. That trajectory often means that some family members (especially former spouses) find themselves left behind. If obituaries are any guide, such people, or so it seems, never existed.

That quest for independence also dominates child rearing, especially in the upwardly mobile classes. As they age, children experience increasing levels of freedom; many go off the school; they move to places where jobs are and establish themselves there. All this a traditional society would consider strange behavior; we deem it normal. After all, what matters is each person’s quality of life experience; older persons must not “hold them back.”

The reader may rightly insist that real families are more committed to one another than this. Surely, older children call and visit periodically; they do odd jobs at the family home place; they “make arrangements” for aging parents. After that, they return to their own concerns, especially those of their “immediate” family. My point is simply that American culture (especially in is dominant or middle-class version) acknowledges the legitimacy of a relatively self-centered vision of life.

Education. Schooling fits, and supports, this pattern. Children are to advance themselves as successfully, and as far, as they can. Schools teach habits of industriousness and self-discipline. Individuals should do their own work honestly and receive judgment for that effort. The most accomplished, or at least the most acclaimed, students receive encouragement to move on to higher levels, where degrees provide pathways to professional and managerial occupations.

An educator myself, I know that schools (including colleges) historically have supported themes of civility and social justice. Such are commitments of the “liberal arts.” However, I also know that the increasing number of people seeking advanced degrees has intensified competition and that technical or “practical” education is now a mainstay. In any case, the question ˗ “What can I do with this degree?” ˗ is paramount.

Most of us respect our schoolmates and cherish our relationships to them. However, we also know that “once school is over” we will go our separate ways. Education is the filtering system in advanced industrial societies that moves some people forward and consigns others to a restricted range of occupations.

Healthcare. There are societies that consider healthcare a universal right that government policies must support. Ours is not one of those. As in the economic sphere, people expect to fend for themselves. “Better” jobs provide health insurance for families, but millions of people do not have coverage. That predicament means that people must juggle healthcare expenses with other expenses. Those costs include not only the fees of doctors and hospitals but also payments for medications, support for the ill person’s dependent family members, transportation to medical services, and lost income from absences at work.

The issue of what level of support government should provide for ill and physically disadvantaged persons is one of the many that divide Americans politically. Certain groups (such as the elderly and those in extreme poverty) receive some support; others buy insurance through government subsidized plans. Even in these instances, there is a sense that people must manage their own well-being, both physically and psychologically. Therapy, or so we learn, is a matter for individuals rather than for society as a whole.

Legal justice. Although there are certain exceptions for crimes committed by dependent children (such as a parent being accused of “contributing to the delinquency” of that dependent), for the most part individuals bear responsibility for their own acts in courts of law.

That sounds reasonable, especially in an individualistic society. However, bearing responsibility commonly does not mean accepting responsibility. Indeed, our adversarial system of law frames legal proceedings as contests in which prosecutors try to prove their case and defendants try to weaken or deflect that argument. Ideally, defendants acquire the best lawyer (or team of lawyers) they can. That representative is concerned less with the “truth” of the matter than with a range of tactics (such as employing character witnesses, friendly authorities, procedural delays, and rhetorical objections and insinuations) to support the claim that their client, if not innocent, is at least not guilty. Even when there is acknowledgment of culpability, the defense commonly seeks a reduced punishment as part of the bargain.

As most would acknowledge, economic means (and social connections) are crucial to this process. Poorer, or less established, people may have greater difficulty in hiding their behavior from authorities; those same authorities may see them as different or “suspicious”; their bail is often higher (because, it is claimed, “they will run”); they may rely on public defenders with large caseloads; their courtroom appearance and behavior may hamper their credibility.

None of this will surprise the reader. Rather, the point is that our “pay as you go” system makes clear that people must fight for their places in society. Individuals without economic and social resources, whom society sometim4es imputes to be the most dangerous, are inevitably the most endangered.

Religion. Faith communities, which hold their members to common standards and emphasize serious moral purposes, are at one level a great bulwark against the selfish spirit. However, it is notable that most of these churches stress the importance of individual morality, as opposed to the obligations of groups or even of society itself. More than that, they commonly stress the progress of the individual soul, which ideally finds a place for itself in the life after death.

None of this is a criticism of religion’s important commitments. Instead, I emphasize that even our most fundamental meaning systems give credence to our “go it alone” mentality. In the modern world, morality is essentially individual morality; people learn the difference between making good and bad choices.

Such commitments find expression in our daily behavior, and in our political beliefs. Some people glory in the possibilities of self-regulated behavior (and in the absence of societal control). Others stress the interconnection, and thus the shared responsibility, of all. Most of us find satisfaction in the prospect of being individualistic, even “unique.” But at what point, does this quest interfere with other people’s desires to realize themselves in the very same ways?