On Selfishness and Self Interest

“The environmental crisis presents us with the challenge to be different people, to reform our relations with the world. But who are we now? What kinds of beings are we? Are we just selfish? Strange to say this, but the political economy that governs all aspects of our lives today was founded on precisely that idea.”

Dr Mazviita Chirimuuta

In this blog, Philosophy senior lecturer, Dr Mazviita Chirimuuta considers how the environmental crisis is a spiritual problem, one that relates to our deepest values and self-conception, not just a scientific one which needs a technocratic solution.

Dr Chirimuuta was invited to speak on this theme/topic at the Greenbelt Festival in August where artistry meets activism, the secular meets the spiritual and politics meets positivity. 

The idea for this event came from Chris Oldfield and Ruth Bancewicz at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion in Cambridge.

The point of it was to think about how the environmental crisis is a spiritual problem, one that relates to our deepest values and self-conception, not just a scientific one which needs a technocratic solution.

I was fully on board with this, and as a philosopher it was clear to me that we get some insight into our current relationship with the rest of nature if we examine and challenge what influential philosophers have said in the past. It’s easy for non-philosophers to grasp these basic ideas, much more so than any non-expert (including myself) would be able to understand climate modelling. The even took place in a tent called “the Hot House” which had been decorated with all kinds of symbols related to climate change, like a 3 foot hour glass. Roger Hallam, one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion, gave a very angry, passionate speech before our discussion. He was telling people to get up and act. Does anyone know for sure what we can do? I just wanted to ask the question, how did we get here?

“Anyone who wants to build on rock in dealing with human beings must confine himself to making use of the lower qualities and passions, for only what is most intimately bound up with egoism has permanence and can be counted upon in all circumstances; the higher intentions are unreliable, contradictory, and as changeable as the wind.”

These are the words of a character in Robert Musil’s immense novel, The Man Without Qualities. Arnheim is an industrialist, rich beyond measure, and a utopian intellectual. What he’s is expressing is the alchemical promise of capitalism – that not in spite of but because of our selfish qualities, our vices of greed and avarice – a life of material plenty, peace, and social order is possible for all.[1]

It is worth spelling out the idea: prosperity requires trade, a complex arrangement of division of labour, and therefore a regularity of behaviour in which each person reliably fulfils their role in the larger economy. Rulers cannot be trusted not to destroy trade in the folly of war, nor craftsmen to keep producing the goods on which everyone’s comfort depends, unless the stable motivation of self-interest, the never-satisfied hunger for material gain, overrides the conflicting storm of all their other passions, both good and bad.

How magical does this alchemy look now? With an excess of inequality, and climate change just one of the pollution produced hazards threatening our common home, it does not seem that the dross of individual greed has been transmuted into social gold. And I’d like us to reflect on how opposed this idea is to our religious traditions, which tell us always to cultivate our best natures, even if we cannot calculate the beneficial consequences. The rock, the foundations of human society, must be love, not gain at the expense of others – other people and other lifeforms. Even Karl Marx , the atheist, described an incompatibility between capitalism and old forms of faith. For instance, in the Communist Manifesto, “the icy water of egotistical calculation” is said to have drowned the ecstacies of the saints.

The prompt for this discussion came from Lynne White’s suggestion that to resolve the environmental crisis we have to, “find a new religion, or rethink our old one.” R. H. Tawney, the Christian socialist, describes how Christianity was re-thought to accommodate the new order of industry and capital. As an outsider to the faith, it is not clear to me what Christianity now is, or what it could be, given this accommodation. We cannot attribute the ecologically unfriendly aspects of Christianity today to the book of Genesis and ignore the countless historical and cultural events that have occurred since biblical times. Yet, it is impossible to bring all of the influence of the accumulated past into present consciousness. Just as we cannot step outside the perspective of the human species, we cannot step out of our historical perspective, to perceive our inherited flaws with enough clarity to correct for them. I suspect that confidence in our own agency – in our ability to find the right answers, to transform ourselves (rather than be transformed) – is one of those inherited flaws.

I could put the problem quite simply: to have an economy that keeps growing, driven by consumer demand, there had to be a creation of a new kind of humanity, with a new set of values. Now, we don’t want perpetual growth in consumption because we’ve reached the limits of what our planet can support, but we’re stuck with this version of ourselves, and this way of life. My final thought is that there is a sad contradiction at the basis of this vision of humanity that I’ve been criticising here. It represents, all at once, an exultation of human nature, and a loss of faith in it. The utopian side has been full of confidence in our ability to transform nature and society for a common benefit (usually defined by an economic metric, like GDP per capita). And there is this insouciance about the old vices, about the idea that there are imperfections in every person’s character, which demand effort to counterbalance. The old moralism often comes across as neurotic, or worse, “judgmental” today – it’s more enlightened to accept ourselves as we are. At the same time there is an awful pessimism embedded in the idea that our “higher intentions”, our inclinations not to be selfish and driven only by material appetites, are too weak and unreliable to be the basis of a liveable social order. Perhaps there is a clue here that to eclipse the world of “greed is good” – with its tragedy of over-consumption – we need to repeat a lesson as simple as “good is good”.

[1] See Bernard Mandeville Fable of the Bees and Alfred Hirschmann The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph.

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