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On Selfishness
Prof. Murali Sivaramakrishnan Bookmark and Share

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution tells us that the entire field of living organisms is one of struggle for survival and survival of the fittest. Only those who are able to overcome the others successfully thereby resisting and reducing opposition can come up in this wild, wild world. Any casual glance at non human nature would reveal this as a well recognizable fact. Whether it is in water, on air, or on earth, all life appears to be a struggle, and those who succeed are those who know how to look after their own interests and their own bodies. However, as human beings we assume that there are certain higher values that are supposed to lead us-- values like love, understanding, sympathy, compassion—these are supposed to be more desirable than hatred, destruction, and inflicting suffering and pain on the others. Almost all of us know this for true. Of course don’t we pride ourselves thinking we are the most superior of God’s creations? We seem to have innate knowledge of great humanitarian values. Probably herein lies the origin of the world’s great religions. The Buddha, Christ, Muhammed, Rama, Krishna, and all equally great and significant prophets and human leaders all spoke of selfless love and understanding leading towards a great human uplifting. Human beings, they all believed could work themselves towards the godhead through self-lessness, not selfishness Now, despite all these, selfishness and self interests are those that apparently lead us in this world of everyday reality.  But then, we ask ourselves, how else are we supposed to live, other than by looking after our interests and promoting ourselves? If I do not look after my self, I ask, who will then do so? The others are obviously bent upon looking after their own selves. Let us all be selfish then. Charles Darwin is downright correct. It is indeed self interest that leads the world.       
 
Thanks to the superior achievements and breakthroughs in the field of science and technology, we live today in a world of information network; so far advanced that we have come a long, long way from our proto-historic ancestors. Air travel, satellite television, cell phones, digital and nanotechnology have changed the face of our world completely. We have traveled so deep into space, dug into the very heart of the earth, explored the seas inside out, and studied every cell and atom in the human body – we have split the atom and diving into the molecular world discovered the very essential gene that enfolds life and even discovered how to synthesize it; we know now how to play god! With all these, have we become better human beings? Our world is definitely superior to what has gone before but are we in any way better? Perhaps at no time in the history of humankind has the world shrunk so small, and distances become so easily coverable and manageable than in the present day world. Nevertheless our world is just a huge marketplace where we bargain and haggle over prices and quantity and have conveniently laid aside values and quality. The man who knows how to split the atom, says J Krishnamurti, has no song in his heart.   
 
Perhaps it is the commodity culture that we have incorporated into our everyday life that has led us to think selfishness is right and cite Darwin to our advantage. We are made to believe that the individual is to be placed at the centre of all and everything and his or her interests needs prime sanction. Of course, the individual is important, however, one does not live alone in the world, the world comprises many individuals and each and everyone’s rights need to be protected. Social and human interest should definitely get the priority. Darwin may be right --nevertheless as human beings we have to exert certain resistance to our essential instinctual drives. Haven’t we come a long way from our wild ancestral ambience where we fought with tooth and nail for our right to survive and succeed? Or is it that the great world that science and technology has gifted us is in no way different and we are still in the battlefield where individual animals fight and tear madly at each other?  Our world with its daily incidents of terrorism and technological hazards, chemical, biological and physiological pollution, political lunacy and religious fanaticism, certainly would make us think in these lines. We are indeed selfish. We teach our children to be selfish. Our schools and educational institutions are the breeding grounds for selfishness.  Cutthroat competition has become the order of the day. Now, as the master would say, after having lost the song in our hearts we dumbly pursue the singer.  
 
For us in the present day there appear to be no goals other than the economic and financial—money breeding money appears to be the global solution we seek. Competition and rat race very well becomes the hallmark of our days as ever. Children from minus-one-day are taught to seek everything for themselves and themselves alone. The end would certainly justify the means, we say—any means, cut throat or otherwise.  Kill or be killed—we advice our children. Get everything you can, have all that you can, amass wealth, property, land and everything and then seek happiness in possession. But we are certainly wrong. Selfishness and possession will not bring in happiness and peace. In the Isa Upanishad there is a verse that says: tena tyaktena bhunjita, ma grda kasyasvid dhanam. Which could be roughly translated to mean enjoy by giving up possession, do not grab, because to who does it all belong? Not definitely to you. Thus the only way to relish the world is by not possessing, by not grabbing, by not being selfish.  Perhaps it is by far easier to be selfish than to be selfless. 
The most interesting fact is that selfishness does appear to be so natural that anyone would think that is how a human being should be.  Just cast a glance at the other non human living things in nature and we find that is so. Almost all nature seems to thrive by looking after itself. So we ask, why shouldn’t we be selfish too? Anyway what is selfishness as we understand it?  The Dictionary defines selfishness as caring only about yourself rather than about other people--chiefly thinking of and interested in ones own needs and welfare without care for others.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) the English philosopher was a materialist. He did to philosophy and politics what Galileo did to the natural sciences. He believed that human life was “nasty, solitary, brutish and short” and selfishness thus was as natural as the rest of nature. And yet, he said, there is a moral duty for mankind to push aside its own self interests and act in concern for the other and the society. Selfish, we might naturally be but nevertheless there is a greater sense of ethics and value inbuilt in any thinking individual that would lead to selflessness. What is required here is that we need to put the rest of the world as equally if not more important than us and then try to act accordingly, which means that we work not according to our own self interest but according to the good of the rest of the world.
 
In philosophy they speak of doing and having—that is acting in the world and possessing things. Selfishness is natural in both these fields, whether we do something or try to have something we are led by our own interests and inclinations.  Philosophers also speak of moral and ethical action: choosing our actions with care and concern so that we do not damage or cause any harm to our fellow human beings or the natural world. This is based on selflessness. We do not bring our interests to the forefront. We retrain from acting in greed and lust. This is moral and ethical action. Philosophers look upon such actions as leading to the good and well being of society and the rest of nature. This is the point where religion and philosophy come together. Science on the other hand works differently. It does not give any space for moral and ethical issues. It is impersonal. Its basic character itself is objectivity, distanced from the self. It works like that. Now, because of this character science could work both ways—it can be beneficial to humanity and at the same time it could also be destructive. Everything depends on the person who handles science and its handmaiden technology. In a broad manner one can connect philosophy, religion and science as all working toward the benefit of entire humanity: their paths may be different, that’s all.  The selfish person could manipulate all three to his or her advantage. This accounts for most of the world’s evils: the power of philosophy, the power of religion and the power of science when it is used by the wrong person the world becomes a terrible place—a world full of horror and destruction. Fundamentalist forces in philosophy and religion have caused enough havoc in our world, we know that. The horrendous destructive aspect of science and technology is also not unknown to all of us—Hiroshima and Nagasaki continue as examples of what terrors science could unleash if it is used by the wrong people. The evil face of technology is also not unknown to most of us. Chernobyl and Bhopal are there as indicators—pollution, and environmental disasters coupled with the terror of technological and chemical warfare, the growing hole in the ozone layer up above are all equally indicative of the malfunction of science. Whatever human beings do, the result of their action depends on their ultimate intention. If action is done with a selfish motive then evil would certainly be the result. Religion or philosophy or science, are not to be blamed: it is the intention behind the human being’s action that is the sole decider of the quality of the result. If one puts the self before all else then the world is not going to be any better. The market forces of the present day living systems appear to push us all toward being more and more selfish. It tells us go ahead: grab, amass, it is all there for you! No day passes without news of any terrible human tragedy: what human beings do to other human beings! We cannot blame our nature for, and quote from Charles Darwin regarding the survival of the fittest. Now that we have as a species learned sufficiently well how to survive and prevail on this world we need to grow out of our little selves and recognize the great wide world that is large enough to contain many, many other selves—human and non human. This is the beginning of wisdom, a wisdom that would lead us all toward greater happiness, and peace. It is not by being trapped in our little selves that we enjoy the bliss of living but by being liberated from the trappings of our self. Selflessness in action and in thought is not only for saints and philosophers and gurus, but also fit enough for the common man and the common woman. Each one of us can become selfless if we so wish. Becoming selfless need not be losing one’s self completely, it is like acting with the feeling that whatever one does, one does it for the benefit and welfare of the others as well. It is not that one should not eat for oneself nor drink for ones self. It is just that one does not grab anything and everything; it is just that one does not hurt or bring pain upon the other. The world will definitely be a better place if the virtues of selfless action are practiced. A little poem would tell it all like this:

Little deeds of kindness
Little words of love
Make our earth an Eden
Like the heaven above.
     


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02/17/2013
More by : Prof. Murali Sivaramakrishnan
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