November 24, 2008

Human Nature: Selfishness

Things don't always have to make sense directly or immediately, to make sense indirectly or ultimately.  Consider these excerpts from the song, Bad Boys, released in 1987 by the reggae group, Inner Circle, and still used today as the theme song for the TV show, Cops:

       Bad boys, bad boys
       Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do
       when they come for you

       When you were eight and you had bad traits
       You go to school and you learn the golden rule
       So why are you acting like a bloody fool
       If you get hot you must get cool

       Bad boys, bad boys
       Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do
       when they come for you

       Why did you have to act so mean?
       Don't you know you're a human being,
       Born of a mother with the love of a father
       Reflections come and reflections go
       I know sometimes - you want to let go,

       Bad boys, bad boys
       Watcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do
       when they come for you

The song, and the TV show, focuses primarily on street criminals, domestic situations, drunks, drugs, boys (and girls) from the hood and ordinary police encounters.  The lyrics don't focus, and may never have been intended to focus, on the selfishness of any bad boy characters on Wall Street or any bad boys or girls running our nation's banks, or Congress, or running around the halls of our automakers, but you get the point.  Selfishness, and its effects, is not limited to the poor souls running around the streets, creating havoc for our police.

Random House defines selfish to mean 'devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare ... regardless of others.'  Webster's defines selfishness to mean 'exclusive regard to one's own interest or happiness; that supreme self-love or self-preference which leads a person to direct his purposes to the advancement of his own interest, power, or happiness, without regarding those of others.'

We've all seen a 3 or 4 year old child grab a toy right out of the hands of his or her compatriot (or hit or push that compatriot to get that toy), regardless of race, creed, religion or gender.  As parents we try to train our children to resist that selfish instinct as soon as we see it, and, according to the song at least, by eight years of age each child should have learned the golden rule (or some moral equivalent of it).  Just imagine what the world would be like if we didn't teach the golden rule (or some moral equivalent of it).  O, we don't need to imagine it.  We can just look at Darfur today, or Idi Amin, or Hitler yesterday.  But we do teach the golden rule (or some moral equivalent of it), in virtually every culture.

So I don't think I need to work any harder at this time to establish that selfishness is part of our human nature.  It's one of the threads.  We all know that, right?

But there is a point, a big one, we might overlook, as we reel back in response to the violence, corruption, self-engrandisement and self-love we seem to be witnessing now on a daily basis.

For some reason, I'm reminded of an elephant.

This image of an elephant could be caused by my earlier blog piece on White Elephants.  It could also be caused the small soapstone elephant carved within a slightly larger soapstone elephant which now camps out next to my computer, a gift from a friend.  Either way, the image in my head is like a Jungian archetype, always reminding me of something.

This time I am reminded specifically of the ancient Sufi, Jainist, Buddhist or Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant, captured perhaps most recently in Western culture by John Godfrey Saxe in a poem he wrote in the mid-1800's, suitably entitled ' The Blind Men and the Elephant.'  Saxe was born in Highgate, Vermont in 1816 and died in Albany, New York in 1887.  He served as Attorney-General for the State of Vermont in 1856 and made an unsuccessful bid to be governor.  He edited newspapers in Burlington, VT and later in Albany, NY.  Excerpts of Saxe's 19th century poem follow:

     The Blind Men and the Elephant.

                A Hindoo Fable.

       It was six men of Indostan
       To learning much inclined,
       Who went to see the Elephant
       (Though all of them were blind),
       That each by observation
       Might satisfy his mind.
       The First approached the ... sturdy side ...
       very like a wall!
       The Second, feeling ... the tusk …
       very like a spear!
       The Third approached the ... squirming trunk …
       very like a snake!
       The Fourth reached … the knee …
       very like a tree!
       The Fifth … chanced to touch the ear …
       very like a fan!
       The Sixth … seizing on the swinging tail …
       very like a rope!
       And so these men of Indostan
       Disputed loud and long,
       Each in his own opinion
       Exceeding stiff and strong,
       Though each was partly in the right,
       And all were in the wrong!


       So oft in theologic wars,
       The disputants, I ween,
       Rail on in utter ignorance
       Of what each other mean,
       And prate about an Elephant
       Not one of them has seen!

I recall hearing this poem, or parable, the first time many years ago during a young adult church retreat.  Perhaps I heard it earlier than that.  Regardless, Googling the relevant phrases yields a large number of references to diverse religious, educational, literary and philosophical sources, confirming the widespread allegorical use of this parable.

As an enlightened view, the parable can be used to illustrate that reality (the elephant) can only be fully known or discovered when it is examined from a multi-faceted perspective, with each facet discovered adding to our understanding of the total.  From a skeptical view, the parable can be used to illustrate that humans can never know what is truly real because they are forever limited to their own personal perceptions of reality, which at best can only represent a small distorted part of the whole.  From an intersocial perspective, the parable can be used to illustrate that humans can be unjustifiably intolerant of each other's perspective, even though we may all be in contact with (or experiencing) some part of the same universal reality (or Godhead, spirituality or totality).

About these different interpretations and perspectives, we humans, across history, can and often have disagreed.  In fact, we humans, forming different opinions from time to time about reality, spirituality, ideology, culture, religion and economics, have also been willing to simply kill each other over these differences.

But from what condition does this fact arise?  Well, it's not from the elephant (at least not as the parable is formulated).  Instead, it arises because there are separate humans in the parable, who are individual selves, individual points of contact as it were, who are also coincidentally selfish.  Selfish enough to come to blows over our differences of opinion, about elephants, just as children might come to blows over toys.

That would seem to be the case, whether Buddha, Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Gandhi or some other thinker or philosopher turns out to be correct about other aspects of reality.  It would seem to be the case, that humans are individual, physically distinct points of contact.  It would also seem to be the case, that we, individually distinct humans, are quite capable of advancing our individual interests in a selfish manner, i.e., without regard to the interests of others.

 * * *
Credits -
       lyrics:  Bad Boys, by Inner Circle (1987)
       poem:  The Blind Men and the Elephant, by John Godfrey Saxe,
                     The Poetical Works of John Godfrey Saxe, p.111
                     Houghton, Mifflin and Company (1882)


1 comment:

  1. Just because I've acted selfishly doesn't mean I've harmed anyone else.


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