Selfishness and Benevolence - Donald Rooum

It is still not thought strange to denounce bosses for pursuing their own selfish advantage, as if to suggest that they would be acceptable, if only they were all incorruptible idealists. It has become obvious that bending the knee to a god and touching the forelock to a boss are mutually reinforcing activities, but it is still not clear to everyone that calling shame on selfishness is another activity of the same kind.

Submitted by working class … on January 29, 2013

There is a verbal trick, apparently proving that benevolence does not occur. “Why are you giving a fiver to Oxfam?” “I think it might relieve someone’s distress.” “Do you like the thought of relieving someone’s distress?” “Yes.” “Then you are not doing it to relieve someone’s distress, but for your own pleasure in relieving someone’s distress.”

The trick is exposed if we apply the same procedure to an act which is not benevolent. “Why are you singing in the bath?” “The reverberations make my voice sound great.” “Do you like your voice to sound great?” “Yes.” “Then you are not doing it to make your voice sound great, but for your own pleasure in making your voice sound great.”

Obviously there is no distinction between wanting one’s voice to sound great and wanting the pleasure of one’s voice sounding great. Nor is there any distinction between wanting to relieve someone’s distress and wanting the pleasure of relieving someone’s distress. The trick depends on the false assumption that benevolence and selfish pleasure are incompatible.

Awareness of someone else’s emotions causes us to experience a semblance of the same emotions ourselves. This phenomenon is called “empathy”. When the other person’s emotion is painful it is called “primary distress”, and the response it produces is called “empathic distress”.

Empathic distress may be relieved by becoming less aware of the primary distress, for instance by running away or hiding one’s eyes. Or it may be relieved by relieving the primary distress, which is a benevolent act.

To obtain maximum benevolence from others, maximise their awareness of your distress. The Ethiopian famine of 1984 was a usual type of famine, which at first provoked only a usual type of caring response. Then the first carers managed to get pictures of the suffering on television, and a massive, popular relief effort started. People were more moved to empathic distress by the sight than they had been by the news.

Empathy is not the only motive for benevolence. Species in which the invariable response to empathic distress is to run may care for their mates and young from entirely different urges. In humans, there is also the pride of perceiving oneself to be benevolent. These are all selfish motives, and all produce real benevolence.

From “Anarchism and Selfishness”, a conscious egoist anarchist article in The Raven 3 (Freedom Press).

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