Poles apart are the philosophies of egoism and altruism. A specious case may be made for each, and both points of view have gained followers among those who believe that there is no alternative but to favor one or the other.
Egoism: “Away, then, with every concern that is not my concern. . . . My concern is neither the divine nor the human, or the true, good, just, free . . . but solely what is mine. . . . Nothing is more to me than myself!” Here we have the credo of the exclusive “I.”1
Altruism: This is at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. There is no “I” in its vocabulary, nor any concern, whatsoever, for self. The right to exist for self is denied; one lives, thinks, acts for humanity, that is, on behalf of others. Here we have the credo of the all-inclusive “they.”2
Borrowing a phrase from the Bard of Avon: “A plague o’ both your houses.” For I wish to argue that egoism is no more or less valid than altruism, that neither one squares with enlightened self-interest.
Concern only for others or no concern for others are alike heedless of the fact that man is both a social and an individualistic being. Man can no more exist wholly social—as a hive of bees—than he can live in isolation. Henri Bergson observed: “Vainly do we try to imagine an individual cut off from all social life.” He insists, quite rightly, that there is a little of society in each individual.
Others Influence Our Lives
If we are right in assuming that there is a little of society in each of us, implying that there is a great deal of distinctly individualistic quality in each person, one’s concern for others and one’s concern for self would, logically, have to be apportioned according to one’s dependence on society and to one’s dependence on self. Obviously, a complete and accurate division of these two dependencies would be voluminous, if not impossible. Yet, we can, by simple economic illustration, support the claim that each person should, to act intelligently, look to others as well as to self. We can demonstrate that the individual is faced with twin dependencies which means that concern for others, as well as for self, is appropriate. In short, it can be shown that survival depends on others and self, warranting a dual concern.
To illustrate: Creation, insofar as man has any hand in it, begins with tiny ideas and perceptions—intellectual and spiritual energies—flowing through the minds of individual men; that’s their exclusive routing! Here is a prime dependence that warrants a deep concern for the perfection of self, the individual being the source, the originating point, of all human creation.
However, these creativities, as they emanate from any single mind, are no more than infinitesimal fragments and, by themselves, are meaningless, utterly inadequate to compose any usable wholeness. They’re no more than “trillionths,” and might be likened to thumbnail-size pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which, in its entirety, would be the U.S.A. Wholeness, as manifested in the artifacts by which we live and advance, is in each instance a social phenomenon, the product of the individual coupled with an enormous “otherness.” An individual’s creativities are meaningless except as they unite or configurate or coalesce with trillions upon trillions of creativities flowing through the minds of other individuals since the advent of human consciousness. For instance, a jet plane or a pencil or whatever is inconceivable without the discovery that harnessed fire and without the countless ideas, perceptions, and discoveries that have taken place since that event. Here, also, is a prime dependence—others!
Creativities flow from single minds; without these we perish, so let’s have a deep concern for the single mind—mine!
The extent to which the realities we live by are the products of others can be put in perspective by the owner reflecting on the imperceptible part he has had in the car he drives, or the bread he eats, or the plane he rides. Without others we perish, so let’s have a deep concern for their being at their best.
It becomes clear that having a concern for others is as much in one’s self-interest as is concern for self. Indeed, I am coming more and more to believe that a concern for others, be it founded on the real as contrasted with the specious need of others, leads to the development of self.
We shall, however, let concern for self stand as self-evident; the balance of this chapter has only to do with a concern for others.
A Misplaced Concern for Others
As I view the current scene, concern for others is on the rampage but it is a concern for a need that requires more self-than-other fulfillment, that is, the massive concern we witness is a misplaced concern. For, never in the history of mankind have such fabulous sums been dispensed to all and sundry, at home and abroad, and in the name of need. I am referring, primarily, to the dispensations made by government: tens upon tens of billions collected by force or the threat thereof and handed out willy-nilly and, to a great extent, even urged upon persons, communities, “distressed areas,” and foreign governments. I insist that this hodgepodge—it isn’t a system—is unrelated to an intelligent concern for others. For one thing, a political collective can no more fathom the subtleties of need than can a brainless computer. Such a collective is, by its nature, an impersonal structure and, thus, incapable of being personal. These others to whom we refer are individuals, even as you and I, and a concern for them, to make any sense, has to be intimately personal. It is arrant nonsense to dispose of a concern for the need of others by lumping them into mass: humanity, society, areas, governments, the needy, workers, businessmen, farmers, the aged, and so on. These terms are but recapitulations, the language of the altruists.
While collectivized salvation, as evidenced by governmental extortion and largess, is way out front in its enormity, we note the same trend toward impersonalization on the part of private and voluntary collectives. Merely observe how we tend to dispose of our sense of obligation to others by turning it over to an organization—with some cash, of course. In short, we toss overboard the sensitive, spiritual, rewarding, and upgrading experience of personalization by the executive gesture of writing a check!
Understanding What Is Needed
Why this drift toward impersonalization? Why do we apply division of labor tactics to a concern for others, clearly no more applicable than to a concern for one’s relationships with his Creator? Why not be done with the latter by giving some committee a check with instructions to look after the matter? It would be just as sensible as delegating to government or to a private agency the task of looking after one’s concern for the need of others. Why this deviation from the personal practice of concern?
Perhaps this malpractice originates with a misunderstanding of what constitutes need. By and large, we have become so materialistically oriented that we think that the only need others have is a dollar need. This is, in fact, among the least of all needs. My guess is that our 90,000 millionaires have about as many needs as do any like number in Appalachia! To misconstrue the need of others must lead to a misplaced concern for others. What, then, is the crying need of our times? This becomes plain if we will take note of the kind of people we are becoming.
If you want to know the “kind of people” a person is, so goes the counsel, take him camping or fishing or, better yet, get him slightly inebriated. Under any of these conditions the true self breaks through the thin, “civilized” veneer. But these things are not necessary for a revealing insight. Simply observe how we act in traffic during any rush hour! No other animal will behave so unconcernedly, not to say viciously, among its own species.3 Here we have real selves showing through. While the veneer of superficial manners hides these egotistical traits in most other relationships, the real selves remain the same, nonetheless.
The Golden Rule
Let’s stay with our traffic behavior to highlight what the crying need is in so many present-day relationships. Once we see what the need of others is in this situation, we can adjust our concern to fit the need, and project the practice it dictates into all human relationships and occupations and activities.
Item: I observed a worker, heavily laden with tools, waiting to cross a one-way road. His plight went unheeded by driver after driver, even though accommodation would not disadvantage following drivers. Then one appeared who slowed to a near stop and waved the worker across the road. Never have I seen a person’s face light up more; he fairly glowed with appreciation and, assuredly, his appraisal of the human lot went from pretty low to very high. It is a fair guess that his own thoughtfulness of others was given a renewed vitality.
But, even more important, reflect on what happened to the driver by reason of that exercise of a concern for the need of another. This use and flexing of the faculty to be kind is as necessary to the making of a soul as is self-responsibility. For thoughtfulness can, indeed, be regarded as a faculty, requiring exercise, as does any faculty; exercise strengthens as neglect brings on atrophy. This little incident, the likes of which we observe all too infrequently, improved the lives of two persons which, in turn, bettered the human situation. But observe how personal it was! It is also important to note that the worker and the driver were, still are, and probably always will be unknown to each other, as well as to me, the one who just happened to look up, catching a glimpse of man playing not to an audience of men for applause and glory but acting in response to a matured conscience. This is as high a guide as man can have on the earthly side of his Creator, a harmony with right principle and righteousness.
Impoverishment of the Soul
Our concern for others, if intelligent, must be a response to an accurate assessment of their needs, that is, their impoverishment. Clearly, impoverishment in worldly goods is much less serious than is soul impoverishment: a poverty in extensions of kindness, thoughtfulness, consideration, recognition as a significant human being—little acts over and beyond the call of legality or tradition or customary duty or fairness or even the Golden Rule. I refer to dividends of the heart that come from unknown sources and, thus, with no expectation of reward or gratitude or even a simple “thank you.” Call these what you will, they are noiseless radiations that snuff out or destroy envy, covetousness, greed, hate, lust, dishonesty, and other soul-seering attitudes. With these out of the way, the soul can grow toward its potential richness, becoming distinctly human.
As suggested above, the greater beneficiary of this process is the benefactor. Indeed, he brings to his own thinking and willing the energizing forces of Creation. In a word, self-development, growth, emergence—life’s purpose—is aided and abetted by discerning the true needs of others, having a concern for these needs, and giving evidence of that concern by those noble actions which shy from applause, return favors, or even recognition.
In the absence of this process—every person with his guard up, distrustful, suspicious, and so on—all education, economic or whatever, is utterly futile. Mad people are uneducable. But once under way, this process causes the beneficiaries to become benefactors themselves.
Anyone seeking or attempting to maintain political power can best prosper at his trade if he affects a concern for others and then convinces the voters that he, given the office, will effectively minister to their needs. If we the people are not to be “taken in” by these affectations, we must know the origins of coercive power and why it is corruptive. . . .