Look at everything humanity has achieved. Is it a testament to our selfishness or our generosity.
Some days I’m amazed the human race has got this far at all.
Scratch the surface of any institution, any segment of society, and you’ll find that that beautiful and functional young woman is actually a rotting meat sack of worms.
I’m not just talking about Canberra here. (How there’s not more outrage at both parties taking donations almost directly from the Chinese Communist Party, I have no idea.)
But anywhere. My friend was telling me about the power-plays going on behind the scenes at her local tennis club. How even that was a theatre for empire-building and nest-feathering, incest and betrayal.
(Ok, perhaps not incest, but certainly some socially dubious romantic pairings.)
On my worst days I worry that we’re on the same road as Argentina, Venezuela or Chile. At some point in history, they were all prosperous and free countries.
But over time, wealth accumulated into fewer hands. Oligarchs became more powerful. Institutions were corrupted. Rent-seeking replaced genuine productive activity. The parasites overwhelmed the host. Their economies collapsed.
I’m simplifying a lot, to be sure, but I think all civilisation collapses have a root in this don’t they? – the selfishness of the ones who had power.
Is Australia any different?
I think one of the reasons why Super Hero movies are so appealing is because I think we all recognise that the ‘evil’ is unstoppable. Any institutions you develop to put a brake on human selfishness will be corrupted eventually. The courts, parliament, the police.
If you’ve got the money you can get around all of these things, somehow.
And so the only way we can fight ‘evil’ is through mythical god-like beings, who have the power to take the fight to a level that simple and good people never could.
But still, somehow, we get by.
Somehow, despite the rotting meat sack of selfishness and envy that humanity is, we get by.
In fact, we do better than get by, we prosper. Civilisation advances. We become more intelligent, more compassionate and more peaceful.
As I often remind people, in the middle ages you could go to the theatre and watch a cat, tied to a stake, set on fire.
That was a good night out.
“I’ve got a hot date. Where should I take her?”
“Why not take her to the cat torching? You know, it’s romantic, but not too romantic.”
So somehow the world is getting better and better, even though we still seem to be as selfish and as self-serving as we always have been.
I really have trouble making sense of this.
How has our selfishness allowed us to achieve anything at all?
I have two answers to this.
The first is that I’m wrong. The world is not getting more just and peaceful. It’s just that justice and peace have become useful tools in a selfish world.
You don’t need to enslave people anymore. All you need to do is create systems where the plebs’ self-interest aligns with yours.
Give plebs the sense that the world is reasonably fair and just – get them to believe that if they too worked hard enough and meditated on the right affirmations, they could also be gazilionaires, and they’ll be happy to work to make you richer.
And of course the plebs upwardly mobile lifestyle is only made possible by African slaves working in the i-phone mines. But that’s not oppression. They’re poor because they are lazy and backwards.
All Africa needs is to work hard and meditate on the right affirmations.
“I am a beautiful, shining continent. Money comes to me in a free and easy way.”
So perhaps I’m wrong when I think that the world is getting better. It’s jus the nature of oppression has shifted. In the West, we now have a more palatable, more device-rich oppression, while the less-palatable, children-in-mines kind of oppression has been concentrated in the developing world.
We off-shored it.
And perhaps, as a species, we haven’t learnt a thing.
That’s one theory.
The second theory is that we are all both selfish and generous. In any individual there is a tendency to be mean and selfish as well as a tendency to be altruistic and selfless.
In each individual though, the tendency to be generous outweighs the tendency to be selfish.
Humans are intrinsically good… mostly. Sometimes they are seduced into being selfish, but on balance, at any point in time and over the course of a life time, they are more generous than they are selfish.
From there it’s just simple maths.
If each individual is more generous than selfishness, the summing together all individuals into a nation or world will give you a people that are collectively more generous than they are selfish.
We are still capable of staggering stupidity and greed, but on balance our generous peace-loving natures win out in the end.
And so over time, as it all plays out, we create outcomes that are more based in generosity than selfishness. Slowly, we become more peaceful, loving and intelligent. We advance.
Perhaps not in a consistent linear way. But perhaps the arc of history does bend towards justice, as Martin Luther King said.
That’s theory two.
I could flop between the two on any given day, but since there is no way I can know which one is right, I chose to put my faith in people. In my world, everyone is doing the best they can. Humanity is doing the best it can. And bit by bit, the world becomes a better place to live in.
I remind myself that this is one of the best times to be alive, ever. It’s an amazing world, and we are doing amazing things. Bit by bit by bit.
So do me a favour and try not to burst my bubble.
Are we good, or selfish, on balance?