Self-Seeking Versus Unselfishness

“The world is so full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking. So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage.”

 

Dale Carnegie wrote that line in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The line comes right after he describes a day where he encountered two life insurance salesmen. The first mentioned a new life insurance option, but because he didn’t have much information, didn’t press the sale and make much of an effort. The second salesman also didn’t have much information, but showed a lot of enthusiasm, encouraged setting up an additional appointment with someone from the company who knew more, and offered to help handle some of the paperwork to get the sign up process started more quickly. The second salesman got the sale.

 

When I read the quote in isolation I thought about people hording supplies during our current social distancing efforts to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. I thought about how tempting it can be to try to make a quick buck, even if the couple hundred dollars the hoarders might make by selling marked-up toilet paper won’t really make much of a difference in the lives of most of them. I also thought about a conversation from the Ezra Klein Show, where Klein, the host, interviewed Jane McAlevey, a union organizer who discussed the way that employees could instinctive tell if you actually care about them when you show up on the job-site, or if you look down on them and think that they are not as smart and deserving as you think of yourself. To live in a world that doesn’t price gouge during a crisis, and to be effective in working with other people requires an unselfishness that recognizes that you are not better than other people, no matter what your degree, your bank account, or the social status of your job says. Being truly unselfish means that you view everyone as having at least the capacity for having the virtues that you prize in yourself, and being willing to help them express those virtues.

 

There is a difference between the way I thought about unselfishness when reading the quote in isolation versus the way that Carnegie thought while writing the quote in his book. For Carnegie, the idea is that you can use your selfish impulses and personal desires to improve the lives of others, at least if you can step into the other person’s shoes, see what they need, and fulfill that need in a way that is deserving of compensation on your end. It is a capitalistic view of selflessness, and while it is not a terrible thing on its own, it requires the possibility for Pareto efficiency, for the world to be in a state where an action can be taken that would improve the world for both you and everyone else. It requires that our actions have only positive externalities. This is the view the inspired the entire book How Stella Saved the Farm, in which a brave sheep steps us to lead a farm and creates prosperity for everyone working on and depending on the farm through an embrace of good management in a capitalistic system.

 

The other view of selflessness is a much more social form. It doesn’t ask if there is a Pareto efficiency that can be met, but instead asks if our goals and desires are really necessary. It asks if the resources we have can be better used by people who are in need. It is part of a bigger question of whether we can do things that will improve the lives of not just us and the person in front of us, but of the entire society.

 

I don’t think that either view is necessarily wrong, but I do think that both views can easily be overstretched. Thinking of selflessness in purely the context of capitalism, as Carnegie was and as is presented in How Stella Saved the Farm can be good, but it can also create a system where our core societal value is what you contribute and produce in an economic sense. As we are not Homo Economicus, this can put many of us who are not great market thinkers and are not inspired business efficiency and productivity in a tough place where we are viewed as undeserving.

 

The second view sees us as valuable and deserving simply by being human beings, but it does raise question about how we reach economic development. An argument can be made that big business and technological development are crucial for improving living standards and actually improving lives more than just social do-gooding. Indeed, Tyler Cowen has made these arguments, and while I’m not sure he fully considers how damaging many of the negative externalities can be, I think he is broadly correct.

 

In the end, I fall back on what both perspectives have in common, which is captured in another line from Carnegie’s book just a few sentences later than the line that opened this post, “If out of reading this book you get just on thing – an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle – if you get that one thing out of this book, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.” I would switch the final word career to life, but the idea is there. Thinking about the world and others from other people’s perspectives is crucial for avoiding selfishness and for making a positive impact on the world. Whether you chose to do so through business and capitalism, through direct work with those who need it the most, or a combination of both approaches, you must first be able to see beyond your own wants and desires and understand the way that others see the world.

Considering the Median Centrist Voter

This morning I was listening to a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show and Klein said something interesting in how we think about our politics. Our institutions have their own memories, which are formed and created often by the memories and available histories of the institutions members. In politics today, we have an institutional memory of a time roughly after World War II where a lot seemed to be accomplished and we seemed to be less polarized. This view is our baseline for evaluating political function (or dysfunction) and it includes an idea of a rational moderate voter with both parties trying to adjust their platforms to capture a greater marginal share of this undecided moderate electorate.

 

This institutional memory (whether it is correct/accurate or not) is not what we see in our political system today. We act as if it should be the norm, but it is long gone and we are left with complaints about the loss of this ideal system. Tyler Cowen writes the following about our electorate and perceptions of our electoral system in his book The Complacent Class,

 

“Core government programs are still backed by most voters, but political change at the margins seems to result from complex battles among lobbies, interest groups, financiers, political maneuvering, and who can win public relations campaigns fought in the media. The ideal of the perfectly centrist voter as the ultimate adjudicating force just doesn’t appear that relevant for thinking about a lot of those changes we do observe.”

 

I’m not sure why we still live in a world where we believe that politics should operate in the way we believe it operated almost 70 years ago. Popular media and civics classes present government as ideally functioning in a way that compromises and attempts to sway marginal centrist voters who have not made up their mind. These votes don’t exist, and likely never existed. Better models should be presented and discussed so that we can better evaluate our government and what is or is not taking place within our institutions. By having more honest and open conversations, we can better address the role that identity and policy play in politics (hint: identity is all there is, policy is just a rationalization). Median and moderate voters who have not made up their mind don’t exist in the way we think they used to. They might exist, but more as individuals with identities pulling them in different directions, not as rational voters who are trying to make a decision based on policy outcomes and preferences.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.”

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high-minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about the children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described, and this spreads throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to that likely account for a large portion of why we do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.

 

This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.

 

This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”

 

In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.

 

The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self?

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about these children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries. None of these reasons are self-interested, but the final decision made by the company may be more self-interested than altruistic or even necessary.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described and this passes along throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to, without expressing directly, that likely account for a large portion of the reason for us to do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

Value as Human Being

Ezra Klein has had a few interesting conversations on his podcast recently that hit at the work we do and where we find value in our society today. On my way into work this morning, I was listening to an interview that Klein recorded with David Brooks. At one point Klein and Brooks discussed the shortcomings of our nation’s meritocracy, our system where the people who achieve the most, who become the most capable, and who have the right credentials and education are able to rise to the top. We align ourselves with people who are successful and claim that we are deserving of our success because we have put in the time to get an education and build the right experience to lead to where we are at now. Meritocracy is well aligned with our system of capitalism and ideally works to reveal who is worthy and deserving of praise and who is not.

 

What meritocracy misses, David Brooks argued in his interview, is any sense of moral or spiritual fulfillment. Meritocracy puts us in a position where we only find value in ourselves and others based on our achievements and outcomes. It narrows the scope of what is possible for us and our family. Any decision that does not clearly lead to a better economic position, a better career, and higher status is abandoned. Any friendships that can’t help us climb the social ladder or give us some future benefit are left behind. Praise and love are only given based on whether someone is working, what type of car they purchase, and what bumper sticker is on the back of the car. This works well with capitalism, but it doesn’t seem to work well in a cooperative society that depends on trust and love.

 

The biggest downfall of the system of meritocracy is that at any given time, our level of merit or success is not a permanent fixed quality. Success and status change. Basing our life and value on either will always lead to competition, frustration, and fear. “With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. We cannot put all of our faith in our accomplishments because we will find that we cannot be fulfilled with just our work and with just what we accomplish. If we look at ourselves and others as only being valuable and worthy based on the ideas in our meritocracy, we will look for things to critique all around us and we will fail to build meaningful connections in our lives.

 

Brooks argues that relationships are what give life meaning and make us feel fulfilled. If we can find a way to base our value as a human being on the fact that we are a human being who is capable of connecting with others in a social bond, then we can build more permanence into who we are and what we do. We can be more accepting of our failures and more honest about our success. Rather than defining us directly, our success can be something we share with those around us and something we use to help improve the lives of those around us. Our failures will no longer destroy our value as a person, and we can better accept and learn from our shortcomings, giving us a chance to be vulnerable and accept the support of those around us.

Work and Identity

On a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, Klein interviewed two journalists to talk about the central role that our work now plays in our lives. For many people, work is becoming increasingly important as a way to define oneself and as a way to give life meaning. I have seen reports and experienced in my own life that we have fewer close friends, fewer social groups, and fewer organizations outside of work that we participate with. The work we do ends up taking on more importance and more space in our lives as our lives outside work becomes less fulfilling.

 

One of the big problems we can face in this type of world is with the way we value ourselves. Having a kick-ass job ends up being the determining factor as to whether we are meaningful and valuable, and it can end up putting us in a place where we make bad decisions and can’t enjoy who we are without achieving success in work. Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy wrote about what happens when how we value ourselves as a person is connected to our work, “The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, admitting that we might have messed up.”

 

Our egos want us to have great jobs and be impressive to everyone around us. When this becomes the only thing that gives us meaning and determines our value, we can’t take chances because a failure reflects onto us. Rather than allowing a failure to be an attempt at something new, the result of multiple factors, and driven by an unpredictable economic climate, failure is viewed almost as a moral shortcoming on our part. Our ego can be so fearful of failure that it drives us to bad decisions and drives us away from taking responsibility for our actions when failure occurs. Rather than learning, we deflect, and try to position ourselves as a victim. As a society we will need to move to a place where our work is still important, but where we have fulfilling lives outside of work. Existing under this pressure where we define ourselves by the work we do will take away from the richness of life and shut out people who may not be greatly positioned to contribute economically, but still have value by virtue of being human beings and can connect with us and others in meaningful ways that will help us find fulfillment as a society. We can still work hard, but we should find additional ways to value ourselves and our time.

How a Lack of Dialogue has Built Resentment

I frequently listen to the Ezra Klein Show, and the host, Ezra Klein, has been working through an idea since his show launched in February of 2016. What Klein has recognized, questioned his guests about, and worked to better understand is where white backlash originates in our country and how white perception of race is shaped. Klein argues, and I think correctly, that the conversation around race in some way points to white people as active villains in a way that most white people do not understand. When we call out white people and the racists outcomes of our society, organizations, and our communities, there is a tendency for white people to become defensive and to push back against our observations.

 

This tendency is described well by President Barack Obama in a quote included in Michael Tesler’s book, Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. President Obama made a speech in Philadelphia in March of 2008 and in his speech he said,

 

“Most working and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. … So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves have never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company, but they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.”

 

Klein in his podcast has recognized the way in which middle class white American’s, particularly those without a college degree, have faced more challenges in our society compared to others in recent decades. Their job outlooks do not look as good as they once did, and there is a sense that their values, particularly if they are Christian, are becoming less valuable or even a liability in our country. Combine that with the ideas laid out by President Obama in his speech and you end up with a country and society that is sending a message about white people’s responsibility in racial injustices that does not match what seems to be the reality experienced by many white people. Our push engenders a backlash, which only makes our claims seem more vilifying, creating a dangerous cycle. In a recent interview for the podcast, Conversations with Tyler, Malcom Gladwell explained to Tyler Cowen how much he has seen this backlash shape our American history.

 

I find it vital to better understand the historical racial tensions and relations between white and black people in our country, and I want to share a message that pushes back on the white tendency to minimize racial problems or describe them as simply excuses by those who don’t succeed. At the same time, I worry that pushing a message into the faces of those who are themselves slipping back relative to their parent’s social and economic position, or relative to the social and economic position of groups they once found themselves ahead of, will only increase the backlash which prevents us from moving forward. A true dialogue about race relations and about the vulnerability that all American’s experience can help us overcome these challenges, but we need safe settings and conversations that are more deescalatory than inflamatory.

How We Argue – Talking Past Each Other

Senator Cory Booker discusses the state of national debate in politics in his book United and I think accurately describes an unfortunate reality of today’s political discourse. The arguments that we make today often don’t seem to be in alignment. Each side is arguing in a way that does not seem to actually address the point being made by the other side, and does not seem to be operating with the same set of facts, values, or baseline understandings. Booker writes,

“We often end up in national conversations that are akin to arguing about what  the temperature is in a room without looking at the thermostat. What we need is a collective call to the common good based upon indisputable facts and the broader aspirational ideals to which we all ascribe.”

Booker’s point is well intentioned and falls in a recent theme among books that I am currently reading and podcasts that I listen to regarding language, reason, argument, and understanding. Booker is absolutely correct that we are arguing without a baseline and without a common set of facts, but the challenge is that his final point rests on political decision making, and even for an individual, deciding what aspirational ideals should be ascribed to is a struggle.

Author Colin Wright’s new book, Becoming Who We Need to Be, looks at one of the problems with arguments today and how we end up talking past each other. We fail to develop a shared understanding of the world and issue at hand because we use language differently depending on our viewpoints. We apply labels (acronyms, descriptions, names) to elements of an issue or argument, and if those labels are not well defined or shared, we end up at a point where our argument is in some way unintelligible to someone who sees things differently.

I have also recently listened to a couple of podcasts on Julia Galef’s show, Rationally Speaking, where the ideas of self-interest, rationality, and decision making have been challenged and examined from very nuanced perspectives. It turns out that we are not so good at determining what is in our own best interest, and much worse at understanding how other people determine what is in their best interest.

Julia Galef was also interviewed herself on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show, and in the podcast Ezra and Julia discuss the problems that arise in our arguments. We are not open to the other side, and often shut out ideas that seem to be oppositional to ourselves or come from people we find disagreeable. This means that before we even begin an argument or debate, we are judging how aligned we are with the other person, and determining how much we should agree with them on any issue before we have even begun talking or listening.

I think Booker is correct that we are arguing without understanding what we are arguing about or what the baseline is, but trouble with how we use language, how we determine what is politically best for us or others, and how we rationalize what we and others believe make it politically challenging to ever decide what we should all ascribe to and how we could reach that goal. One solution would be an increased validity in political and knowledge institutions. A greater sense of support and acceptance of reports from academic institutions and politically neutral government agencies can help us be more aligned in our debates and discussions. This would require serious effort and commitment on the part of the agency or academic report to be seen as non-partisan, and it would also require the public to accept reports and findings that did not align with political ideals.

Horizons You Didn’t Know Existed

In his recent interview with Ezra Klein on the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen continually referred back to what he called “the status quo bias” which he defined as the preference to continue and default to do what we are already doing and comfortable with. Making changes in our routines, starting new businesses, introducing public policy, and even our every day thoughts fall into the trap of the status quo bias where we prefer what is familiar over what is new and different. Over the course of the interview, Cowen referred to an idea he suggested is the best possible way to overcome status quo bias, and it aligns with a quote I read from Colin Wright last year:

 

“Travel provides the chance to think, to work, to learn, to experience, to process, to spread one’s wings, to relax, to be pushed up against one’s limitations, to work every muscle in one’s body and mind, to feel uncomfortable and grow accustomed to the feeling. It’s the chance to see horizons you didn’t know existed, and to crest those horizons.”

 

Cowen discussed the importance of travel, at one point saying that he did not know a better way to gain new perspective and to push back against the status quo bias. In Wright’s book Come Back Frayed the same ideas are presented. The title of the book represents the stresses, fractures, and strains of travel, as your normally well woven world is shifted and pulled apart to be viewed from new perspectives.  Wright explains that travel makes you think and consider new possibilities and ways of life, and in his interview with Ezra Klein, Cowen expressed the same ideas. Seeing new cultures lets you see what is common among humanity, but more importantly, what is different and what could be applied in your own life to find new growth.