Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Saturday, May 26th, 2007

I used to get worked up into a lather when individualists (of the Ayn Rand, “Atlas Shrugged” variety) would proclaim that altruism is a fallacy because anything, no matter how selfless, is ultimately done with a degree of self-interest. The reason I’d get worked up was because rationally, it made a lot of sense. But somehow it felt wrong.

I tried to defend altruism logically. My argument went something like this: the fact that one person in the entirety of creation would act completely selflessly, like a mother choosing to die for her child, proves that altruism does in fact exist. This never rung true to my individualist counter parts, and the obvious counter-argument was always that the mother is simply dying out of self-interest to keep her kin alive. It was always hard for me to stomach this, but, hey, it was possible to consider that as well. Further, they would claim that the decision to become a parent could be construed as a selfish one because it was only out of self-interest to propagate their gene pool.

The whole argument seemed rooted in deeply faulty reasoning, which is why I have serious issues with individualists in general. However, I’d never been able to get past my frustrations in order to articulate an argument that made sense to them (and me). Something feeling wrong doesn’t really count when making an argument.

Enter the Dalai Lama. I’ve been reading “The Wisdom of Forgiveness” these last few days and pondering the principles of compassion and interconnectedness. I have always had a sense for the two. For as long as I can remember, I have been able to empathize with suffering, be it a poor person in need of food or, more recently, a rich person in need of guidance. And almost a decade ago I came to understand the deep and intangible ways in which everything, every little mundane thing, is connected to another. These insights, when pondered separately, led me down strange and unsustainable paths at times. It had never occurred to me that cultivating compassion (as method) begets an understanding of interconnectedness (as wisdom). The two are deeply linked to one another.

This approach towards understanding ourselves and our crucial role in the entirety of creation is most easily explained by the Dalai Lama as a form of enlightened self-interest. A world view that compels one to act for the betterment of the self because of a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, and the compassionate understanding that if one does well, so does everyone else. It is a beautifully simple precept that negates the principal argument against altruism because it acknowledges that yes, it is borne out of self-interest, but it is a self-interest that emanates from a desire to contribute to the whole. My best interest is in your best interest.

Coming to terms with this concept as an antidote to selfish individualism is not entirely devoid of ego, as in “Aha! I now have a counter-argument.” The key, I suspect, is to engage it with compassion and understanding that even the selfish individual has it at least halfway right from the beginning.


Further Reads:

“The Wisdom of Forgiveness”
The Dalai Lama and Victor Chan

Atlas Shrugged
Ayn Rand