I need to try this argument out, because I am being driven crazy by a pattern that has developed in my conversations with rational people.
The pattern is, when arguing about morality, to observe that I identify specific benefits to myself of caring for others. Those rewards (such as joy, a sense of purpose, and spiritual strength) are interpreted as evidence that I am simply being selfish like everyone else.
There are two points to be made here. The first is to assert the definition of selfishness. From OxfordDictionaries.com, we have:
lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure
In other words, to be selfish is to disregard the effects of our choices on others. When we are selfish, the survival and rights of others are of no consideration when we set out to acquire resources or satisfy our bliss. In fact, that lack of consideration is an important psychological element in preparing us to destroy others in the service of our self-interest.
The lie of selfishness is that acquisition of power and pleasure makes us better prepared to survive. Raw power can serve any purpose, but requires skill in the wielder. If we focus only on power, we never learn to channel it in acts of creation, because to create is to consume power. We are required either to share our power with those that have learned to create, or fall into the terrible abyss of acquiring resources through the destruction of the people that hold them. The latter course ultimately renders us powerless, because without people we have no means of converting the resources that we have accumulated into value.
The second point is that of the three benefits of caring for others, joy and purpose are entirely subjective. Only spiritual strength is a resource to overcome life’s challenges. But spiritual strength arises as a projection from those we serve. It is to assert “Yes, I want this person in the world.” That good will follows us around like a cloud, and pushes against the will of those that seek to harm us.
As that description makes clear, spiritual power is contingent upon our continued commitment to consider the well-being of those that affirm us. It is to assert reciprocally “Yes, I want this person in the world.” It is to surrender some of our spiritual power to them.
The proposition of “We” is that the individuals in mutually supportive communities enhance their odds of survival by distributing power. In that state, the selfish have no particular reason to target any particular individual, yet when we face difficulties we have the pool of distributed resources to draw upon. And when resources are plenty, our creative efforts are amplified by the inspiration of others.
Of course, there are no guarantees. What happens when the challenges facing the community overwhelm its resources? Who is going to survive? To the loving person, facing the loss of all that they hold most dear, the response is simply “Who would want to?”
The promise of religion, of course, is that surrendering the flesh under those circumstances opens the gates to a far better reality. The power we store in things is lost when we die. The power conserved in our spiritual relationships endures.
Why do we feel driven to believe that acting in our self-interest is selfishness? I think that rather the opposite is true: we have been so indoctrinated to believe that “greed is good” that we simply cannot accept that selfishness (the belief that only “I” have any meaning) is just a really stupid idea. Our self-interest is in nurturing a caring community. It is to submit the needs of the “I” to the “we.”