Why selfish people do good things

The selfish person in question here being myself (who else? What, you thought I was going to obsess over someone else for a change?). Really, the point of this post is to draw attention to a phenomenon that is actually exceedingly common but which never seems to be discussed in polite society – enlightened self-interest. A number of times in the last few years, I’ve been stuck in a supermarket queue behind an old lady who holds up the entire queue by entering into pointless social chit-chat with the shop assistant. This is, naturally,  quite annoying, but whilst silently fuming  I usually find my conscience telling me that, of course, this old lady probably talks to shop assistants because she has no-one else to talk to. I say probably because the elderly can be weird, and I think mentally some of them are still living in a 1950s world where you could yap away to a shopkeeper all day and no-one would mind, but let’s assume that’s the reason.

And it’s at that point that I always think – “I’d gladly pay extra tax to build a social centre where this old lady could go and talk bollocks with other old ladies, so that she wouldn’t feel the need to do it in shops and I could get my shopping done more quickly.” And that, my friends, is enlightened self-interest. It’s for my benefit, but it benefits others as well. Similarly, my thoughts on passing a particularly smelly homeless guy recently were along the lines of “to avoid having to inhale this vile foetor, I’d gladly pay for this guy to be provided with soap and a shower.” Of course, politicians would rather commit hari-kiri with a blunt spoon than actually increase income tax or spend it on obvious things like, you know, the needy, rather than spunking it up the wall on saving banks that everyone hates anyway. Besides being bastards, they are like this because they think that tax rises are unpopular and will lose them votes.

Whilst this is true, the main reason for this is that, historically, politicians who have tried to sell taxing and spending have tried to sell it like they were impersonating Jesus. Lots of moral fervour, lots of talk about the hard-pressed working classes, or hard-working families or whoever is thought to deserve our support. Of course, this itself is at root an appeal to self-interest – the self-interest of those who are going to benefit from the spending. Unfortunately, we no longer live in a society where the majority are simply and unarguably poor people, so there aren’t the votes in promising to spend money on the poor any more.

How much better would this work if politicians, who are always accused of cynicism, were actually prepared to drop the shining white robes and haloes and actually openly appeal to the self-interest of the majority. “For no more than X pounds from the average taxpayer, we will be able to remove the embarrassment of encounters with smelly beggars, talkative pensioners and inarticulate hoodies. Think of how much better your life will be!” The same tactic could easily be applied by charities, who currently usually rely on blatant emotional manipulation and appeals to sympathy. “See this little African kid with big sad eyes? Well, forget the big sad eyes, you know damn well that if his Mum thinks his odds of a decent life are better off here than in Africa, he’ll be on his way in the next shipping container with half his village. Stump up some cash and keep them all at home.”

This seems shockingly at odds with a lot of our moral values, but then a lot of our moral values are rather at odds with who we actually are. I don’t deny the existence of genuine altruism. I’ve donated money to charity myself based on nothing more than sympathy for people in a desperate situation. However, most of the time we are basically driven by selfish desires and it strikes me that in pretending that at heart we all aspire to be saints, our morality is often hypocritical and unhelpful. If we were prepared to admit our less noble motivations, we might find it easier to achieve our nobler goals.

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