The Stupidity of Selfishness

I’m ready to rant. I suppose that my participation in the 60th Anniversary celebrations and commencement at the Adler School of Professional Psychology has crystallized my feelings about the current state of our nation and world.

This will definitely be a TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read”) entry if you’re the type of person put off by length. But try to bear with me.

Over the past week I’ve heard talks by a number of very insightful people (including Maria Hinojosa, from NPR, and Jane Nelson, who created the Positive Discipline parenting program). All of these speakers focused on the message of Alfred Adler and the importance of putting his values into practice in today’s world. These values form the basis of the Adler School’s mission. His signature concept, further elaborated by his colleague (and the Adler School’s founder) Rudolf Dreikurs, was Gemeinschaftsgefuehl, or social interest. Sometimes it’s put in the terms, “community-feeling.”

Our political campaigns in the United States over the past year have drawn increasingly sharp battle lines, and the media have appeared to portray the impression that they try their best to take a “fair” and “balanced” approach. Just last night I heard a discussion on the radio featuring participants from both the liberal and conservative sides, and they spent a half hour talking in circles about which presidential campaign has been lying worse than the other, and which has merely been practicing the time-honored art of political spin.


I’ve felt something building up inside over the past few weeks and feel like I need to let it out. I’ve already written a blog entry about social interest in general, but I’ve been feeling more and more outraged at the assumptions that people take for granted in their discussions of how to “fix” things in our country, or to “protect” the progress we have made. I know that the whole country has been tilting rightward since the days of Ronald Reagan, and that many of the arguments about what it takes to make things “better” in our country have simply incorporated many of those underlying assumptions unquestioningly. So let me start pointedly questioning them, using Adler’s concept of social interest as a lens.

First, you need to understand that Adler (and Rudolf Dreikurs) did not view social interest as simply a “nice,” worthy ideal. They saw it as the key to the survival of the human race. They saw it as the main thing that has allowed Homo sapiens to avoid the fate of Homo Neatherthalensis. In trying to understand the deeper significance of the Adlerian focus on gemeinschaftsgefuehl, it is helpful to be aware that Adler and Dreikurs lived through the horrors of World War I (in which Dreikurs was shot), and spent the next twenty years working to try to rebuild a functioning community in Vienna between the wars (only to see that progress reversed when the Nazis came into power). After Adler’s death, Dreikurs lived through the anxiety of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race (something that shaped our childhoods if we grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s).

These thinkers believed passionately that we must learn to treat each other as social and political equals, to cooperate with each other, and to look to the common good, if we are to survive. It’s not optional. As my Latin teacher Fr. Hren at Fenwick High School used to tell us about Latin word endings, “These are not fringe benefits or luxury items.”

Social interest means cooperation. It is the antithesis of power, privilege, dominance, fanaticism, inflexibility, and especially of competition in all its forms. Those ways of relating to each other crowd out social interest, causing people to fear, distrust, and resent each other.

I actually wonder if it’s not a coincidence that some of the greatest accomplishments of social equality in our time – the War on Poverty, civil rights laws, and others – sprang from a time in history when we all felt, at a gut level, the threat to our existence that came from World War II and the Cold War. And that our subsequent 30 years of collective amnesia about the need to work together as human beings happened because things got too comfortable for us. Someone should research that question.

Let me say it as clearly as I can. There is no room and no justification for aggression between people in a view of human relations based on social interest. None. Nor for just wars. (After all, my “just war” is probably the other guy’s “unprovoked aggression”). No room for territoriality. You can probably let go of your attachment to patriotism, at least as it’s usually practiced. Social interest also leaves little room for pride in your own particular ethnic, cultural, religious, or political group, if that pride comes from feeling that other groups are inferior. Dreikurs in particular believed that war is inherently immoral because it erodes our basic inclination to see all other people as our equals and to work with them for the betterment of all.

You see, Adler’s revolutionary concept was that social interest – a need to belong, fit in, and contribute to our social world – is what truly distinguishes human beings from animals, (and, for that matter, from bacteria and viruses). Our advantage does not come from our ability to use tools nor from our intelligence. Our intelligence, after all, is what has enabled us to develop the tools that can now obliterate our planet. In the Adlerian/Dreikursian view, you cannot be considered intelligent unless you have social interest to go along with it. Rather than measuring human accomplishments by cleverness or conquest, Adler and Dreikurs saw social usefulness as the measure of psychological and community health. In applying this yardstick to any human action, we need to ask, “Does this choice contribute to the common good in the long run, or does it lead to people being less connected, less trusting, less open, and less invested in the common good?”

Which brings me to a concept that has been floating around for the past 50 years or more. It was popularized by Ayn Rand (whose books seem to be especially appealing to adolescent thought processes), and seems to have taken firm hold (with a lot of help from the most highly privileged of the “one percent.”) That is the idea that there is such a thing as a “Virtue of Selfishness.” It echoes some similar concepts (I suppose you could call them “memes”) that have contributed a great deal of unhappiness to our world, in my opinion. One says “Greed is good.” Then there’s, “The free markets will take care of everything if we just let them operate without interference.” All of these memes say more or less the same thing: That worrying about other people holds us all back, because it drags us (be it as a society, as an economy, or a civilization) down to the “least common denominator.”

These assumptions lead directly to the belief that people in need are losers, and that people who accept assistance when things are tough are “unwilling to help themselves.” That attitude says that helping each other means “coddling the weak and unproductive.” Carried to its conclusion, this philosophy would claim that any attempt to regulate businesses to protect our fellow citizens from the excesses of the dog-eat-dog predatory capitalism of the past 100 years cannot be allowed because it might impede the success of those who are fortunate enough to be in a position to succeed. It also implies that their success is proof of their worthiness, while the difficulties suffered by the poor are proof of their unworthiness.

The principle of social interest, on the other hand, means that we must make sure that one person’s gains don’t come at the expense of another person or the community. We should not allow those with resources to have more of a voice, or more advantages in the social or economic world, than those with fewer resources. Those who would defend the “virtue of selfishness” tend to interpret this to mean that the alternative is “socialism,” in which “hard work is punished and wealth us taken from those who deserve it and given to those who don’t deserve it.” Social interest would say that no one deserves success or earns success. Rather, we depend on each other to succeed, and when some of us are left behind, the success of the others is a form of exploitation.

Which brings me to the reason for the title of this essay. The concept of social interest as an innate part of being human, and as the over-arching driver of human behavior, means that selfishness is not only not a virtue, it’s stupid. It is ultimately the worst way to achieve anything, because if an individual is profiting but not making a contribution to the common good in some way, he or she must be exploiting it. And in the long run, this is a self-defeating approach. Even if you were to look at the numbers the economists are so fond of using as the be-all and end-all of our national society’s health, you still find that when everyone prospers, those who prosper the most also continue to prosper, and the prosperity is more robust. Gross Domestic Product was highest, and unemployment was lowest, when taxes were set up so that those who were most successful shared a greater part of responsibility for the common good. It should be recognized that the common good was what allowed them to prosper, not what kept them from amassing even more. Income inequality, greed, rigging the system, and forcing everyone to pay for your own mistakes is not a very good way to endure success – whatever your business may be – over the long haul.

Putting it another way, we were told often during the 1990’s that the “markets” operate on some finely tuned balance of two motivating emotions: Greed and fear. That was supposed to explain all we needed to know. And if your field of view is narrow – for example, picking mutual funds for your 401(k) – the idea of greed and fear may be a useful guide. But as an explanation of human behavior, it falls woefully short. My contention is that both greed and fear are unnecessary when you know that you, as a worker – or your business, if you are a business owner – must participate in the give-and-take of social exchange. In adopting that view, you cease to view your workers as a cost, and cease to view your customers as resources to be exploited for profit. You see both employees and customers (as well as investors, and even those “job-killing” government regulators) as fellow participants in the community of work – the exchange of effort, resources, and benefits that drives our society. What goes around, comes around. When it doesn’t come around, markets crash and futures are made much less certain. It’s not only in a spiritual sense that the saying holds true, “What you do for the least of my brothers, you do unto me.” it’s an economic principle as well. Vibrant markets can’t exist when they become a matter of simply taking the money and running.

If we didn’t learn the stupidity of selfishness from the crash of 2008, then it appears we haven’t learned much.

Come to think of it, the One responsible for the quote above also talked about many more of these ideas, in fact quite a lot.  He was all about empathy and social interest. Because that’s what religious values do for humanity – they teach us to behave in a civilized manner toward each other. Social interest is a secular way of saying what religions have said for centuries. It’s getting people to abide by those teachings that’s always the challenge.

As a bumper sticker I saw yesterday put it, “God Bless the World. No Exceptions.”


Update, November 11, 2012 – This post has been updated to include the fact that Dreikurs and Adler both served in the Austrian military in World War I, and that Dreikurs was wounded in the war. I learned this from hearing Dreikurs’ daughter, Eva Dreikurs Ferguson, speak at the Adler School yesterday. She told of how, as a child, she felt the bullet still lodged in her father’s leg and asked him about it. She said he would not talk about it. She also emphasized the work that her father and Adler did after the war in Vienna, where conditions were even worse than in the United States during the Great Depression, and the basic fabric of society had been largely destroyed by the war. Her account helped add richness to my understanding of the roots of Adler’s and Dreikurs’ convictions about the importance of social interest. She also corrected the commonly held belief that her father was Adler’s student, telling us that he was actually a younger colleague and that they met during Dreikurs’ medical residency.

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