The definition of good and evil
is always a tricky one. After all, even if religion is used as a dogmatic guideline, many immoral acts could be performed on the basis of obeying the holy rules. What is right in one society might be wrong in another, what is good under certain circumstances might be unacceptable under others. Even when it comes to selfishness – a trait usually regarded as negative – the evaluation is not that simple.
Evolutionists believe that selfishness cannot be the core virtue of human beings. If it were, we probably would have never made it this far. In order to survive as a group under dire circumstances, the individual has to share and cooperate. Altruism is the key which is why there might be a seed of goodness within all of us planted by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. Nevertheless, in a group of cooperators there is always room for someone who feeds on the system like a parasite. Too many of these “parasites” and the group will fail which is why selfishness will never play the most dominant role – but might prevail after all.
However, selfishness can be a good and important trait as nature shows us. If a school of fish is attacked by a predator, every single fish will try to swim to the center of the school for selfish reasons in order to escape the more dangerous rim of the group. In this case, looking for their own advantage benefits the group since the high density of fish will make it harder for the predator to single out and chase an individual, reducing the risk of being caught for all individuals. Instead, the large body of fish can be confusing. The same might be true for herbivores which live in large groups. If zebras stand close to each other in order to avoid being at the periphery their patterns might become indistinguishable from one another to the eyes of the predators, making it harder for them to launch a successful attack.
The question now is:
Are there examples of human behavior that seem very selfish but which are in fact the opposite? I am not talking about indirect fitness or the preservation of related genes. I mean actions that will affect the individual directly. So far, I could think of two examples:
“I hope my parents will die before me!” Doesn’t that just sound terrible? Why would you want your parents to die? Now, let’s step back for a moment. It is true that this statement is selfish since it indicates that one would rather see their parents die than die before them. However, seeing your parents die is normal whereas burying your child is not. In fact, going through the death of your child might be the worst thing that could happen to a human being. So, hoping that they will die before their children is a statement of sympathy since you do not want them to go through this kind of never ending pain. Instead, you’ll carry the burden of burying someone you love – and transform a selfish statement into true selflessness.
Imagine you and your partner are kidnapped. You are presented with a choice: One of you has to die, the other one will be released. What is the more selfless choice? I argue that it is to choose life yourself. Sounds horribly selfish, doesn’t it? Now, my definition of a partner is a person that you have come to love so dearly that their well-being matters more to you than your own. If this person is taken away from you by force you will suffer from this loss for the rest of your life. There are many people out there who have lost the person they love – and never accepted another partner ever again in bitter memory of their loss. So, if I choose to be killed to save my partner – the option that usually would be considered selfless – I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore since I was dead. My partner, however, would have to live in misery for the rest of her life with that painful loss. Therefore, I don’t see how this option is more selfless. Instead, if I survive she would not have to go through this ordeal and would rather be released. Again, the pain would be mine and the choice therefore selfless.
Now, selfish acts that are on second thought selfless do not have to involve death of course, but those were the two first examples that came to my mind. What do you think? Do you know of any such examples? Do you agree with my reasoning?