Well-Being and the Problem of Selfishness
In earlier blogs I’ve looked a the ideas of well-being as a scientifically measurable foundation, the idea of well-being as an objective base for a better life, and the idea of well-being and how it is subject to so may different aspects of personal situations. What I have discovered is that the idea of an objective and measurable basis for well-being might not be as cut-and-dry as at first it seems. There are many facets of humanity that interfere with, and muddy the waters of, any attempt to define and measure this elusive state. Culture and tradition, preferences and biases, historical prejudices, mysticism and superstition, all play a role in this definition of well-being, at least on the surface. Not the least of these is the idea of selfishness.
Selfishness, once upon a time a way to preserve oneself against hard times, and to promote the perpetuation of ones own genes, has now lost most of its usefulness in a daily basis, becoming a vestigial hangover from times when we depended upon our own skills to remain fed. The role selfishness plays now is one of self-serving consumerism, the need for collecting and storing food for later being replaced with an apparent need to collect and fill our lives with products.
This is especially apparent in The West, but is becoming more the case in China and India, as economic trends drag the people of these nations up out of poverty. One of the biggest challenges to the well-being of humanity farther unto the 21st century is strangely enough a boon for these countries, and that is the relative affordability of automobiles for these countries’ citizens. In India in particular, recent developments in car manufacture, coupled with a tendency of stronger individual economic situations, means that almost half of Indian people will be able to afford a car in the near future. These cars are small and use very little petrol, but if half of the population of 1.2 billion people suddenly are pouring CO2 into the atmosphere, we see that the amount of greenhouse gasses being pumped into out atmosphere will skyrocket at an alarming rate. In China, with a population of 1.4 billion people, we may see the very same trend. What this could mean is that there are an extra 1+ billion cars on the road in Asia alone. And these people will demand that they are able to buy these vehicles, because who are we in the west to stop them? We’ve all had cars for decades, and now it’s their turn to have a slice of this pie.
This could be defined as selfishness, on two parts; One on the part of the Indian or Chinese person demanding the right to a car; And two on the part of the western person telling the Indian or Chinese person how they have to live and denying them this “right”. What is the motivating factor here, and how do we combat it?
Of course there are things like alternative energy, fuel efficiencies, public transport availability, government sanctions etc that could sway the trend toward using more fossil fuels, but these are unlikely to slow this trend substantially. And this is by no means the only challenge we face if we want all people to live above the level of mere existence. As the standard of living increases in all population, the demands on food and other products will increase, and so too will the waste associated with this production. In many ways, an increased standard of living brings with it an increase in consumption, whereas when people are forced to live hand-to-mouth, nothing is wasted.
So what does this have to do with selfishness and well-being? Being well for most means not being sick, being able to eat and have shelter, and having our emotional and psychological needs met. But the natural selfishness we all feel will demand much more. From not offering up your seat to an elderly person on a train, to buying an extra car to make things more convenient for you. Each person is innately self-serving, and while this selfishness may be vestigial, it still drives and motivates us to keep earning and consuming.
Should it not, then, be seen as an aspect of well-being? If our self-preservation makes us each able to move forward with life, then it is an aspect of life without which well-being could not exist. We have to preserve ourselves, or we cease to exist. And in a state when our self-preservation needs are met and exceeded, we continue to carry this mindset with us and consume even more. What is subjective here is that psychologically people are unwilling to let go of their possessions because these are a sign that we are well. We have enough to go around, so we feel safer, more at ease, in our situation where everything is looked after. The level to which people cling to their belongings depends largely upon their attitudes toward society and altruism, and can vary from person to person, but we all feel it to some degree.
In order to achieve the kind of universal well-being I am proposing, wealth must be redistributed. The very, very rich need to be taxed at a rate proportionate to their earnings, and the very poor need to be bolstered up. This is more difficult than it seems, with the libertarian spirit of “Everything I own comes from hard work, you should work harder” being so prevalent among the upper echelons of wealth.nobody is willing to part with much, and it seems, with only a few exceptions, that the richer you are, the less likely you are to spread your wealth.
If wealth were redistributed, if taxation were fairer, if we truly cared about the downtrodden and those for whom the society has failed, then we move closer to what I would see as a “well” society. Human selfishness, not a bad thing in essence but bad in extremes, is a barrier to this well-being, and must be addressed in order to achieve a more equitable society.