Select Page

When I’m down to my last cigarette, and a stranger asks me for one, I’m going to deny him. I’m never going to make it all the way home without it. If I just got a new pack, absolutely, he can have one. I think that sort of sums up my feelings about selfishness. But I will explain it in more detail for those who require Deeper Thought.

First, selfishness is not an absolute evil. I am required to take care of myself because if I don’t, I can’t do anything for anyone else. If I give away all my food, I will starve, or, more likely, go into a diabetic coma. At that point, your tax dollars will go to saving my life, or I will die. Conservatives don’t like that, so it’s best that I reserve enough for myself that I can save their money.

That said, there comes a point where one has enough to get by. Some of us probably have far more than we need. I’ve never had much more than I need, but I’ve been lucky enough to have extra in my life. And I’ve been fortunate enough, from time to time, to be able to help others.

With money, it seems to me, there is a point at which one can have more than one can ever use. If I won $400,000,000 in the lottery, no one in my family, and none of my friends, would have a house payment anymore. That would be more money than I could ever need, and I recognize my ability to help those who have less. (And if you have more than $400,000,000 and we’re friends or family, why in the hell am I still paying rent??)

I completely understand why people want to make money. That’s the way our world has decided to run. It didn’t have to, you know. There have been civilizations that thrived without it. In our world, however, we will do quite nearly anything to get our hands on little pieces of green (usually) paper that allow us to get things we want. And the larger your collection of those little pieces of paper, the better people believe you to be. There are even those who believe the myth that you have worked harder, that you have done something greater than those who have a smaller collection, and you deserve that. Ancient Egyptians believed that about their Pharaohs. They were wrong. Sometimes, someone has; many people deserve their wealth. But it’s hardly earth shaking news to discover that’s not always the case.

I spent my life as a teacher. I’m not going to bother to explain that what I did was valuable to the world. I believe that to be self evident. But I was unable to collect a lot of pieces of green paper. This isn’t a complaint. I managed to live acceptably. I was paid well enough to eat, own a car, and have enough soda to get by. Most of all, I earned the right to believe that I made the world a better place. I’m an arrogant bastard, so that’s important to me.

But we all know of people who did nothing of any particular merit who have stacks of green paper well beyond any imaginable needs. And they insist that they must have more, and that I have to give it to them. So do you. And THAT is Unwarranted Selfishness. And that’s unacceptable in my mind.

Is it naive of me to think there ought to be a limit on how large one’s green stack is? I don’t have a clue what that limit should be, but there are people who spend their entire lives hoping to make rent, hoping to come up with the food to feed their children, hoping against hope that someday they can live in a nice place. At the same time there are people who have more than they can ever possibly need. That makes no sense to me.

I’ve seen Fox News criticize people who get government assistance. They suggested many of them don’t really need it. One of the stats they used was that 93% of them even had refrigerators. Jon Stewart quoted the stat, and added, “Those food chilling mother fuckers!” Why should we decide that some people aren’t suffering sufficiently for us to help them?

We help others not because they are suffering beyond the point that someone has, somewhat arbitrarily, decided is too much, but because we recognize ourselves in them. I wouldn’t want to live a life without food, shelter, clothing, and the other necessities. Neither would you. Neither would anyone else. Since I can imagine how I would feel without those things, I don’t want others to be without them, either.

We live in a Post Scarcity World. That sounds like an intimidating term to frighten those who are not economists, but it’s actually really simple. It means that we are now capable of producing enough for everyone to have what they need. The only reason – the ONLY reason – that some people suffer economically is that someone has decided they don’t deserve as much as someone else. Why don’t they deserve as much?

They don’t work hard enough? I know people who work 60, 70, and even 80 hours a week, and they are barely hanging on. You probably know people like that, too. Ah, but those people should go to school to get better jobs that pay them more. That’s a lovely thought. I’m a huge fan of school. On the other hand, I did go to school, and I worked long and hard for 40 years, and I don’t have much of anything. Yes, Fred, but you should have chosen a profession that pays better. That may be true. Let’s tell that to all teachers. Let’s tell it, also, to the people who work at Circle K, at McDonald’s, at the overpriced clothing store in the mall, or at Wal Mart. Tell it to custodians, garbage collectors, and delivery drivers. But here’s the thing: we need these folks, too. In fact, I need all of them much more than I need any CEO.

If we can produce what everyone needs, why shouldn’t everyone have what they need? The Puritan Work Ethic, or the idea that we are only good if we work hard, was valuable in its time. Hard work was essential for survival. It’s not, today. This isn’t to say no one needs to work on anything. Of course we do. It’s not only necessary in order to ensure the world keeps functioning, but it gives us a reason to live.

We live because there are still things we wish to accomplish. I, for example, still want to change the world. I want to move it just a little closer to being truly free. That means not only freedom from restrictions on one’s movements, but the freedom to choose. A large part of the freedom to choose comes from being aware of the choices available to you. That’s the function of education. You can’t choose to read To Kill a Mockingbird if you can’t read, or you’re unaware of its existence. But, Freedom will be the subject of another essay.

But, what we’re discussing so far is things that come in limited commodities. I don’t have an endless supply of money, or food, or cigarettes. I can’t give more than I have of those things. But, there are things where we all have a larger supply. It may not be infinite, but we can all give Kindness in larger quantities than we often do. The only limit to one’s Kindness is one’s mood, or one’s soul. The only limit to our Compassion is the limit we impose in order to maintain our own sanity.

Even if you disagree with everything I’ve written concerning the economy, (and I’m well aware many of you will call it liberal or socialist nonsense) I would hope we can agree that Kindness and Compassion need not be in short supply. If you don’t want to give others the means to live, perhaps you can at least give them your Kindness. Perhaps you can feel some Compassion for others. To reserve those things for yourself seems to me to be the height of Unwarranted Selfishness. They don’t deplete your stack of little green pieces of paper. And, if you know what you’re doing, it’s just possible it will increase your happiness, as well as the happiness of those who are receiving it.

If nothing else, can we agree that all lives are of equal value? Can we agree that human suffering is bad, and that Unwarranted Suffering is morally wrong? And, if we can agree on those things, can we finally agree that Unwarranted Selfishness is what Lincoln called tyranny? In the Lincoln – Douglas Debates he said something that is equally true now as it was then.

It is the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity, and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.

Abraham Lincoln

Let’s see what can be done about ending the tyrannical principle of Unwarranted Selfishness.