When I was studying at university, I wanted to become a part of something that would make the world a better place. I didn't want to be yet another cog in a corporate profit-earning machine. This is why I have chosen Environmental Biology as my bachelor's degree and have later chosen Environmental Informatics as masters degree. I wanted to be as altruistic as possible and I despised self-interested people. I was also a practicing Christian. However, since then, I gained more insight into how capitalist economic system actually works and realised that self-interest can be good, depending on the circumstances. Moreover, I am still a Christian and I don't see any conflicts between my believe that selfishness can be good and my Christian beliefs.
What I realise now is that seeing selfishness in purely negative light is what used to hold me back in life. For way too long I used to live paycheck to paycheck just because there were certain well-paid jobs that I would refuse to do or well-paying organisations that I would refuse to work for. This would be simply because I wouldn't perceive these jobs and organisations as pro-actively ethical, even though their existence has directly or indirectly benefited wider society in some way. These days, my situation is totally opposite and I am satisfied with what I earn as a software developer. What prompted me to write this article is the fact that there are still many people out there who have enough unique transferrable skills to earn good money, but who instead use their talents in a career that doesn't provide much in terms of material reward. Even though many of these people are not satisfied with their situation due to financial struggle, their perception of being part of something pro-actively ethical prevents them from doing anything to improve it.
I have met a number of people who were highly educated to a bachelor's degree level or beyond and were actually using their hard-earned skills in their jobs, but were being paid less than people in some low-skill positions were. It was painful to look at people who would not be able to afford a car, even though they would have to endure a long commute without one. I felt really sorry for people who were fully capable of being well-paid engineers, software developers or analysts only if they would not feel guilty about leaving an employer within environmental, social care or some other similar sector, even though their private life was a constant struggle. Therefore, the main goal of this article is to persuade people not to feel bad about fulfilling your own best interests.
When selfishness is ethical
By my personal definition, selfishness is ethical when you follow your best interest while trying your best not to prevent others from following theirs. Doing something against someone else's best interests is only permitted when you have no choice but protect your best interests by doing so. This is similar to the fact that hitting people is not acceptable, but very few would argue that this action wouldn't be acceptable in self-defense situation. The whole capitalist system was designed around these fundamental principles.
Unethical selfishness, on the other hand, is what is commonly associated with the word "selfishness". This is when someone follows his or her best interest (or simply uncontrolled appetites) no matter what. If this would inconvenience other people, so be it. Examples of this would include criminals, dishonest politicians, certain categories of sales people, social security benefit cheats etc..
As you can see, there are different categories of selfishness and the word doesn't have to have a negative connotation. There are types of selfishness that we, as ethical human beings, should strife to eliminate. However, there is nothing wrong with being selfish in an ethical manner without hurting others.
Perceived altruism often is an example of unethical selfishness
Since I was a university student, the subject of environmentalism remains close to my heart. I used to perceive pretty much all of environmental activism as ultimate examples of selfless altruism. After all, the activists spend their own time for their causes and sometimes even risk imprisonment or even death. What can be more altruistic than that? However, I gradually started to realise that quite often, these activists do much more harm then good overall.
I am not arguing against environmental activism per se. When you see a black soot slowly accumulating on the windows and doors of your house, of course campaigning for tougher pollution regulations would be a great act that you could do. Likewise, when you see many plastic bags being thrown all around the countryside or when you see animals who die by being trapped in or chocking on plastic bags, in my eyes, you would be a hero if you would organise a campaign to restrict the use of plastic bags. This is why I support the law in Britain that requires all large retailers to charge for plastic bags, so people are encouraged to use less of them. However, there are types of environmental activism that are anything but good and altruistic.
Quite often, a group of environmental activists would break onto some industrial site, such as a power plant or a fracking field, and disrupt its operations for as long as it would take for authorities to remove them. More often than not, such acts are motivated by the desire to feel good about "saving the planet" with only a partial knowledge of the environment situation and ignorance of the bigger picture, which, as well as environmental aspects, also includes the ignored subject of economics. In the long term, such actions do very little to disrupt the targeted industry. However, they do cause damage in terms of lost wages for the workers who were prevented from doing their jobs, costs of decreased productivity, additional security costs and sometimes even blackouts.
Another good example of unethical selfishness that masks itself as a selfless altruism is various types of road safety campaigns. One example of such campaigns is 20 is plenty for us. This campaign aims at introducing 20 miles per hour speed limits everywhere in urban areas and slowing traffic down by other measures, such as changing the timing on traffic lights, so the drivers are forced to stop more often. Of course, people behind the campaign publically justify it as a measure to reduce the pollution and improve the road safety. And indeed there are many road safety campaigners with hearts in the right place who are genuinely concerned about road safety or who are motivated by the desire to do something following deaths or injuries of close ones in the road traffic accidents. However, after reading many posts on various road safety related blogs and forums, I came to conclusion that a large number of the campaigners are motivated by hatred for drivers more than anything else.
Road safety campaigns like this is the reason why it now takes longer to drive through London than it used to get through the city on a horseback. This kind of campaigns make both pollution levels and road safety worse. I accept that, as "20 is plenty for us" campaigners argue, a car traveling at 20 miles per hour may generate less pollution than a car traveling at a higher speed. However, this theory only considers the effect of individual cars. When you start slowing traffic down on a large scale, the result is near-permanent gridlocks, which cause more cars to stay on the road for longer, resulting in increased levels of pollution. Strong speed restrictions and traffic-slowing measures may result in lower road casualties (although those often occur due to drivers not sticking to speed limits and not because the speed limits are higher). However, these measures are absolutely guaranteed to make many drivers frustrated and is probably going to result in higher number of road rage incidents. If your journey time has suddenly doubled and if this was caused by the decision of a local authority to spend your tax money on the things that would make your life more miserable, you have absolutely every right to be angry.
Therefore, road safety campaigns often are not examples of altruism that they are presented as. Campaigning hard to make a large segment of society miserable simply because you see them as morally inferior to yourself for choosing a particular mode of personal transport that you don't approve is an example of very unethical selfishness.
There is really not such thing as making the world a better place
Many people will find this statement controversial. However, the reality is that it would be impossible to make the world a better place for everyone, simply because different people have different needs and interest, some of which are in conflict with other people's.
This is precisely why different political parties in a developed democratic countries are preferred by different demographic groups within a country. In Britain, for example, the main two political parties are Labour and Conservatives. Both of these parties change their policies from time to time, so their electorate changes as well. However, at the time of writing, Labour voters tend to be the people from lower strata of the socio-economic hierarchy. The reason for this is because the party campaigns for increase of taxes for the middle class and more social security benefits for the poor. Therefore, people with little technical skills or the unemployed, many of whom believe that they have been dealt a bad hand in life, vote for Labour to get their needs met at the expense of more fortunate members of the society.
Conservative Party is exactly the opposite. They stand for lower taxes for the professionals and lower availability of social security benefits for everyone. As many people within the middle class see UK as a country where anyone who is willing to work can achieve good standards of living, they aren't prepared to pay more in taxes for projects that would not benefit their demographic in any way. This is why middle class tends to vote for Conservatives.
Whether you are on the left or the right of political spectrum, when you are doing something that you genuinely believe is going to make the world a better place, what it will actually do is make things better for some people and make things worse for the others. So, if someone asks you if you want to make the world a better place, you can ask them for whom exactly would they want to make the world better.
Guilt is used to get people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise
In free market economy, what you earn is determined by the need for what you do, your ability to do it and how difficult it is to replace you. However, there are people out there, of whom I used to be one, who perform in-demand jobs that require advanced qualifications, perform their duties well, but still get paid very little for doing so. This includes, for example, many people within environmental and social care sectors.
Reasons for this vary. If you do a job that requires an advanced specialist degree and do it well, you are already meeting two out of three criteria for a high pay: your ability to do it and how difficult it is to replace you. It could be that you are not meeting the third criterion: the need for what you do. However, many people on low pay actually do perform in-demand jobs. For example, I used to work as an analyst on flood defense projects in 2012, the year when entire Britain got heavily flooded, while earning less than a warehouse operator. It took me some time to figure out that the reason why this situation existed was guilt conditioning.
Guild is very powerful emotions and, based on my first-hand experience of environmental industry and related university education, guilt conditioning is often used there to get talented people to perform certain jobs, even when doing so would place them into economic disadvantage. While I have been at university, I have seen many examples of lecturers deliberately triggering the sense of guilt in students. For example, on one occasion a lecturer asked the audience whether they think that a life of a person in Bangladesh is worth the same as a life of a person in Britain. After everyone in the audience agreed that both lives have an equal value, the lecturer said that if we really believe so, each one of us should commit suicide, because the choices that we are making in Britain directly result in deaths of people in Bangladesh.
When I graduated and started my career within environmental sector, the constant examples of guilt conditioning continued. For example, the main professional organisation that many environmental engineers from our company joined was Chartered Institute of Water Environmental Management (CIWEM). Unlike other professional body, the organisation is highly moralistic. Although other chartered institutes also require adherence to ethical standards from its members, those are usually limited to operating within the law and doing your job to the best of your ability. The key difference of CIWEM is that both of its website and its subscription magazines feature articles that were designed to cause readers to feel the guilt. For example, there was an article written by a seniour director of Environment Agency where she was complaining how bad it is for environment that her own new born child required an excessive amount of resources to survive!
Most of students trust their professors and most young graduates would trust the information provided by reputable professional bodies. This is why, after receiving guilt-inducing messages from year to year, they start to believe that, even while they experience economic hardship, leaving their industry sector would make them evil. However, the fact is that organisations like CIWEM are ran by seniour leaders from industry and the academia, most of whom are actually paid very well. I am not suggesting that there is a conspiracy, but the fact is that they do need to attract highly educated people to work for them, while sufficient pay is not always available.
A great book titled The Skeptical Environmentalist has helped me a lot to erode my own feeling of guilt by radically shifting my views on the real state of the environment. It was written by Bjorn Lomborg, a former Greenpeace activist who changed his views after studying economics and having countless conversations with experts outside the environmentalist movement. I would definitely recommend it as a food for thought to anyone who works in environmental sector and is not satisfied with the reward that they receive.
Every business operating legally has positive externalities
Externalities is a term very familiar to environmentalists and economists. This refers to any causes of a particular activity that are purely external and don't affect parties that are involved in the activity. Often, the term has a negative connotation. For example, a pollution released by an industrial complex may not result in any costs to the business running the plant; however it may cause an acid rain that poisons a watercourse several miles away.
However, externalities can also be positive. Any business that operates legally has those. The main type of those is taxes. Every company is legally obliged to pay taxes on profit, wages of its employees, sales that it makes and various other legal and administrative activities.
The other positive externalities are generated by those companies that base their business model on providing free products and services. Even those companies that pro-actively try to minimise their corporation tax liability (even though they still have many other unavoidable taxes to pay) often provide more than their fair share of highly useful services. Google is one of the most notorious examples.
Another important positive externality within free market economy is technological progress. Things do get better because there are businesses that compete with each other by providing the best possible products and services at the lowest possible cost.
So, even if you wouldn't work for an organisation within pro-actively ethical sector, you would still contribute towards helping the society, as long as you perform your job to the best of your ability. Having said that, there are still perfectly legal businesses out there that I still wouldn't work for. Tobacco companies, for example, base their entire business model on getting people addicted while providing nothing whatsoever useful in return. They are nothing more than legalised drug dealers. Also, I am on the fence about insurance industry, especially motor insurance, due to perceived cartel-like behaviour of the companies within it and what sometimes seems to be an unfair discrimination based on a postcode. If I would be looking for a job or a project opportunities and would be presented with one from within the motor insurance industry, I would have to do some research before I would be able to either accept or decline it.
Helping yourself by helping others
The beauty of ethical capitalism is that by being more helpful to more people, you helping yourself more. This is why the best-earning companies, like Microsoft and Google, are the ones that have provided great services to people all over the world. Thanks to Microsoft, virtually every home is equipped with an affordable personal computer. Thanks to Google, you can get any information that you need within seconds absolutely free of charge, no matter where you are.
The same applies to the personal progress. In any reputable company, if you chose to perform those tasks that require advanced skills and do so to the best of your ability, you are pretty much guaranteed to become a good earner and progress fast in your career. In the world of business, you receive your personal reward in proportion to what value you provide to the business.
However, helping the society while helping yourself doesn't stop there. The reason why, in the developed world, we have so many freedoms and rights and we are relatively wealthy is due to a history of people fighting for their best interests. When you bring faulty goods back to the shop that sold them, you contribute towards companies producing better goods that don't easily break and governments improving consumer protection laws. The reason why most of us work around only 8 hours per day is because in the past people would gather together to perform industrial actions in order to assert their best interests. These days, companies within IT sector tend to give you great perks or generous pay packages, because many talented professionals are prepared to apply their freedom to move into different job if they are not fully satisfied with their current position.
Based on this, I can confidently say that the world doesn't necessarily become worse when people act selfishly. Asserting own interest often does result in situation getting better not only for yourself, but also for others. By being strong-minded and assertive, sometimes you are helping those who are shy or otherwise cannot help themselves.
Roman soldier metaphor
To finish this article, I will leave you with a metaphor of a Roman soldier. In the ancient Rome, soldiers were trained to fight in tight formations. This implies that, as a soldier on a battlefield, you may see that a neighbouring formation is getting completely obliterated by the enemy. Of course, you would want to help in such situation. After all, there are you friends in that formation. However, the best decision that you can take in this situation is to stay put. If you run to the rescue of your comrades, you will break your own formation, making it more likely for it to be annihilated also. You have to deal with any enemies within your reaching distance first and completely eliminate the most immediate threat before you can help your comrades nearby.
The same applies to the modern adult life. There are many things in the world that don't function the way they should. Many people still live in an extreme poverty and, in some places, children have no access to clean water or sufficient food. It would be great to resolve these issues, but almost everyone has more urgent issues that need to be resolved first. It is absolutely impossible for one person to resolve all the worlds problems. You would be a really bad parent if you would go to Africa to help the starving children while your own children are neglected. You are not committing a good deed if you donate large sums of money to homeless people that you don't know while a person that you do know is struggling financially. You would not be a good spouce if, instead of taking an opportunity to accumulate sufficient wealth to build a family, you spend your young years volunteering full time. You would be in position to make much greater impact performing charitable deeds once you've got your own life in order. This is why Bill Gates became a large-scale philanthropist only after becoming a billionaire.
Even Jesus, while advocating helping the poor, spoke about concentrating on your neighbour, which he defined as any person that needs help that is within close vicinity to you. That's what he was talking about in the parable of good Samaritan. So, be a good steward of your resources. Address the needs of yourself and your close ones first instead of mindlessly donating money to charities that you know very little about in order to feel good about yourself and virtue-signal to others. That's narcissism, not altruism.
Written by Fiodar Sazanavets
Posted on 5 Jan 2017