The Virtues of Being Selfish

Let’s be honest, we are all selfish beings, constantly making choices that maximize benefit and minimize harm. But at the same time, we are complex creatures and our selfish or selfless behaviour are often difficult to differentiate.

Instinctively, pleasure is derived from play, but too much play and no work challenges our existence, so we make small tradeoffs – balancing play and work for survival. Then our small tradeoffs started producing some unexpected by-products; a deeper pocket, acknowledgement for our achievements, and maybe some healthy boost to our ego. As a result we constantly alter our understanding of pleasure to involve a multitude of what would otherwise be considered pain. Before long, our confusing psyche produces workaholics, philanthropists, religious scholars, pro bono lawyers, activists, and our beloved politicians.

As such, the constant demonising of our politicians is rather unfair. They are just like you and me, with interests to protect, benefit to anticipate and pain to avoid; except maybe wealthier and more obtuse.

Marina Mahathir wrote in The Star – The Polarised World of Politics (20/7/2011):

“Politicians of every stripe have two bad habits. Firstly, they think that those who don’t belong to any political party are incapable of having a single political thought. Secondly, when non-politicians think of a good populist idea, politicians of all stripes rush to hijack it.”

But when the opportunity for glory arises, how could we not expect the politicians to “hijack” the bandwagon? In fact, more often than not, we vote our MPs into parliament because they have been so successful at “hijacking” our great idea that they embody our ideals, saying exactly what we wanted to hear.

I would be surprised that any political party would not want to “hijack” Bersih 2.0. Their ideals are so universally uncontentious that it side-stepped the racial and religious line that has come to define the division of the Malaysian society. If I am a corrupt politician, I would be the first to embrace Bersih 2.0. The logic is really quite simple – Bersih brings me pain, but crushing them brings joy to my opponents. Embracing Bersih is still painful, but at least I deny joy to my opponents, which brings me joy, and survival. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.

I wrote in my blog, The Pillars of Tomorrow – Bersih is not the beginning, we haven’t even started yet (17/7/2011) suggesting various “selfish” methods in dealing with Bersih:

“… the government could have employed a typically (just as counter-productive but less suicidal) Malaysian way in engaging Bersih – Setup an ‘electoral reform task force’, give them a task so enormous nothing could have ever come out of its pipeline. Let them berdebat till the cows come home… Publish their findings and further berdebat in the parliament, pretend to make some changes that don’t really matter. In the mean time, conjure another sex scandal and give the finger right back to the opposition.”

But instead, they chose the most selfless act – suicide.

Being self-serving is intrinsic in our very nature because our selfish gene is the code for survival. But as our society evolve and mature, our “selfishness” takes on ever more complex dimensions and manifest itself in surprising ways. While the division in Malaysian society is the product of our selfish gene in identifying racial and religious cliques; the camaraderie of 709 is also the product of our selfish gene in identifying a common threat to our existence, unifying us in spite of our colour, religion and political views.

We cannot change our instinct, but we can change the system we live in. The human ingenuity lies in our ability to learn, to adapt and to improve our environment. The question we have to ask ourselves is this: How do we strike a balance amidst the chaos of selfishness?

Alexander Hamilton asked a similar question in The Federalist Papers No. 51 (1788):

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”

If the government is the greatest of all reflections on human nature, then we must abandon our quest for the benevolent politician. Instead, we must focus our effort in creating an environment, where selfish ambitions are made to counteract selfish ambitions, returning the delicate balance to our governing institutions.


Posts by Lua Bo Feng

Lua Bo Feng MR – the master of mind-buggery, students call him. The only skill he has is the subtle art of taking a thought and ripping it to shreds with logic, candour, and precision. He likes to think that he is born to be a LoyarBurokker because LoyarBurok (LB) is a subset of Lua Bo Feng (LBF), and since he started teaching, Lua Bo Feng has devolved into his primal avatar – the orang utan, a close relative of the chimp(s) at LoyarBurok. By the way, MR stands for mind rapist.

Posted on 22 August 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

Read more articles posted by Lua Bo Feng.

Read this first: LB Terms of Use

4 Responses to The Virtues of Being Selfish

  1. Definitely, you mentioned it well. "The human ingenuity lies in our ability to learn".

  2. C.T

    What you have written is most interesting. The methods you expounded to "return a delicate balance" is probably in a pessimistically realistic way, the only viable solution to solve our current woes. However if what you say is true then, what separates the leading elites we grant power to from the rest of us common citizens? Accepting the assumption that they are all selfish men who can only be restricted by other selfish men, what is the basis we shall rely upon in choosing our leaders? The idealist in me wonders.

  3. When are you going to expound the virtues of being murderous? Call it the 7 Sins Series. Politics is only for altruists, but the voters must be educated enough to know this in order to make any change.