The Principles of Enlightened Self-Interest

Happy Ramadhan, Eid Mubarak - عيد فطر مبارك - Helping handsIn a previous post about the various political and social “-isms”, I discussed some of the more commonly known economic systems, and debated the whys and hows of America’s rejection of most of these. What I didn’t mention is a concept my husband and I call “enlightened self-interest”.

Enlightened Self-Interest works like this: whenever I do something, it’s not because I want to make someone else feel good or be better, but because I don’t want their unhappiness to impact me.

In practical terms, this translates to some pretty wonderful things for all. For instance, I don’t want poor people around me because poor people do desperate things, like steal from me and mine. I don’t want sick people around because they might infect me with their sickness.

You catch my drift.

Some will still see this as “liberalism”, or the big boogieman in the closet, “Socialism” (oooo! Insert eerie Frankenstein movie music here!), but really, if we can’t bring ourselves to care for others because they aren’t “us”, then maybe we can care in self-defense. Others will argue that doing the right thing for the wrong reason is somewhat morally reprehensible. Though I agree in practical terms, the reality is that it’s a better alternative than NOT doing the right thing at all. I mean think about it: let’s say you are struggling with lots of bills, juggling a mortgage, food, and utilities. You know, your basics. The fact is, you could use some help. Let’s also assume you’re not some “slacker” or a “mooch”, you’re just going through a bad pass.

Now imagine I’m you’re neighbor. You appeal to me for some help. I have several choices. I can, for instance, be:

  • a true capitalist and lend you money… at interest, or in exchange for some service to me or mine;
  • a “compassionate conservative” and make you a one-time offer of help, not because I care but because I’m compassionate. (Nothing wrong with that in my mind);
  • a “bleeding-heart liberal” (a stupid expression if ever I heard one!) and give you money with no expectation of repayment. (Nothing wrong with that, either, it’s my choice after all);
  • a responsible human being and give money not directly to you, but to some of your creditors, depending on what I can afford;
  • a person
    • concerned solely with myself or
    • one who simply cannot help you (for whatever reason)

    and not help you at all

I think we can all agree these are viable options, depending on my personal situation compared to yours.

Why does any of these matter, you wonder? I mean really, who cares? It’s all about whoever “me” is, right? More specifically (at least in the U.S.) it’s all about what makes “me” the most money. That’s the principal of capitalism at work in it’s purest, most extreme form.

That brings me to what is inspiring this post in the first place.

I just watched the movie “Sicko” ((See also 10 Facts you Never Knew from ‘Sicko’))by Michael Moore.  In many ways, there’s nothing new here (although it’s full of useful statistics and such), but it does cast a very glaringly bright light on the sick-care system in the United States. I call it “sick care” because the system only works if people are

  1. sick,
  2. doped up, and/or
  3. can be made to pay exorbitant rates for even regular care.

There is no preventative care here. No incentive for doctors to actually make you better. In fact, it’s the other way around. So far as I can understand it, they make more money the longer you’re sick. Worse still, the so-called insurance companies are a for-profit enterprise, and therefore it is NOT in their interest to pay for patient care. This is a system that can only succeed by denying care.

Now let’s think about the phrase “denying care” for a second.

Remember the “enlightened self-interest” idea we’re talking about? In a state of enlightened self-interest, I not only want to provide care for the sick and injured, but I must do so, for at least two obvious reasons. The first is that, in general, sick people can sometimes infect me and mine, which is not in my best interest. The second, and more generally, sick people don’t work, and therefore are a drain on the economy, which in turn reduces the overall safety of my family: companies with less workers produce less than they need to in order to thrive, for instance; people who don’t work eventually find they need groceries (let’s say), and if they can’t earn the money they need, they either steal it or steal the food.

Granted, we’re talking extreme cases here, but the idea is to take care of my fellow humans so that things don’t get so far. It’s in my (and my family’s) best interest to make sure my fellow citizens are sufficiently autonomous, healthy, and fed, so that they never even have to think about simply making a grab for ours.

Let’s take a moment to review the basic needs of a human being. According to a man by the name of Maslow ((See Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on Wikipedia)), they are, in order of importance (the diagram puts the most important at the bottom):

  1. Physiological: breathing, food, water, sleep, etc(in other words, “Life” with a capital l)
  2. Safety: Security of employment, resources, health
  3. Love & Belonging: friendship, family, sexual intimacy
  4. Esteem: confidence, achievement, respect
  5. Self-actuality: creativity, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts

Maslow's Hierarchy of NeedsYou’ll notice that health is on the second tier, right after your basics of breathing and food.

Imagine that! Health is actually very important to us, more than love or self-esteem. Who knew? What does it mean? Well if we think about it logically, it means we absolutely need to maintain our health in order to fulfill our other needs, like taking care of and feeling connected to our families. Therefore do we also, by extension, need to be able to seek and obtain medical (health) care. Anything else actually causes stress, which in turn is well known to affect our health. Unable to take care of our now deteriorating health, we now feel more stress which affects our health further, and so on.

We get caught in a catch-22.

There is a reason why the Canadians, the French, and the Brits live longer than Americans. They have access to universal health care.

Yes, I know, Universal Health Care would be “expensive” (presumably more expensive that a false war in Iraq & Afghanistan…), and it seems like a “socialist” view (where “socialism” is here seen as a concept that punishes the few rich while “rewarding” the not-so-rich… like your middle class), but really it’s a matter of “enlightened self-interest”: everyone takes care of each other’s basic needs so that no one is left to stew in their sickness, despondency, and other things that infect a society. There’s even a possible side-effect to a society that treats it’s citizens in this manner: it becomes a little more difficult to justify animosity towards each other when we are all supportive of our fellow human beings, making most people actually care about more than themselves.

What could possibly be wrong with that?

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