Inherent Selfishness of the Individual: an essay
Growing up I learned a lot about a term called "the individual". I learned that I was an individual and that my rights were inherent in my existence. "I think therefore I am" made sense to me. The word "I" and "me" made sense to me. Until recently I never thought of myself as a "white, cis male" or anything really other than simply an individual.
But what is the individual? That is the question I would like to attempt to answer in this essay.
The Individual is defined by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) as:
1.1 A single member of a class.
1.2 informal with adjective A person of a specified kind.
1.3 A distinctive or original person.
The definition we will proceed with is 1.3, "a distinctive or original person".
One of the most well known heralders of the Individual as a philosophical subject was Ayn Rand. Love her or hate her, she wrote more about how she defined the Individual than almost anyone I have ever read or heard. Her capstone work, Atlas Shrugged, was a novel that focused heavily on the power behind the individual's will to succeed and build society around them. From her novel the main point I have taken is that the Individual is not a cog in a machine, but rather its own distinctive machine built to work and create. Rand chose to focus on the Individual's selfishness as a virtue rather than as an evil, which has gained much criticism from all fields of study.
Selfishness, in my studied opinion, is a word with conflicting definitions. Whereas it is defined in the OED as "The quality or state of being selfish; lack of consideration for other people.", Rand claims it is more central to the individual. Selfishness, in her terms, is actually simply the state of being an individual. One could argue that everything we do is against our own demise, as that is a biological response to such a situation. However some might say that the individual occasionally sacrifices themselves to a cause or for another, as if that is a retort to the claim that selfishness is virtuous and natural. In truth, I must ask, why is that person sacrificing themselves? Perhaps their desire to see another person live or succeed is stronger than their own desire to live or succeed. So if they pursue their own desire, is that not also selfishness?
I would argue that a person does not do anything out of a lack of desire; be it a desire to an alternate end or to the end that is expected. A person does not give up eating meat, for instance, simply so that a cow or chicken might survive one more day. No, that person gives up eating meat because they desire that fewer cows and chickens will be killed. These two things may sound synonymous, but I urge you to consider the subtle difference because it is very important. You, as an individual, cannot do something against your own desires unless there is something that you desire more.
Many also claim that selfishness is a means to achieve immediate satisfaction, and thus is destructive in the end. While some people will do this, the ends that they achieve prove that they were not being truly selfish at all! If you want to feel really good, you may try to achieve that goal by injecting some sort of euphoric drug. However, after becoming addicted and ruining your life and the lives of those around you, you will find that your plan to fulfill that particular desire was not very selfish at all. Selfishness as a virtue requires that you work for an end that benefits you as an Individual completely, removing as many downsides to your actions as is possible.
So selfishness is not immediate gratification within this definition. True selfishness cannot have an ends to hurt the Individual. It must always benefit the Individual. When you identify this as a core principle of selfishness, then you may look outward and try to identify how this affects those around this Selfish Individual. I have tried to think of a way that selfishness could negatively affect anyone.
So let's say that a man wants to be self-employed. How could this possibly negatively affect those around him? Let's try. So they start a business selling phone cases. He begins making them himself with a 3D printer, but eventually he has too many orders to make them all on his own. So he hires another individual to help him be more productive. He pays that person $10/hr.
So let's say that $10/hr is barely enough money to live working 40 hours a week. Is he hurting that person? No. He gave them his tools to be productive and agreed to pay what he thinks that person is worth to him. This is a voluntary transaction. Since it is voluntary, it is impossible for this agreement to negatively affect either party. However, this is where things get a little more complex.
The above is a figurative example, but we will now discuss a real example. Currently, a single individual cannot work more than 40 hours in a week without the government requiring a mandated increase in wage. Already, this transaction has become involuntary, therefore against the self-interest of the employer. So, the employer has a choice to make; either pay 1.5 times the amount that was voluntarily agreed to or hire another part time worker. Both situations are undesirable. When I was 15, I began working for a Chinese restaraunt. I was working 40 hours per week, but I was saving for a truck and wanted to work more. I was going to the local community colled to finish my highschool, so I was able to make a schedule that works with my desire to work more than 40 hours per week. My boss said no because she was unwilling to pay me more. Instead of complaining about how cheap she was and accepting that transaction, I devised a plan. It was mutually beneficial.
I agreed to be hired again for her husband's company, then be contracted to the restaraunt to wash dishes for about 20 hours a week. This enabled her to use my productivity for roughly 60 hours per week, and I was able to buy the truck (used of course) within a month. I found, however, that I enjoyed working so much and making as much as I was making, so she and I agreed to keep this arrangement until I went to college.
This experience made me realize a fallacy in my own logic. There was a time that I would praise the Unions in the US for giving the American worker the 40 hour work week. Now I cannot offer them praise. In fact, I resent it. They have limited the Individual's capacity for full productivity. Not to mention the coercive nature of the minimum wage, but that would add too much complexity to this essay. In the end, what can be learned is that my own selfishness pushes me to work more hours to achieve a goal. I become a more motivated employee if I have a goal to achieve. In the same way, I owe the employer no more than what he pays for, which is part of the terms we both agree to in a voluntary exchange.
This approach to the ideal of selfishness then creates an atmosphere in which the Individual can truly pursue happiness. This whole essay then shapes the definition of the "Individual" as a concept. When you identitfy yourself, you are who you are. You are not part of a group inherently. You may exist within the framework of a group, but as an Individual you also stand apart from the group and exist whollely independently from that group. This is a concept that I have tried to flesh out before because it is an empowering concept. Being who I am, I know what I am capable of. Being part of a group will only work to weaken the Individual, in my perspective because that person can then throw off the bonds of responsibility and accept the "duty" to the group goal. A group of white, cis males may rely on each other for one reason or another and have a certain amount of combined productive power in one way or another, but each individuals unchained from the group can operate indepentently to reach their full productivity and achieve their own goals. Those goals may or may not benefit those around them, but it shouldn't matter as long as it is not hurting those around them.
So that is why I have come to hold the Individual and the virtue of selfishness in high regard. They are foundational to human experience. Even within a group, we each experience life individually and can't help but to work for our own ends. I work a job to support my own desires, which in turn supports the desires of those around me. My selfishness is virtuous because it is the only thing that I can truly control.
Feel free to contact me on Fosstodon if you have any thoughts or questions.