The central form of human dysfunction is selfishness. This has to be distinguished from self-interest. It is natural and functional that we should desire a pleasant and meaningful life for ourselves and our loved ones. Selfishness is when we have a need – other than the physical requirements of continued existence – which is so strong that we satisfy it at the expense of our own well-being or the well-being of others, either in the short or long term.
Selfishness is addiction. We can see how addiction to drugs, alcohol, unhealthy foods, gambling, sex, etc., is defined by the detrimental effects, either on ourselves or others, that temporary satisfaction of the need brings with it. And greed (addiction to the accumulation of wealth) can lead to decisions where the well-being of other individuals or collective well-being (think of damage to ecological life-support systems) are undermined.
If selfishness disappeared from the human species we would all have a chance to live lives much richer in pleasure and meaning. In theory, even the least well-off individual would be better off than the most fortunate individual now, because to live on a imperilled planet full of misery is a burden that no amount of wealth can lift.
Of course, as long as there are generous people and selfish people, the generous have to be judicious in how they mete out that generosity. It would do nobody any good if they were simply taken advantage of by the selfish.
But if selfishness is our problem, what is its cause?
An addiction is a strategy for temporarily escaping the pain of existence. In some cases this may be physical pain, but more often it is psychological pain.
So if we are to improve our ability to thrive as a species, the key frontier is understanding our psychological pain and how to relieve it naturally, thus freeing us from our addictions.
The problem with utopian ideas, such as communism, is that they try to treat the symptoms instead of the disease. At least access to the means of satisfying one’s addiction has a pacifying effect. Leave the need and take away the means of satisfying it and you breed even more hostility.
The suggestions I make in my book How to Be Free for doing something to heal the pain of existence are quite modest. I’m sure there is more to know and more and better techniques.
Let’s attack the problem. Let’s share what we know. Let’s seek to know more.