Fact Of The Matter
You know the scenario. You phone someone to check if all is good and they unload for a full 30 minutes and never once ask how you are. Or the moment when you realise someone in your life is mostly take and no give; who constantly asks favours of you but when you’re in a fix they are conveniently busy.
What is it with people being selfish? The coronavirus has not only decimated populations and placed lives on anxious hold but it has also been a test of character, a test many are failing. People have unlawful house parties. Covert hair salons are in operation. Wanton youths are planning secret raves for Paddy’s Weekend, people are not wearing masks in the supermarket, and the false prophets are declaring the whole shebang a global conspiracy, Covid-19 no more than a bad flu.
My psychologist friend defines selfishness as two-sided. “Being concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself,” he tells me over a socially-distant phone call, “and having no regard for the feelings or needs of others.” But he argues that it is to some extent natural to be selfish. We are, after all, at the centre of our own worlds. A certain amount of selfishness can be healthy, in reminding us to take care of ourselves so as we can take care of others. Even selfless caring is selfish if done to make you feel good about yourself, which is no bad thing.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued way back that self-interest was the “most fundamental human motivation”. However, acting out of self-interest is not necessarily the only thing on our minds. History — indeed, the pandemic — has shown that human behaviour can be motivated as much by altruism and moral considerations. So, at what point does healthy self-care and the right amount of self-love become selfishness?
Seemingly, it is all down to ‘emotional intelligence’ and empathy. Some have little or no such intelligence. My psychologist friend says: “One symptom of low emotional intelligence is the tendency to be self-absorbed or exclusively concerned with one’s own thinking, feeling, needing and wanting, instead of the thoughts, feelings, needs and wants of others.”
Infuriating as selfish people’s behaviour may be, there is the argument that perhaps those of us who know better — in short, those of us with emotional intelligence — should take a compassionate view of why some people behave in such a way. My friend John Campbell once said to me: “Never judge a man coming through the door until you know what kind of day he has had.”
Psychology suggests that people who are ‘selfish’ tend to have been raised in environments in which their feelings, thoughts and needs were not recognised or valued. We don’t all get the same breaks in life or the same care and attention. All of which likely explains why the flaunting of the pandemic guidelines — and subsequently cases of Covid-19 — largely take place the other side of the railway tracks where the social and economic dynamic is below par.
Dostoyevsky wrote: “The world says: ‘You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.’ This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom…”
But is knowing that such people just don’t know any better an argument for cutting them some slack? An argument for lifting some of the Level 5 restrictions? Are old people being selfish about the care-free needs of young people wishing to congregate on the street corner? Go to a match? And are the young being selfish in their argument to keep the oldies cocooned and let the rest of the world get on with it?
If truth be told most of us probably fall somewhere on a sliding scale of selfless to selfish moments, depending on what time of day it is and what that bastard of a rogue microbe is up to.
“To be happy,” wrote Albert Camus, “we must not be too concerned with others”, while Nietzsche contended that “most people are far too occupied with themselves to be malicious”.
I wonder, though, where does one ‘right’ end, say, the right not to wear masks, and the right of everyone else to good health begin? At what point does my right not to get infected outweigh the right of another to pursue their life come what may?