I just read about half of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, because some people were strongly recommending it and made me read it. I also watched the movie made from it. It seems the moral of the story is that you should live for yourself, not others. And that is not just better for you, but also more morally right.
For me, life illustrated this statement. When I was a young teenager, I was, like many, looking for what to do with my life, who to be, and where to find meaning. One of the things I tried is doing as much good as I can in my lifetime and prioritizing others before myself. Sounds good, right? Well, it didn’t work out, as I didn’t FEEL those good deeds I was doing. I did them because this was the life meaning I stabilized around at the moment, and because this is what the world views as the highest, most honorable way to use your life. Being good is good for society. You should care about society, right?
I started it. I gave when I was asked, hung out with people I didn’t like to be nice to them, did lots of helping. Some few people attempted to use my new morals for their own personal gain. I didn’t let them. And most people around me, even though they didn’t attempt to use me, just didn’t seem worth sacrificing anything for. I wasn’t any worse than them, so it felt unjustified to discriminate against myself to prioritize their happiness over mine.
The mindset also dictated that I must be a good person, who cares about others, is nurturing and giving. After all, I was honestly trying to follow the life of righteousness, and you can’t succeed in that if you’re a selfish prick. But the thing is, I WAS a “selfish prick”, on the inside, and this attempt to make myself good wasn’t working. Giving was becoming too tiring, and always being pleasant to everyone was tiring. There were few people I actually liked genuinely. What I was doing was unfulfilling and felt more like community service sentence than what a good Christian/altruist is supposed to feel. It started to feel fake and pointless.
So, the dissonance between how I felt about people, and my “morals”, inevitably lead to me deciding it was all a bunch of horseshit and I kind of got “evil”. I was also living with a mentally damaging man (mom’s second husband) and it didn’t help the matter. I changed from the nice helpful girl to an unpleasant antisocial one in a matter of weeks. I thought – fuck people, I will do whatever I want now, and express my dislike left and right. It was very liberating. No more fake smiles, no more restraint, or wasting my time on people I don’t care about. I stopped helping, stood up a boring girl on a meeting after school, embraced schadenfreude and sadism, used a couple of men for free dinners.
After a while, me and mom moved away from the mentally damaging man, and my negative feelings burned out. I allowed them to be completely free, and after a while I noticed there being less and less of them. I actually started feeling guilty about some things I did, because doing something bad didn’t feel all that satisfying anymore. I was technically ok with remaining mean, and all the pressure to be kind and good was gone. But now I wanted to do good things naturally.
Over the next years I gained a lot of empathy and internal peace. I found some good people, so I knew some people were worth sacrificing for. Refraining from doing mean things felt natural. Of course I didn’t turn into some saint, but now at least I’m never pointlessly cruel. Cruelty is a tool of justice. Two somewhat unfortunate effects of increased empathy are loss of ability to lie well, and sometimes overly intense involuntary compassion. It seems I can’t commit to being evil, uncaring and 100% selfish for a long time, but by trying, I stumbled upon my real kindness. It was just a matter of time.
For me the usefulness of selfishness was demonstrated well. Trying to make myself good by putting society first lead to evil. Putting myself first lead to true goodness in the end.
I’m not sure why, but I have ideas. Can you be truly good and giving if you don’t know the extent of your bad traits, because you worked hard at denying them? I would say no. They say that those that deny the ability to be evil are the most susceptible to it.
Can you be truly good if your justification for being good is something like “Because that is just how you should be”, or “Because it’s good for society”? I don’t think so. Because something abstract like “society” doesn’t truly touch you, or inspire you to do good for it. Goodness needs some good solid justifications. Like the fact that you actually like some people, and aren’t willing to throw them under the bus, even if you don’t care for humanity as a whole. Or like feeling indignation about injustice and not wanting bad people to get away with abuse. Or like hating illogic and people who perpetuate lies, because facts and truth are one of the greatest joys in life. Or like wanting to be better than the mindless masses who’d follow a saint or a mass-murderer with same enthusiasm, because they respect authority too much. Or because being pointlessly rude is just embarrassing and you value good manners. Or simply because acts of kindness feel good when you do them.
So what if all those reasons are self-centered? They motivate me into being a good person. I’m as helpful now as I was when trying altruism. I can’t feel any motivation to do anything just for others, with no justification other than “just because it’s good”. And I strongly doubt the average person can. Sure we can all follow society’s rules because we trust authority, but once authority tells us it’s ok to sacrifice and kill certain population groups, we follow also. My egocentric reasons avoid this pitfall. They untangle the self from the external.