The origin of selfishness

Versión en español

Recently I have found two cases of people who openly acknowledge their selfishness and something that could even be described as moral misery, but that has other less evident readings.

One of them said that he would kill his own pets in order to extend a single day his own life or the life of one of his close relatives or loved ones. Another said that he is only “human” in his free time, and when he is working is not human, but implacable.

I think that if these two cases are representative of something extraordinary, that something is nothing more than a combination of self-knowledge and sincerity. In my opinion, most of the goodness that we observe is feigned or interested, and most of the people we meet daily would kill us to steal if they had the opportunity to do so with total impunity.

“In a profound sense, I do not think there is speciesism, racism, sexism or substratism. There are simply arguments and mental excuses that in practice work well to defend one’s privileges at the expense of the interests of others.”

In fact, most people participate in the exploitation of sentient beings (non-human animals) that are manipulated and killed with impunity for our benefit. In my opinion, only in a superficial sense this is due to what we call “speciesism”. In a profound sense, I do not believe that there is speciesism, racism, sexism or substratism. There are simply arguments and mental excuses that in practice work well to defend one’s privileges at the expense of the interests of others. If those arguments ceased to work, other methods would be used, not necessarily arguments. The case is to continue behaving as selfishly as it suits the selfish genes, which as we already know, also leaves a certain margin for cooperation and altruism.

We individuals, humans or non-human animals, among other things, are strongly selfish because of a genetic imperative. I am aware that expressing this idea has its risks. In no way I introduce it with the aim of serving as an excuse or indulgence for anyone who wants to harm others. But if we want to change reality it will be better to look directly at it as it is, not as we would like it to be. We like to believe that we are free, that we can act better or worse at will, but if genetics was not decisive, as Heinlein said, “we could teach calculus to a horse”.

Our genes not only determine our egoistic impulses. They also determine our altruism and our love, our desire for a better world. The good news is that once we have intelligence and technology, and in relation to both impulses (the selfish and the loving), we could use technology and knowledge to increase happiness, our own and that of others, instead of seeking to extend one’s life at all costs, which is what we really do. We could make ourselves more loving and less selfish. Most happily in short. Because we know perfectly well that it is better to live a short but happy life, than a longer life but with greater suffering, and yet we behave as if this were not true, due to our genetic “programming”.

Those who consider killing their own pets as those who reject their “humanity” at work, ultimately also seek happiness. But they do not realize that this search for happiness, as it is usually understood, is part of a deception to which we have been subjected by genes.

Genes that we are able to modify, and thus free ourselves from this slavery.

Of course, the modification of our genes to be more loving and less selfish can be considered an aberration, as has been the dissection of corpses, a blood transfusion or a heart transplant. It can also be argued that genetic modification could harm our evolutionary aptitude. Has the cesarean done? Are we going to stop doing cesarean sections so that the carriers of too narrow hip genes die? Although nature has “programmed us” to survive at all costs, what we really want is to be happy, not have long lives.

As technology advances faster than moral development, I would prefer technological development to slow down. But in case this is not possible, and if the technology is cheap and available to all (this is the case with CRISPR) we can promote that, if it is used, it is to reduce selfishness, reducing this strongly rooted desire to extend one’s own life at all costs (at the expense of the suffering of others) and to increase the impulses of love and solidarity with other sentient beings.

Posted by Manu Herrán

Research associate at the Organisation for the Prevention of Intense Suffering (OPIS).

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