Aligning Your Internal Values – Empathy, Selfishness, and the Future

[Previous: Turning Inward – Politics, Empathy, Selfishness, and Human Destiny]

The easiest way to go through life is to not have any values. Instead of having guiding principles that limit your possible actions to the best ones, you just do “whatever” or let someone else decide for you.

The harder thing is to have values and principles – but they can end up being conflicting, or you’re not sure how to follow all of them. You end up feeling pulled in different directions, act like a hypocrite, have double standards for yourself (and your friends) vs everyone else, and other similar things.

The hardest thing of all is to have values and principles – but then, actually sit down and figure out how to align all of your different values in the same direction.

For myself, one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out for nearly a year now is how to deal with the conflicting motives of self-interest vs altruism – selfishness vs empathy.

Empathy, as far as I’m concerned, is about understanding. It’s the mental process that humans use to understand one another, and when turned inwards, to understand yourself. You’re trying to imagine what it would be like to have the thoughts and feelings of another person, to relate to them, relate to their experiences, to put yourself in their shoes and briefly experience what those shoes feel like. It’s what leads to altruism, and helping others.

But it’s clear that empathy has limits, and can be abused. It’s clear that there are a lot of people who demand empathy from the world, while offering none in return. They find ways (mostly unintentionally, sometimes intentional) of making you relate to them, their negative experiences, even their trauma – which they then use to justify a simple narrative of them vs huge groups of “enemies.” Of course, if they had any empathy for these “enemies,” they’d find that many of them aren’t enemies at all (they might even be trying to solve the same problems that you are), and even when they are enemies, have been pushed by historical events (and failures of human nature common in all of us) towards them becoming your “enemy.”

Selfishness seems obvious – it’s putting the self, and self-interest, first. But more than being about self-interest, I’d say that selfishness and creation are heavily linked. What do I mean by creation? I don’t mean when you’re working for someone else “creating” what they tell you to. That’s working on someone else’s vision, which is quite the opposite of selfishness. But if you have a vision of the world, a vision so compelling that you have to alter the world towards your vision – that is selfish. You’re putting a priority on your own idea of what the world should look like, rather than someone else’s. The world is changed and made better (or worse) by visionary people placing a priority on their own visions.

The drawbacks of selfishness are more obvious. Refusing aid to those who need it. Refusing to cooperate with others, even if together you’d build something even more self-benefiting than you could build alone. Selfishness plays a part in the outlook that your interests and the interests of another person (or group) are fundamentally in conflict, leading to conflict and often violence.

Empathy is basically good. It’s what allows two different people or groups, who on paper have nothing in common, to work together for something bigger than themselves. The problem isn’t necessarily empathy. The problem is that there are a lot of people who demand empathy for themselves and people like them, while offering no empathy in return. The problem isn’t empathy – the problem is that these people are hypocrites who wouldn’t understand integrity if it threw a beer mug in their face.

It’s easy to call selfishness bad (unless you’re a huge Ayn Rand fan). The downsides of selfishness are easy to name. That said, if selfishness is evil, it’s a necessary evil – or even neutral. Selfishness, and the drive to benefit yourself, is what has pushed many thousands of history’s greatest figures to accomplish their amazing feats – they wanted fame, glory, wealth, and status for themselves.

But really, selfishness and empathy aren’t necessarily in conflict. With work, they can be aligned in the same direction.

There are lots of problems out there – problems that inspire a person to try and change them, help people, make the world a better place. Concern for others exists on a scale of lots of concern to almost none, and unless you’ve been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, is normal. The trouble comes, especially if you’re a person particularly motivated by helping people, is that if you help people too much, you won’t have enough of what you need to support yourself.

There is a saying though: if you want to make a billion dollars, solve a problem for a billion people.

Everyone has at least a little self-interest – things you want, and want only for yourself. Power, fame, wealth, love, admiration, and so on. Wanting these things isn’t bad, and I’d say it’s completely natural. That said, no one cares what you want. They care about what they want. Everyone is leading their own little lives, with their own personal goals and desires, and most of the time don’t have time to worry about anyone else unless someone else’s interests conflict with theirs.

The thing is: if you tell people about a goal and they believe that you completing the goal will help them, they won’t just like your goal – they will actively support your goal. If you have the right goal, work for it in the right ways, and tell enough people who want you to have that, achieving the goal becomes a whole lot easier. Having a selfish goal that other people love is how you make sure you don’t end up working alone – when isolation is so ineffective, even dangerous.

Wanting to help people is easy, and completely normal. Wanting to bend the world to your will, even in small ways, is completely normal. What isn’t normal is finding a way of bending the world to your will in ways that end up helping other people. Aligning these values, of wanting to help others, and wanting to help yourself, can be hard. It can be so hard that it’s tempting to give up entirely and just go live a life of hedonism – anime, video games, smoking pot, going clubbing, whatever floats your boat – all to ignore both the problems of the world, and your hardest to achieve desires.

But if you do align them, that’s how you become powerful or influential enough to help the most people. That’s how you benefit yourself the most, with people actively trying to help you achieve your goals.

That’s how you build a legacy – something that will last, and keep making an impact, far after you are gone.

You’ll have built a legacy for yourself – and you won’t have to do it alone.