The Irony of Self-Interest

The thing I really hate about election campaigns is the way that they shine a light on what we value—not the things we say we value in polite company, mind you, but the things we actually value. Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty picture.

It’s fairly easy, I would suggest, to identify what we truly value in these campaigns, because politicians want to find those things that (we think) are important to us and, once they find them, to milk them for all they’re worth. All we need to do, then, is to look at what our politicians are focusing on most heavily, and we’ll see where our value lies. As a side note, it’s fairly depressing to watch politicians scrambling to find these issues, seeking only what is already popular rather than outlining a vision for a better future and seeking to take the rest of us on the journey to that place (or, as I like to call it, ‘leading’).

In this current campaign surrounding the 2013 Australian federal election, the thing that most stands out, as I see it, is self-interest.

So much of this campaign (and similar campaigns in recent years) is focused more and more on who will leave more money in my pocket (or how the other guy will rip that money out of my pocket), or who will make my life that little bit ‘easier’ (especially in the short-term). Basically, the majority of everything that is announced is about who will best pander to my own narrow self-interest.

Nearly everything fits into this scheme.

Concern about the environment is reduced to the immediate effect on my cash flow. Concern for asylum seekers is reduced to misplaced fear about how this faceless, sinister horde is going to effect me personally (through taking my job, or making my commute time longer, or threatening the safety of me and my family in various unfounded ways).

It’s all about me, me, me!

What we have lost, in all of this, is the fact that total self-focus is actually detrimental to us as human beings. This sort of thinking revolves around the idea that, since no one else will look out for my interests, I need to look out for myself. Everyone else is out to get me, so I need to protect myself and my family from ‘everyone else’.

Ultimately, however, our growth as human beings remains stunted by such thinking. We become emotionally and socially underdeveloped. Ironically, having our self-interest indulged leaves us less than fully formed.

Through all of this, we lose the ability to see beyond ourselves. We forget that we, as humans, find fulfilment through each other, rather than in isolation. When we allow this unchecked individualism to invade our thinking, it actually limits us from our full potential.

In short, we make independence our final goal, and we forget that there is a further step in human potential. Though we are born dependent, and though we do move to a stage of (relative) independence, this is not our home. Our final destination—the point at which we reach full maturity—is moving through dependence and on towards interdependence.

Interdependence is when we choose* to look out for the best interest of others, and when they reciprocate. It’s when we seek mutuality over individual rights.**

It entails risk, but it also entails growth as a human being. It thrives on the humility of other-centred thinking, rather than the arrogance of self-focus. And it allows space for true human flourishing.

As a Christian, this sort of thinking should be absolutely central for me. I can’t understand, then, why so many churches allow the same sort of self-centred thinking to pollute and contort the ‘Good News’. But I’ve spoken of that in more detail here, and will leave that point where it is.

The fact remains, though, that this is not just a Christian thing. True human potential is unlocked only in relationship with others, and thus when we allow ourselves to be boxed into the unnatural*** position of narrow self-focus we fall short of that potential.

In election campaigns, our politicians—through their own narrow self-interest—are going to try to focus on the things that, apparently, truly matter to us. If our only interest is ourselves, then they will oblige. They will frame their message in ways that pander to such interests (like they are doing so well now).

But, if we let them know that we actually care about something bigger than ourselves, they will listen. The choice is ours.

* I need to emphasise here the free nature of this choice.
** Those who know me may find this statement quite interesting, as I am a supporter of human rights. My point here, though, is that individual rights are not the end goal. I will always support the goal of seeing each person attain their fundamental human rights (especially where those rights are impinged by another!), however I see this as a starting point, rather than the end goal.
*** Some may argue that self-interest is actually very ‘natural’ for humans. I am convinced, however, that self-interest is the central feature of what is often referred to as ‘sin’, and is not the ideal natural state for humans to occupy.


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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

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