João Pedro de Magalhães

The Selfish Genius

Forget god, country, ideologies, and all the foolish reasons men have found to divide each others. What matters is yourself and, as I argue below, egoism is actually better for society and for the human species as a whole.


Reason's Triumph

A large proportion of human beings are capable of being violent, cruel, aggressive, evil. The atrocities of humans upon humans are numerous and obscene. It takes two to make peace, one to wage war. To have order and live in a peaceful society humans devised a few cunning schemes: I believe religion was the first. A blind faith to give meaning to the mysteries of life, including the fear of death, and allow societies to maintain stability. Morality was a complement and later an offspring of religion: rules of behavior that help maintain order. Yet isn't morality just an artifact, an invention of the human mind to stop us from killing each others? Isn't ethics, even in modern societies, a complement to the law to maintain order?

If our goal is progress, life quality and the evolution of humankind through reason instead of blind faith, then we must leave behind all remnants inherited from our ignorant times. Wreckage from ages when the human mind was but a seed, religion is destined to disappear. The ultimate achievement of human intellect will be to have peace and order solely based on reason. We must become amoral atheists. Yet how can we achieve peace without a framework of thought to prevent us from waging war against each other?

The Selfish Genius

Not only am I atheist, but I consider religion one of the most serious threats to humankind. I should start by making it clear that I am certainly in favor of religious freedom and no doubt religion is an important and positive aspect of many people's lives. The problem is when religious views lead people and politicians to interfere with the personal freedoms and rights of others as well as block scientific progress that is vital to improve human health (like stem cell research).

Many theists are so arrogant and so convinced they know the truth about the world and the human existence that they believe they know what is best for other people. When a believer accepts a deity as more important than his or her life then he/she will see others as unimportant; human life will be secondary, and that's where the danger lurks. Believing there are higher beauties than human life, than one's life, is common not only in religions but also in nationalism and other ideologies, such as communism and extreme forms of environmentalism. In all of these cases, believers are willing to sacrifice human life for what they see as a higher goal and that's why they are willing to become kamikaze pilots or hijack airplanes to throw them against skyscrapers. The problem of religion is that when people believe that god is more important than their lives then god is also more important than other people’s freedoms and other people’s lives and so they become motivated for interfering with personal liberties and, in extreme cases, even killing in the name of god.

My life is the only life I live. If I die, the world is over; the universe only exists for my eyes to watch it; if I cease the universe ceases with me.

Selfish philosophies, such as objectivism, are unpopular. Not only because religion is intrinsically against self-centered philosophies but also because selfish individuals have a bad reputation. Some of the individuals that caused suffering to human masses -- e.g., despots -- were and are selfish. Of course that the atrocities committed in the name of god or country or whatever-higher-value demagogues choose as their truth are also abundant. But selfishness has been given a bad name because it is often associated with selfish actions that eventually yield negative outcomes for everyone, including the selfish person. However, a selfish philosophy does not necessarily lead into a selfish behavior. Ignorance and stupidity lead many selfish individuals to selfish actions when these are not the best individual choices.

Human life is a series of iterated Prisoner's Dilemmas (PD). From game theory, we know that the best option in an iterated PD is to cooperate for otherwise we will face the wrath of those we betray. One can argue that the best choice in game theory is "Tit for Tat." Only "Tit for Tat" begins with cooperation, so cooperation should be the rational strategy, having confrontation as a secondary, alternative choice. Of course that the complexities of human life largely exceed the PD and this essay and so it's impossible to discuss which strategy is the most adequate, but cooperation is normally the winning strategy in modern society. Quality engineering stresses that despotic bosses are heading for extinction. Networking, cooperating, and collaborating are the wisest strategies in our society not only in professions that require teamwork but even in jobs where individual input is valued.

I should reiterate that I defend cooperation and think selfish actions are generally foolish, not only in my profession but as a lifestyle, based on the selfish principle of maximizing rewards. I am ultimately selfish, but I understand that an altruistic behavior is the best choice for the maximization of rewards, career achievement and personal success.

One obvious question is whether in an extreme case of nothing to lose by acting selfish and having an immediate reward, one should opt for the selfish choice? A selfish ideology can obviously lead into selfish actions. For instance, Stanley Milgram showed that 2/3 of Americans are willing to kill if someone else is to be held responsible for their actions. The difficulty, however, in any selfish action is how to guarantee success and avoid retaliation. Of course that if I were in a boat with another man and food for only one to survive, I would try to kill him. It would be the logical route for survival since cooperation would yield death for both of us. Anything1 that increases the length of my life is a good thing. But our lives do not normally involve choices of life and death. That is why cooperation typically yields the greatest profit. Taking a more general perspective, a united humankind can improve the quality of life of all its members. A divided humankind will lead us nowhere.

Because the quest for reason and truth is part of my existence, I think it's important to reject the usual theological and moral misconceptions for a more rational explanation. Overall, we should abandon religion and morality and embrace selfishness, not to lead a life of selfish actions but instead to be cooperative and even altruistic for that is ultimately the best choice for the individual.

"I Swear by life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor will I ask another man to live for my sake." — Ayn Rand

Sources and Links

1 — Not entirely true when only I am present. Castration is likely to increase the length of my life and yet I don't consider it a good thing. Still, this rule is the general case when making decisions that influence other persons rather than myself.

Axelrod, Robert; "The Evolution of Co-operation" (1990). From self-seeking egoists to cooperation; a nice book.

Axelrod, Robert; "The Complexity of Cooperation: Agent-Based Models of Competition and Collaboration (Princeton Studies in Complexity)" (1997). It's a collection of essays on computer simulations of complex sociological situations.

Dawkins, Richard; "The Selfish Gene" (1989). Dawkins's classic is one of the greatest books ever.

Mill, John Stuart; "Utilitarianism" (1863).

Mill, John Stuart; "On Liberty" (1909).

Rand, Ayn; "The Virtue of Selfishness" (1989 reissue). A polemic and interesting book about selfishness and objectivism, though I don't totally agree with it.

Life is neither easy nor always as beautiful as one would like. Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" is one of the books I think everyone should read. An excellent version, commented and translated by Lionel Giles from the superb Project Gutenberg, is available online.

Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" also influenced me very much. It's available online.

Evolution's Arrow by John Stewart is an interesting book on the evolution of cooperation.

Game Theory; an excellent introduction.

Meme Central; good resource on memes and memetics.

Objectivism Wiki

The Ayn Rand Institute

The Ethical Spectacle by Jonathan Wallace.