Why are people so selfish? How is it that it can be so easy to look after ourselves, but so difficult to think of others? Why do we choose what we want, rather than what is right? All of these are good questions and I am sure have gone through many people’s minds at some point (especially when something is done to them as a result of selfishness). Selfishness not only effects others, but it can be a detrimental to our own character, relationships, and life.
In the face of many different horrible acts around the world, whether it is mass genocide, oppression of a race or gender, murder, the question still stands why are people so selfish? Our planet is being misused and so are it’s inhabitance, and yet many know what they should be doing. In light of this thought, I would like to argue that selfishness is wrong (absolute, not relative morality) and must defined correctly. Also it is not the result of evolution, rather a result of sin (disobedience toward God).
The comment I received was that selfishness originated from a natural, animal instinct for survival. However, as time went we realized the pleasure in serving ourselves and began abusing that natural instinct that helped us survive in ways that were wrong. I cannot say where they get the idea of wrong from, whether it is part of evolution or culture, but it seems their idea of wrong is not absolute.
I believe it is actually not best to use the word selfishness when speaking about survival. It is possible to do something selfish that helps you survive, but I don’t think that is what was intended by the use of it above. Selfishness is defined as “(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” If selfishness is only “instinct”, then it seems you are unable to do it for selfish reasons because you can’t control it. The idea of selfishness implies a wrong doing or inconsideration towards others. I think it would be better to use the word self-preservation, which is defined as “the protection of oneself from harm or death, esp. regarded as a basic instinct in human beings and animals.”
Why Not Evolution?
Selfishness cannot have come from evolution because selfishness has to do with morality, absolute morality, and I strongly believe the evidence shows that evolution has no grounding for morality, especially absolute morals.
Not all, but many who argue for evolution take the idea of morals as being genetic. It makes most since if you are going to hold to an evolutionary position, but not everyone is consistent with their worldview. If morals are genetic, then we have a huge issue: What is the difference between Mother Teresa and Hitler? Also how could be praise Mother Teresa or condemn Hitler? We cannot praise nor condemn anyone because genetics are not something we can control, rather it is through time and chance that we gain a certain genetic disposition.
Robert Wright in his book The Moral Animal says, “My hope is that people will use the knowledge [in this book] not only to improve their lives–as a source of ‘self- help’–but as cause to treat other people more decently.” And also on pg. 377 Wright says, “Go above and beyond the call of a smoothly functioning conscience; help those who aren’t likely to help you in return, and do so when nobody’s watching. This is one way to be a truly moral animal.” The problem is he’s making morally objective statements, which is transcendent in nature. However, evolution is descriptive, or can only describe how to act at that moment, and not how one should act in the future. Why “ought” we be moral tomorrow? Morality has an “oughtness”, but mere behavior is descriptive. It is a mere function of the environment to select anything that will benefit the survival of the species. Wright attests to this in the same book by saying, “Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse” (pg. 13).
Also science is based on empirical evidence, and there is no empirical evidence for morality. In the evolution morality must be assumed because it won’t work otherwise. Let me give an example that Greg Koukl used. Suppose there were a group of chimps, and one chimp does something that is “selfish” behavior. Then the other chimps proceed to “punish” that chimp for his “selfish” behavior. From the empirical, or external, evidence this situation could easily look like morality. However, one must not assume external behavior is all that is there, because there are also non-behavioral elements. There are two important elements that are part of morality, but cannot be observed by external behavior: Intent and motive. Intent is whether something was done on purpose or accident, and motive is why the person did it. Neither of these two elements can be observed through external behaviors. Yet we know that morality depends deeply on these elements. For example, if a young man stuck out his foot to trip an old lady it would be wrong. On the other hand, if the boys foot was sticking out in an isle and the old lady tripped on it by accident it would not be the same. We can clearly see the intent matters and the same goes for motive.
Morality is not explained, it is denied because it is only something condition by the environment for survival. We may call it morality, but there is no right or wrong. Again evolution cannot explain morality’s oughtness. Why shouldn’t the chimp be selfish?
Anyways moral choices need to be made by free agents, not dictated by internal mechanics like natural instincts.
Christianity Is The Perfect Fit
Just like I wrote in A Spiritual Journey Less Taken, Christianity has an amazing worldview fit. This means what Christianity says fits well with reality. I believe that when it comes to selfishness and morality, Christianity does a great job of explaining it and it fits with reality.
Since the beginning of time man of his own free will, and able to make moral choices, has chosen to disobey God (sin). Adam and Eve when given a choice made the decision they would rather be god of their lives, rather than the actually Creator of the Universe (rebellion). Their act of choosing the tree of the knowledge of good and evil could even be deemed selfish. For many years to come throughout the Old Testament, and many other ancient history, we can see selfishness pervade much of mankind’s choices. It even speaks in Romans 1 of men who dishonor and disobey God, whom are given up to the lusts of their hearts. Again another picture of selfishness.
The more dreadful part of this is that all are enslaved to there disobedience to God, or sin, (Romans 6:6) and obey the passions of their disobedience (Romans 6:12). It isn’t an instinct, but it is something that is keeping people blinded to the truth. The most glorious part is that it doesn’t have to be that way. God has chosen to redeem mankind from this disobedience, and freely give us a pardon from it. Even though we deserve justice, which is death and eternal separation from God. Through Jesus anyone can have that reconciliation that we all desire and long for in our hearts. However, it is only through Jesus (John 14:6).
I hope you can see that it is most reasonable to believe that morality cannot be based in evolution. Also that selfishness is not only morally wrong, but it is best explained by a Christian worldview. Most importantly, there is Good News, and that is God sent Jesus to reconcile his creation and we can accept this free gracious gift and begin to rid ourselves of this selfish way of living.
Robert Wright, The Moral Animal–Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994)
Koukl, Greg. Monkey Morality: Can Evolution Explain Ethics http://www.str.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6221