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                                             A C Grayling – Self Interest

                                           From The Heart of Things [2005]

Albert Camus said that the fundamental philosophical question is: ‘Should I commit suicide?’ If the answer is ‘No’ it is because there is a reason to live: there is something worth having, doing or being, which gives purpose to life, and thereby makes it valuable.

But there is another fundamental philosophical question too. It is: ‘How far am I my brother’s keeper?’ This question lies implicitly in the background when anyone’s choices or actions affect others. The question can be variously rephrased. How much must I consider others’ interests? What is the degree of my responsibility towards others? These very formulations assume that a certain degree of such responsibility exists - not just to close associates, but to strangers and foreigners too. Only a knave could publicly say otherwise. But the key terms are: how much? to what degree?

Practical examples help to bring the import of such questions home. Consider the following one. When these words were first written, the Arabs of Sudan were perpetrating a horrendous atrocity against the African tribes of Dafur in the west of their country, driving a million of them from their homes, committing mass murder and rape - all in the comfortable assurance that no one in the outside world would lift a finger to stop them.

There is no secret about what happened in the Sudan, though Western news media hardly mentioned it, giving far more attention to football and other equally important matters. Sudan’s Arab militia, the Janjaweed, had the express backing of their government, whose helicopters located the fleeing Zaghawa, Masalit and Fur tribes-people, then directed the militiamen to them. Tribesmen and boys were massacred out of hand, tribes-women and girls raped and then killed. The refugees - starving, hunted, terrified - hid in the mountains or struggled to reach the safety of Chad, driven by the Janjaweed’s relentless savagery. How much - to what degree - did people elsewhere in the world feel a responsibility to help the victims of this mayhem? On the evidence available as it actually happened, it appeared that very few even asked themselves the question. Oxfam shops had posters in their windows requesting help for the refugees flooding into neighbouring Chad. But where were the French army, the Canadian air force, the people elsewhere in the Arab world so shamed by what their own kind were doing that they hastened to stop it? The absence and the silence were as shock­ing as the atrocities themselves, for they answered the question about the degree of our responsibility to others by saying: ‘None.’

What weighs against our concern for others is self-interest. Appropriate self-interest is a good thing; we have duties to ourselves and those closely associated with us, and taking responsibility for our own well-being is not only to our advan­tage but, cumulatively, to the good of all - for then we are not a burden on others. But when legitimate and appropriate self-interest turns into indifference or callousness, making us shut our eyes to the claim that others’ suffering makes on us, then the world’s moral machinery is out of kilter, and in the end threatens our own well-being too. As this suggests, really thoughtful self-interest would give a high priority to concern for others; for selfishness is self-defeating.

To see why, consider the classic example discussed in Game Theory, that of ‘the prisoner’s dilemma’. Two men are arrested for a serious crime, and are interrogated separately. Each knows that if neither confesses, they will both get a light sentence for associated minor offences. Each knows that if one confesses and the other does not, the confessor will be released but the other will get a life sentence. And each knows that if both confess, both will get twenty years in prison.

Obviously, the best outcome for each individually is secured by confessing, providing that the other does not confess; one gains maximally provided the other loses maximally. But the concomitant risk each individually runs is that both lose max­imally. The overall best outcome for both, accordingly, is for neither to confess, so that both get light sentences. Cooperation is therefore the unsurprising route to the optimal result. In the real world the first, selfish, option is chosen far more often than the second cooperative one, most people (and states) gambling on getting the maximum for themselves at others’ expense. Since that is also the maximally risky option, is it any surprise that the world is a mess?

This shows what the answer should be to our question, ‘How much am I my brother’s keeper?’ The answer is, ‘Almost as much as I am my own keeper.’ May that thought always deter­mine what is done about such tragedies as have occurred in the Sudan, the Balkans, Rwanda ... back through a litany of human disgrace to the greatest of them all, the Holocaust, and beyond even to the beginnings of history.               


                                                  From The Heart of Things (2005)


A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com


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