The Moral Universe – Self-Interest Well Understood

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Okay, I do have to write about Alexis de Tocqueville again, so bear with me. You can blame him for being so wise in addressing issues that are universal and timeless and also for being so prophetic.
Have you ever practically flown out of your chair upon hearing a concept described that you had thought about for a long time but never knew there was a name for?

This happened to me while listening to the second set of CDs in the “Tocqueville and the American Experiment” Great Courses series.

“Self-interest well understood” is the term that Tocqueville gave to participation in political associations, meaning that when people are involved in serving others, they are also serving themselves. He does relate it fairly narrowly to the importance of participation in democracy and cites all kinds of ramifications in not doing so.

But the term hit me so hard because it is something I’ve given much thought to and had discussions about with my sister. It is a concept I started to define in my own mind in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, when we’d had almost four years of Tea Party campaigning and scare tactics. Since I had come to know people who self-defined as members of the Tea Party, I was trying to understand where they were coming from but finding it difficult to discern anything in their comments but fear and selfishness. The bulk of their objections to the Obama administration started with the words “My” or “I.” “My taxes,” “my health insurance,” “my guns,” etc.

I never heard concern expressed for others who aren’t members of the Tea Party. I heard nothing that expressed a zeitgeist that included one’s neighbors, the country as a whole, or the rest of the world.
As we talked on the telephone while awaiting the results of the 20I2 election, I said to my sister that I never remembered voting for someone because of what I thought that person could do for me personally, but what that person could do for the greater society, whether on a state or national or international level. Since I first voted for George McGovern in 1974, it just never occurred to me that my personal concerns had anything to do with my vote, but that my vote was meant to consider a broader constituency.

My sister felt the same way; I don’t know where we got this from, though we tend to credit our mother with much of the way we look at the world. erhaps growing up in the 1960s also had something to do with it. We protested the Vietnam war not because we personally were going to lose or gain by it, but because we thought it was an unfair, imperial action that was costing too much in terms of both American and Vietnamese lives.

We also grew up during the hottest part of the Cold War and were taught to be afraid, to be very afraid, of atom bombs raining down on us with just the meager protection of a schoolroom desk. That might have formed in us a selfish outlook and overarching concern for our personal safety; instead it taught us that atom bombs are bad for Planet Earth and every living thing on it.

We watched the evening news from an early age and saw black people being fire-hosed and set upon by police dogs and somewhere in our brains we formed the idea that, though those hoses and dogs were not set upon us, it was a bad thing for the country that anyone should be treated this way. We did take it personally when Martin Luther King Jr. and, shortly after, Bobby Kennedy were assassinated because we felt that the country needed them so desperately.

Ultimately, somehow and from whatever inspiration, we grew up feeling that what was good for the larger community was good for us. We had learned self-interest well understood. As adults now in our 60s, we are even more concerned about the reign of terror (I can’t really speak for Sally, but that’s how I have come to see it) unleashed by the hateful war waged against the Obama administration. It has not only paralyzed Congress from acting in any positive way, but it has also seemed to give bigots the audacity to act out their prejudices again as in the days of Jim Crow. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, John Crawford and others have had to pay the ultimate price for the Tea Party’s fomenting of us vs. them.

I shall have much more to say about the NRA in a future blog, but what else but fear and selfishness allows people to think that their right to have military-grade weapons handy trumps innocent people’s right not to be killed by passing bullets and/or psychotics whose voices in their heads tell them to go to an elementary school and kill as many children as possible? It is the ultimate in self-interest not only not well understood, but ignored and trampled on.

It defies belief, but I have to hope it doesn’t defy the hope that if the Beloved Community that John Lewis wrote about really comes together and walks toward this problem, it can be solved. Too many futures have been shattered; we must see that other futures come to fruition.

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4 thoughts on “The Moral Universe – Self-Interest Well Understood

  1. In this same vein, Cynth, Don and I were listening to NPR on the way back home yesterday and heard a series of frightening interviews with “soccer moms” in New Hampshire. The gist of the piece was that Scott Brown will likely beat Shaheen because he has sown fear of terrorism into the hearts of what are now being referred to as “terror voters.” Young women and dads and even little kids were speaking about how afraid they are of Muslims. “They want to cut our heads off,” a five year old opined. I thought of that song that says, “Careful the things you say, children will listen…” I do lose hope for the world.

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    • Oh man, unbelievable. As if Democrats are working for terrorists? Or soft on terrorists? Isn’t Scott Brown lucky he can afford to go live in different states until he can find enough gullible people to vote for him?

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