Humans Are Selfish By Nature. Discuss.

“Humans are selfish by nature” is a generalisation which is both refuted and supported by religions and moral codes around the world. However, from my experience as a learner, I believe that the validity of this statement is subjective, a matter of personal interpretation; as with many other ethical and moral issues in our lives. I have selected Christianity and Scientology to illustrate two major perspectives on this, and I believe they can both be considered to validate this quote, although in very different ways.

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The first discrepancy of this statement arises when we consider what is meant by the word, “selfish”. According to the Collins dictionary, to be selfish is to be “unduly concerned with personal profit or pleasure” [1] . Already this is a subjective matter, because who decides what degree of personal regard is “unduly”, or excessive, and thus considered selfish? The alternative viewpoint exists in the Webster 1913 dictionary where selfishness is described as “believing…the chief motives of human action are derived from love of self” [2] . This definition can be considered to reflect a more positive opinion, because “love of self” implies general respect for one’s well being, instead of egotism. I believe that in our society we are generally expected to accept the word of authority to be an appropriate way of finding truth, but the variations between these two authoritative sources make me question whether or not it is the most effective way of finding truth about selfishness. Is it right therefore, to simply accept what one reads in a chemistry textbook as concrete fact? I believe such inconsistencies should encourage us to ask questions as learners, because it is always possible that an authoritative, educational source might be mistaken!

Another way of finding truth about this is through faith. Are humans selfish, in light of either definition, as a result of nature? If we are to accept the Collins definition of the word and apply it to Christianity, then I believe the answer is yes. Selfishness is mentioned in The Bible as being a false way of obtaining “wisdom” or truth, informing believers that “where you have…selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and every other evil practice…[because] such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is…of the devil” [3] . This implies that selfishness is not only a trait of mankind, but rather a sinful way of knowing – instead of obtaining truth through God, or faith, and serving others. Thus, the validity of the statement, “humans are selfish by nature”, in terms of Christianity comes down to; are people sinners by nature? For believers, The Bible also provides the answer to this – “just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin…in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” [4] . This informs followers that we are all born as sinners, and thus by faith in The Bible and the belief that selfishness is a sin, humans are indeed “selfish by nature”. Even the most selfless or perhaps godly of acts can be considered selfish. For example, if I was to complete my service hours for CAS purely for my personal “ambition” of completing the IB diploma, I would actually be considered selfish and thus sinful, because I am applying “wisdom…of the devil”.

If this is true for the Collins definition of “selfish”, then what did Webster mean by, “love of self”? According to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, it means to “maintain…confidence in self…[because] what is true for you is what you have observed yourself” [5] . This code thus asks its believers not to find truth by faith, but rather through personal perception. This principle can be considered selfish according the Webster definition, or even by the Collins definition if someone else perceives this personal regard to be “unduly”, as everyone’s truth is different and no consideration is given to anyone else’s perspective. But is this principle selfish by nature or nurture? This can be answered in some form through young children, because they very often act as a result of nature, or instinct, as opposed to developed habits [6] . For example, when I was about four years old, the ball I was playing with rolled onto my road. My first instinct was not to check for cars, but to retrieve the ball because that was the only object I was able to perceive at the time. By nature, I believed there was no risk because I assumed that the ball, which was of utmost importance to me in that instance, was equally as significant for everyone else. It was only when I learned from my parents, figures of authority, that it is dangerous to cross the road without looking that I began to doubt myself. This shows I naturally had a selfish view of the world because of my own biased perception, and it is only when perceived authoritative figures offer an alternative perspective that we doubt ourselves. Hubbard believes that “nurturing” this self-doubt, and in this context selflessness, means “you have lost everything”, because you no longer respect your own personal perception of the world. However, I believe that if we did not have the ability to consider other people’s perspectives then we would be blinded by our own self-importance, and of course unable to write TOK essays which attempt to consider more than one viewpoint!

Through exploring these alternate perspectives, we can see that even acts of service can be thought selfish based on intent in Christianity, whereas in Scientology selfishness might simply mean “confidence in self”. However, despite their differences, both moral codes validate that humans can be considered “selfish by nature” regardless of how one acts, because it is a matter of personal perception and interpretation. If that is so, is it actually selfish for us to seek truth about this statement, when our motives are based on innate curiosity and ambition?

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