Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Facts of Life, part 2


The human being, having an extended period of upbringing and education, is dependent upon its parents and its educators for many years. It is helped by the community to be a productive member of society, to be able to add value to others, so that it is in turn paid money or goods for its own survival.

One is helped to stand up, then one helps the next generation stand up, and so on.


This cycle can only succeed on the basis of something which complements an individual's selfish desire to survive. Namely: Altruism.

One is helped by one's parents in a combination of selfishness and altruism. The parents are selfish because it is their child, carrying their genes, but they are unambiguously altruistic in that their own pleasures take a back-seat to the child's.

Similarly, the community is a combination of selfishness (in that it regards the other communities as threatening) and altruism (in that it is willing to carry its weakest).

This is a precarious balance, and any community or individual which becomes too selfish or too altruistic does not last very long.

This double-standard, one for "one's own" and another for "the rest" is essential for the health and well-being of an individual or community.


The evolution of society, just like genetic evolution, happens when a change/mutation enhances the overall fitness. But unlike genes, social evolution can also be brought about consciously. That is the inevitable complexity of "progress". Society exists to propagate itself, and hence is resistant to change, even beneficial change.

The societies which evolve quickly, and are fitter, are those in which the cost of being different is not fatal. In those societies, ideas have a healthy ground on which to compete with each other, unlike primitive societies, in which difference in opinion is considered a blasphemy, sin or immorality.

However, it is obvious that a disregard or disdain for tradition can too easily become counter-productive. It is nobody's case that all change is good change, or that all tradition is bad. The quandary of modern societies is its desire to let individuals make their own life choices, but its wish for them to make "good" life choices.

An individual is a carrier of genes and traditions, to be passed on to the next carrier. An individual's life is of little consequence, compared to the life of genes and traditions. But that "little" consequence is not nil.

An average human being is important in a limited way, to a very small set of people, and an exceptional individual may, rarely, question a tradition in a way that echoes with others. The impact on a tradition of that questioning therefore depends upon whether the rest of the society is somewhat tired of that tradition as well. And it is worth considering that historically, many people came up with similar ideas at about the same time. The time was ripe.


To come to terms with suffering and mortality is therefore to accept that others, especially the next generation, may be more important than oneself. That one is a small part of a teeming species, a single member of a large community, a single carrier of ideas and genes which exist in others as well.

A narcissist cannot do that, and hence he struggles more than others against what he perceives as "needless" pain. The stress of inter-personal relationships, the depression of growing old and irrelevant, the resentment towards others' expectations, the demands of child-rearing are more acute in a narcissist, and he seeks solutions in which his fulfillment is unrelated to others' states. Where a parent might find some kind of fulfillment in seeing its children happy, or a scientist might find some kind of fulfillment in seeing a medicine save lives, a narcissist regards these fulfillment as conditional on others, and hence unsatisfactory. The only fulfillment worth its name to him is autonomous fulfillment.


Life as a whole may not matter much. But individuals matter even less than that.

In other words, it may all end one day. But you will definitely end sooner than that.

The end of narcissism is to start to live in a way in which your own happiness is not the foremost goal of your life.


Anonymous said...

To come to terms with suffering and mortality is therefore to accept that others, especially the next generation, may be more important than oneself. [...] The end of narcissism is to start to live in a way in which your own happiness is not the foremost goal of your life.

There is a psychological relief from being even slightly altruistic -- focusing on others, away from oneself. One may suffer within, but the neurotic reaction to that suffering is reduced by paying much attention to others' well-being. But that is all there is to it; nothing more -- being happy and harmless, for example -- is needed from the standpoint of evolution.

Let's not forget, however, that the more-altruistic approach you advocate above too is selfish in a sense that "I" feel special/needed/desired during (and as a result of) the very approach.

The end of narcissism is not the end of selfism.

Anonymous said...

Your basic understanding of narcissism seems to be incomplete. If you understood it properly you would realize the very act of producing a progeny with the intention of propagating a likeness of oneself be it in terms of genes(male sex chromosome of course here is primary in male dominated societies), personality or traditions - is an act of narcissism. Such acts reach extremes in Indian societies where females or malformed progeny are aborted, burnt,harassed so much that they become wrecks or suicidal. Needless to say such societies are bound to self destruct. This is manifest in the obvious failure of the MIL-DIL relationship since time immemorial, irrespective of what part of the world one lives in. Obsessing with "Seeing the likeness of oneself" in the other is the hallmark of a narcissist. This why the relationships fail.
Producing a progeny so that he will be a crutch in old age(so that continuity of the self is assured) is a pure act of narcissism. So, all the so called sacrifices made for the progeny are hardly altruistic.
On the other hand we have the so called altruists the psuedo seekers of today who masquerade as Gurus, counselors,social activists - if you look at their agendas closely you will see they are just looking for a reflection of the "I" everywhere around them.
As was said before and I think you agree too - living in the world is act of balancing the "I" and "You" not letting one overwhelm the other. Spiritual living is going beyond the "I" and "You" and is the true path to the end of narcissism. There is no question of living more for the happiness of the other versus ones own or vice versa.

Anonymous said...

Hey Harman,

These MAY be fruitful questions:

What are you trying to find with all this?

And why?


Harmanjit Singh said...

@srid, @anonymous: I understand the notion that all directed activity is self-directed and hence can be called selfish in a broad sense. And I am aware that all pleasure, even the emotional pleasure that one gets from being altruistic, can be considered a selfish payoff.

However, I believe that this way of looking at human behavior is naive. There is clearly an instinct of helping and nurturing others and there is clearly a separate instinct of focusing on pleasures which do not include others' well-being (and which may at best be harmless).

Obviously the fulfillment of any desire or instinct, even altruistic ones, leads to satisfaction and happiness, but to therefore say that those desires are the same as selfish ones is not true. There is a difference, and I am pointing that a balance between fulfilling individual desires and others' desires
is essential to human species.

The pleasures of altruism have to be separated from the selfish pleasures, because if any pleasant feeling in the mind is considered the symptom of "look, what a self-directed man", then the very discussion is meaningless.

Let's say a man dies for his community, or a mother suffers from stress while bringing up her child, that suffering co-exists with the emotional payoff of doing something worthwhile, and that co-existence of suffering, stress or discomfort while pursuing something meaningful is, I think, the hallmark of altruism.

The selfish pleasures do not have suffering, stress and discomfort in that sense and they also do not have the emotional satisfaction therefore.

If you criticize emotional satisfaction as being a selfish satisfaction and therefore in the same basket as hedonism/narcissism, you would be thinking like I used to think, and I believe you would be wrong.

Recall a nice man/woman from your family, circle of friends, and compare him with a narcissistic man from your group of acquaintances. If you don't see any psychic difference and regard both as "rotten" and equally selfish, I think you are suffering from what I would call as the selfish fallacy.

Dawkins talks about it as follows:

"Before going any further, we need a definition. An entity, such as a baboon, is said to be altruistic if it behaves in such a way as to increase another such entity's welfare at the expense of its own. Selfish behavior has exactly the opposite effect.'Welfare' is defined as 'chances of survival', even if the effect on actual life and death prospects is so small as to seem negligible. One of the surprising consequences of the modern version of the Darwinian theory is that apparently trivial tiny influences on survival probability can have a major impact on evolution. This is because of the enormous time available for such influences to make themselves felt.

It is important to realize that the above definitions of altruism and selfishness are behavioral, not subjective. I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives. I am not going to argue about whether people who behave altruistically are 'really' doing it for secret or subconscious selfish motives. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't, and maybe we can never know, but in any case that is not what this book is about. My definition is concerned only with whether the effect of an act is to lower or raise the survival prospects of the presumed altruist and the survival prospects of the presumed beneficiary..."

Harmanjit Singh said...


What are you trying to find with all this?

A re-balancing of my organism, a re-appraisal of how I should live.

And why?

Because I recognize my way of life to be suboptimal for myself and for others, and because I know I can be a better person but am trying to find where I went wrong.

Jack said...

Me too, Harman. But by what criteria will you judge that your organism is operating optimally, and that you're being a better person?

Harmanjit Singh said...

But by what criteria will you judge that your organism is operating optimally, and that you're being a better person?

Being a better person is simpler to ascertain: by how others relate to oneself, and a certain warmth and trust and ease in the interactions.

The optimality is a harder question. I think optimality is not in a vacuum, it is best judged by comparing one's own past experiences and by looking at others. There is no unambiguous, objective "perfection" as a human being (I think). It is perhaps more useful to see that one's capabilities and human traits are utilized in a way which makes oneself and others happy, one is balanced in one's emotions, health and intellect. Like a machine, all parts of one are working, well-oiled and functioning as designed and interacting harmoniously with other individuals, as far as possible. :)

Human beings are flawed and are not machines, and if one's interactions contain friction, then to be reflective and adjust, sometimes oneself, sometimes by adjusting the other person.

I think it is obvious to an evolved person when he has had a good day. That intuition is not to be sneezed at.

Anonymous said...

I am not criticizing a more altruistic lifestyle that you are exploring. I am merely pointing out that such a lifestyle a) can only bring reasonable relief to the stresses of a narcissistic lifestyle (and relative benefits to society, as you acknowledged) ... and b) still leaves "me" (thus suffering) intact.

I fully support such a lifestyle, and never want anyone to be narcissistic. However, with a caution that such is not the best way to live (Arhatship and PCE comes to mind -- both of which you have no experience of).

Harmanjit Singh said...


b) still leaves "me" (thus suffering) intact.

I wish you all the best in your quest. It might be interesting for you to interact with those who claim to have no suffering.

Susan said...

Considering nature's foremost goal being self-sustenance of species, each of its individual member should put the well-being of the group over it's own well-being. However, in my opinion in current scenario, this way of living may not be sustainable since that is not how the individual members are designed. May be the reason is that it hasn’t been a single customized design for each species but a continuous patch work on top of the most basic design as the newer forms have evolved. I feel narcissism is inherent in all humans may be as a part of its earlier design. The stress of inter-personal relationships, expectations, child-rearing etc are less acute in some not because the level of narcissism is lower in them but because their instincts have been coated with layers of beliefs (I believe these beliefs do relieve one from certain kind of stress and depression but cause different set of problems). When these beliefs slowly give way to awareness, these issues become more apparent. I somehow feel that with growing awareness the impact of instincts can be lessened and may be narcissism can be reduced. But I am not sure if it can be completely eradicated in the present form of humans.

Harmanjit Singh said...


I feel narcissism is inherent in all humans may be as a part of its earlier design.

No Susan, I disagree. Individuality and autonomy whose psychological counterpart is narcissism, is a recent development. Of course, a few narcissists might have existed in all ages, but now we have an epidemic of it, due to socio-industrial reasons, as explained in my earlier articles.

I regard narcissism as the diminishing of affection and altruism, both of which are related to OTHERS and make one do something for them at a cost to oneself.

The stress of inter-personal relationships, expectations, child-rearing etc are less acute in some not because the level of narcissism is lower in them but because their instincts have been coated with layers of beliefs (I believe these beliefs do relieve one from certain kind of stress and depression but cause different set of problems).

I don't agree with this also. The instincts are both selfism and altruism. Beliefs, being cultural, are usually a kind of moderation on extreme forms of both of these instincts. For example, the belief of "pitri-rin" (have a child of your own to repay the debt to your father) is a strong cultural force for certain people to remain householders.

Beliefs are both tools of sociocultural control, as well as being coping mechanisms for individuals in times of stress.

You just have to look at very primitive cultures at the dawn of human civilization, or some animals. Now they don't have beliefs (they don't really have a culture at all), but they have both altruism and selfism in them.

Were humans at the dawn of civilization more or less individualistic than, say, humans in the 15th century. If asked to make a bet, I would bet humans at the dawn of civilization, being mammals (and hence needing the nurturing and community instincts), were more "herd-ish" and less individualistic.

I don't think selfism/narcissism is primary in human beings. I think both selfism and altruism need to exist in a balance for a human being (and a community of humans) to thrive.

Harmanjit Singh said...

Another article from NY Times:

Mammals may derive pleasure from helping others in the same way that humans feel good doing good. Nature often equips life’s essentials — sex, eating, nursing — with built-in gratification. One study found that pleasure centers in the human brain light up when we give to charity. This is of course no reason to call such behavior “selfish” as it would make the word totally meaningless. A selfish individual has no trouble walking away from another in need. Someone is drowning: let him drown. Someone cries: let her cry. These are truly selfish reactions, which are quite different from empathic ones. Yes, we experience a “warm glow,” and perhaps some other animals do as well, but since this glow reaches us via the other, and only via the other, the helping is genuinely other-oriented.

Harmanjit Singh said...

A new article on altruism: