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Self-Interest, Compassion or In the name of God?

October 9, 2010

“Mother Teresa is a selfish bitch”. Professor LaVaque-Manty’s statement made me think a lot. I’m from Pondicherry, the home of the Aurobindo Ashram where Mother Teresa has thousands of followers, who revere her. A part of me was offended, although he did not obviously mean it but he made me think about that very rotten idea. Thanks to Hobbes and Machiavelli.

Me and my friend discussed once on what is purpose of our lives? Emily, being a protestant, said she lives to serve God while I believed we live for serving others. And if Hobbes was there with us, he would have said we live for ourselves, purely self-interested, that even our compassions were because we wanted to feel good about ourselves.

A quick word on Machiavelli – He is useless in arguing about who we serve, as he is strictly a strategic amoralist, who would say all of us are

“ungrateful, fickle, deceptive and deceiving, avoiders of danger, eager to gain”. (Chap 17, pg.35)

Nicco, the whacko has a point, but he does not get into the minds of people, does not theorize why people would want to serve. It is more like, this is what you need to do to be a good prince and well, I see Machiavelli’s Prince as Ruling for Dummies. First of all Mac, not everyone wants to be a ruler.

So which one of these aspects are we directed towards to the question of why we serve – Self-Interest, Compassion and In the name of God?

Let us consider both states of nature that Hobbes offers, a state of war and a state of peace. In a state of war

where every man is enemy to every man (Levithan, Chapter 13)

Then we ask ourselves, why do people perform any action? In a state of war, where there is

continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty and brutish (Levithan, Chapter 13)

If you were fearing for your life at this very moment, someone behind you might just attack you and in that situation, would I say God will save me? Would I say, “Poor guy, he wants something from me – i’ll give it to you, just spare my life”. These options are thrown out the window – I would agree with Hobbes

Nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place (Levithan Chapter 13)

But now at this moment, I am working in my lounge, I have no fear, I am in a state of peace and I feel no necessity to go into the state of war. That is when God and Compassion play a part.

Hobbesian view compares passions and Knowledge, and argues that people have a diversity of passions and are seeking those passions. The basic idea of why people want to be in a state of peace is

fear of death; desire of such things as are necessary for commodious living; and a hope by their industry to obtain them (Levithan, Chapter 13)

Hobbes gives the idea of forming contracts, and a way we can be in the state of peace. These covenants are Hobbes’ view of defining Justice and his argument is basically following the covenant which we agreed to is just.

When a covenant is made, then to break it is unjust and the definition of INJUSTICE, is no other than the not performance of covenant. And whatsoever is not unjust, is just. (Levithan, Chapter 15)

Is that all justice is, Mr.Hobbes? Mother Teresa did not make a covenant with the ones she served. Emily did not make a covenant with God to follow Christianity. They both do not expect something in return which Hobbes does consider

When the transferring of right, is not mutual, but one of the parties transferreth, in hope to gain thereby friendship, or service from another, or from his friends, or in hope to gain reputation for charity or magnanimity; or to deliver his mind from the pain of compassion or in hope of reward in heaven; this is not contract but GIFT, FREE-GIFT, GRACE (Levithan, Chapter 14 162)

My criticism is simply, why should there be a reason to serve? Why does Hobbes need to theorize this thought? Why can’t service just be service? My dream has been to create a better society by providing education in impoverished nations. I am a big believer in education changing society, away from crimes and all bad things that happen. If Hobbes would say, you want do get into the education business because you want to fulfill your passions of a commodious living and want your industry to obtain you (aka making money, family and all other self-interested goals), it just devalues my dream. Mother Teresa is not a selfish bitch and even if she was self-interested in her charitable work, I like the idea of her being a selfless idol to all of us.

Sometimes Hobbes, some things are best left untold or rather un-theorized.

  1. crorey permalink
    October 10, 2010 6:35 PM

    I agree with you, your friend Emily, and Hobbes on this argument. I believe that your idea on the purpose of life actually stems from Hobbes’ idea. We do in fact live our lives selfishly, but paradoxically, this often entails doing good to others. For example, one christian principle is that doing good to others will result in good consequences. This is basically another way of saying the cliché, “what goes around comes around.” Although someone may be doing good for someone else, they are ultimately doing these good deeds in hopes of reciprocation in some form or another. This is not a bad thing, in fact this is probably a good thing that there are people who hold this philosophy because it definitely brings about more good in society. So overall, it is clear that your and Emily’s opinions on the purpose of life actually do coincide with Hobbes’ belief that man acts in his own self interest.

  2. October 16, 2010 11:09 PM

    I really enjoyed this post and it make me think a lot about why we as people do good things for others. I think you make a lot of great points and I myself would also love to be a teacher, changing the world one student at a time. However, I think that ultimately we all are self-interested in some way. If we take the example of being a teacher, you are right that you probably won’t be making much money and you are helping kids all day. While you are not making much money, you are personally rewarded from seeing others succeed. I know that personally in my own life I have helped many people succeed and I have also made a lot of money, working a variety of jobs. In the end it is not the money I made working as a camp counselor that i remember, it was helping my campers learn how to play sports or how to respect one another that I truly value. Therefore, while I would love to say I did it all so that those kids could grow as people, I know at the end of the day it made me feel pretty darn good to be the one partially “responsible” for that development. We are all self-interested in some way.

  3. joshuacy permalink
    October 17, 2010 9:02 PM

    It’s not that I disagree with you, your friend Emily, or Hobbes (but I do); I just can’t get around your “Some things are better left untold or rather un-theorized.”
    Isn’t that what this class is about? Theorizing? “The unexamined life is not worth living?” Hobbes’ job is to theorize about average human behavior.

    It seems like you are personally offended by the idea of being self-interested. The self is important. It’s the only thing you have. More or less, everyone is living for himself (though actions are usually more complicated than their assumed motivations).

    Woah, I guess it is that I disagree with you, haha.

  4. October 18, 2010 1:23 PM

    Just to make it clear that I don’t actually think so myself, I used the statement “Mother Theresa is a selfish bitch” as an example of what follows if you hold the view that all human beings are self-interested in the strong sense of “self-interest.” (Also, as I have argued, Hobbes doesn’t hold that strong view, either.)

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