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Ellen De-Generous? (and Hobbes)

March 29, 2011

I’m not really a fan of talk shows, but I love The Ellen Show. I think Ellen is absolutely hilarious, I (usually) love her guests, and she makes my weekday mornings a little brighter. The only thing that slightly bothers me is how Ellen DeGeneres is portrayed as, well, so generous.

Ellen has giveaways on her show quite often. Most of the time, these prizes are electronics or gift cards, but she also gives away brand new cars to viewers who she thinks especially deserve it. Obviously, that’s not pocket change (well, to most people – maybe it is to Ellen), but to me the whole process can seem a little insincere and filled with self-interest.

Basically, this is what happens: A viewer writes Ellen a heartfelt email detailing his/her various struggles and car-lessness – knowing very well that Ellen gives cars away. Ellen gives a car to the viewer on her show, making them happier and consequently making her look like a saint. While doing so, she also advertises the perks of that car, making the car manufacturers look good. All in all, everyone wins. But doesn’t everyone act out of selfishness here?

According to Hobbes, humans are selfish by nature. I don’t disagree, but I don’t think that being selfish is always such a bad thing. While humans may be selfish by nature, I don’t necessarily think they’d be at war with each other to get things they want – unless they wanted the same thing. However, I think that’s more about competition and less about self-interest. The idea of “selfishness” has such a bad connotation that sometimes it’s easy to forget that good things can come out of selfishness, too.

I know, it’s a stretch – but Ellen made me think about it. Maybe she depends on her viewers to make herself look better. Maybe her viewers depend on her for a shot at a new car or some other prize. Maybe car companies depend on celebrities like Ellen to advertise their cars. Maybe I depend on Ellen to make my mornings a little more enjoyable. So what? Even if everyone acts out of selfishness, we still depend on each other. I don’t necessarily think Hobbes was wrong, but I do think those who aren’t in competition with each other (in other words, they don’t have the same selfish desire) can use each other to get what they (all) want. There can be win-win situations, even when people act selfishly.

What do you think? Is being selfish always a bad thing, or is it possible to help someone else as you get what you want? What would Hobbes say about this?

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6 Comments
  1. rgrossca permalink
    March 30, 2011 2:59 AM

    Just because you are selfish does not mean you are not helping others at the same time. It just means you think of yourself first. Hobbes believed that humans were basically selfish creatures who would do anything to better their position. Left to themselves, he thought, people would act on their evil impulses. In addition, Hobbes felt that nations, like people, were selfishly motivated. Thus, although we all act selfishly, we are potentially indirectly helping others. Ellen is selfish for wanting others to view her as compassionate. Viewers are selfish for wanting a new car for free, without labor. Car companies are selfish for flaunting their car on national television. But in the long run, all these selfish behaviors do not divide a society, rather they bring it more together and happier. Thus, being selfish is not always a bad thing.

  2. kkokotil permalink
    March 30, 2011 10:54 AM

    I agree, being selfish is not always a bad thing. I think that especially with how competitive the world is today, being a little selfish is almost necessary to progress. If I don’t look out for myself, then who will? Hobbes thought that people were selfish beings who would do anything to better their positions. While I agree with Hobbes to a certain point, I feel as though it is a very generalized statement. The degree of selfishness can vary greatly and some people definately can be more selfish than others. Although some people, perhaps a tyranical ruler or a rich greedy elitists may be severely selfish, I for one am glad that people like Ellen are somewhat selfish by doing something for other people with their money, even if they are self-motivated. If Ellen didn’t give away cars or such, she may be seen as even more selfish because of all the money she has that she wouldn’t be using to help people.

  3. snradin permalink
    March 30, 2011 12:13 PM

    I’m not sure we can call Ellen selfish without knowing her true motives on giving away such lavish objects. We are quick to jump to the conclusion that the ultimate goal of these gifts are to make Ellen look better–but is isn’t it also possible that she is doing so out of the kindness of her heart in order to give back to those who are less fortunate? I think the definition of “selfish” is hard to decipher in respect to modern media and television. There may be a part of Ellen that wants to give back and be selfless, but you also do make a good point that it’s possible that she’s doing all these things in order to promote her show and gain viewers. This reminds me of the whole dilemma that’s constantly over the gossip media in relation to celebrities adopting children from third-world countries. While many say they are doing a great act and giving these children a better life, others believe that the celebs are only doing this to get media attention and be selfish. Either way, we really don’t know the true motives of these celebs, regardless of what they can tell friends, the media, or anyone else. This is why it’s so difficult to decide whether Ellen or anyone else is acting selfish or not. We usually look down on Hobbesian philosophy and believe that anyone as self interested as Hobbes describes should be frowned upon. You bring up a good case that this is not necessarily true. Whether Ellen is acting selfish or not (we will never know), it ultimately benefits society and is most definitely positive. I agree with the author–this is a case where Hobbesian theory takes a turn for the better.

  4. Emily Slaga permalink
    March 30, 2011 4:34 PM

    I agree with you that selfishness may not always be bad, that there can be good things that come from your selfishness, but in the case of Ellen, I think she could almost be construed as selfish in a bad way when you look at this. I seriously doubt that she is giving away her personal income to donate cars to her viewers. It’s the producers who take it out of the shows revenue, not Ellen’s fixed income. The producers are tugging on the heart strings of America with sob stories to draw in ratings, while probably making some sort of profit for advertising the new cars, and then helping out one person. In the scheme of things, the show gains way more than the cost of the one car. They’re still being extremely selfish and looking out for themselves. In that way, they are proving Hobbes point. To disprove it, I’d like to see Ellen donate her own paycheck towards cars for needy people. That’s being selfless while possibly gaining yourself, which is different than being selfish while helping others.

  5. lapinsk12 permalink
    March 30, 2011 4:34 PM

    I belive it is alright to be selfish sometimes. I mean if you spent your whole life pleasing others and didn’t take any time for yourself, I really don’t think you would be that happy of a camper. No pleasure for you while constantly giving would be a very tough thing to do. Imagine it’s Christmas morning and you see your brothers and sisters opening their presents and getting the latest XBOX game or a brand new pair of designer shoes and you’re jsut sitting there looking on, obviously happy for them but at the same time you feel a little depressed that you can never experience that joy because of the vow of unselfishness you’ve taken. This will grow on you over the course of your life. It’s alright to take a little time for yourself and treat yourself every once in a while to a luxury so you don’t go crazy. In the Ellen example, by advertising these car companies she is generating revenue so she can continue to help these people with problems. Undoubtedly she gets paid for these advertisements but at the same time she is giving back and therefore is a win win situation. Selfishness isn’t necessarily a bad trait and can be used for the greater good.

    Brendan Lapinski

  6. willscheffer permalink
    March 30, 2011 7:56 PM

    I like this post because it challenges the stigma associated with the word “selfish.” I know in class we have discussed the question of whether or not generous acts are inherently selfish if the person giving feels good doing it, and i think this point is key to the “selfishness” argument. I think all acts of generosity are “selfish” because people do them to feel good. However i agree with the above comments that say this selfishness is not a bad thing. Is Ellen herself paying for the cars? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t really care and i don’t think anyone else should either. One of the comments listed a long chain of people and groups who profit from this generosity. I think the more incentives there are for acts of generosity the better.

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