The Trait of Selfishness

Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development breaks down the intentions behind our actions into three basic stages: Pre-Conventional, Conventional, and Post-Conventional. In the Pre-Conventional stages, we are motivated by rewards and by avoiding punishment; I pick up my litter, because I know if I don’t, my mom will yell at me, and then later, I pick up my litter because my 3rd grade teacher will give me a gold star. In the Conventional stage, we are motivated by acceptance of and societal norms; I pick up my litter, because it’s what society expects me to do, and if I am with a bunch of friends who pick up their litter, and I do not, I risk social exclusion. In the final stages, the Post-Conventional, we are motivated just because it is the right thing to do; I pick up my litter, even when no one else is looking, because I know it will pollute the Earth.

I’ve discussed this trait of selfishness before, and about how I think we often misinterpret what is truly selfish behavior. As an unmarried 20-Something, I’m often told this is my time to run around and “be selfish”; I’m supposed to do what I want, when I want it; overspend a little more than I usually would, take too many trips, stay out a little later than normal, and when I start overspending and then having to mooch off other people, I take too many trips that my work doesn’t get done and others must cover for me, or I stay out too late, stomp into my house, and wake up my room mates, I’ve taken my 20 Something selfishness a little out of context.

So, I wonder if we could align a Kohlberg type model for morality with this same trait of selfishness. In the Pre-Conventional Stage, I do selfless things because I want to avoid getting in trouble, or I want to be rewarded; in the Conventional Stage, I do selfless things, because it is expected in my society; in the Post-Conventional Stage, I do selfless things because I am genuinely an altruistic person. So, since Kohlberg focuses on intentions behind actions, am I engaging in an altruistic behavior because I want to avoid punishment? Am I doing it because I want someone to recognize my “good nature”? Or, am I doing it because I truly want to lighten someone else’s load?

Social media is always an excellent place to test our intentions, because why else would we post pictures of ourselves, other than for selfish, ego inflating reasons? I’m always critical of those feed the homeless campaigns around the holiday season. Don’t get me wrong, I think its great that people get out and help those less fortunate, and I always have to find the irony when they start posting all of these pictures of themselves, scooping up canned vegetables, with their perfectly placed messy bun, designer ripped jeans, and glitzy smile for the camera. In these cases, we feed the homeless so that we can take a picture of ourselves “doing a good deed”, and that kind of defeats the purpose of the truly altruistic deed, because when you do something nice for someone else, you shouldn’t care about some kind of social rating return. To be truly Post-Conventional Selfless, you would go feed the homeless, not tell anyone that you are going (except those who might worry about your whereabouts–not telling them, as discussed earlier, is a little selfish), and not post any pictures.

Leadership is also a place we see seemingly selfless acts. I believe that leadership is a gift that only a few are granted. We see this all over the Bible: Moses, Noah, David, etc. They are given wisdom, insight, responsibility that the common person does not have–the pay off is that we still read about their existence today–but the cost is their selfishness. I think we have to ask our leaders all the time why they stepped into leadership positions. Did you want to become a leader, because you wanted to write it on a resume, and get a scholarship? Did you want to become a leader, because you wanted people to look up to you, and you wanted to be able to make decisions? Or, did you want to become a leader, because you know you have a way of looking at the world that would benefit a group of chosen followers?

And, does the zone of who we intend to influence limit where we can fall on the spectrum? Consider the role of the mother, for example. Mothers are often giving, self-sacrificing. They stay up, late at night, wake up early to see the family off. They cook on days they don’t feel well, spend their hard earned money on activities for their children, make emergency runs to drop off forgotten homework at school. They work holidays, bake cookies, clean up projectiled bodily fluids. These certainly are very self-sacrificing acts, so does it change if the mother only does self-sacrificing acts for her family, but never extends those self-sacrificing acts outside? Like, say she gives her treasured free Chipotle coupon to her son, because she knows he is a poor starving college student, but she would never give the coupon to her son’s friend, who she knows is more starving than her son–does that limit her ‘selfless’ behavior, because while she is doing it her for son, she is also kind of doing it for herself, in order to keep her family unit at bay.

…do you hold the door open for other people, because you genuinely want to make their trip inside easier, or are you holding the door, because you want that cute girl to see your chivalrous nature? And, are you opening the door for your significant other, because that is the role you play, and would you still open the door for a random stranger?…

…when you offer to complete a task for your co-worker, do you do it because you realize you were gifted extra time, and want to take something off their plates, or do you do it because you want your work to shine? And, would you do it for any co-worker who asks for help, no matter your relationship to them, or do you have a limited sphere of people you would help?…

…and, is it possible for us to be truly altruistic, selfless, genuinely giving people?, or are we limited based on our priorities?…

1 Response

  1. […] The Church says to pray, because there is value in spending time alone, whether you believe is is God talking to you, your inner alien, or just your own mind. In a relationship, setting aside this time for personal reflection could be very important. First of all, by praying and focusing on gratitude, we are (attempting) to shift our focus to positive thoughts, which, studies have proven lead to a happier well being; sure, my husband could have stinky feet, but instead, I’m going to focus on his kind gesture of cleaning my car. Second of all, by setting aside time to reflect on our days, and to consider potential conflicts, we are allowing ourselves time to rebuild, reconstruct, and re-examine situations so that we can continue progressing our relationship. For example, say we had a disagreement with our significant other; during this time of reflection, we might conclude that the reason we lashed out was because we were feeling unloved, and then we can figure out a way to solve that so that it does not happen again. And last, relationships are always about putting someone else before yourself, so by setting aside time to just think about someone else, you are practicing that trait of selflessness. […]

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