Look Out!

Around 1978 I heard about a book that had just come out called Looking Out for Number One. I was appalled. The title was completely at odds with what had been going on throughout the 60s and early 70s, and it sounded evil to my ears. I still think of that book as the beginning of the change in this culture’s psychology, one we’re still living out. Reagan became president a couple of years later, and he advanced this idea of looking out for number one, and it has been growing as a national belief ever since. The author of the book was a libertarian, and we see libertarianism gaining more and more traction.

I think that “selfish” is what is really meant nowadays when we say “conservative.” So-called conservatives insist that it’s a virtue, that you’re supposed to look out for your country, your family, and yourself before anything else. People who don’t share this idea are viewed with suspicion. But looking out for number one is not a virtue. It’s a biological view of morality—instinctive, unthinking. And people who follow it are quite capable of turning against their country, their mate, or their children whenever it serves their self-interest. Selfish people don’t care about anybody else, by definition. Selfishness gradually undermines any system that embraces it. We’re seeing that happen in this country now. The general atmosphere is becoming increasingly hostile and argumentative, less neighborly. There are movements in certain states to secede from the union. People live in isolation from one another in general. Here in San Francisco, for example, people seldom see the inside of other people’s homes. Some people point to social media as an example of the continuance of community, but I don’t think so. It’s superficial community, if it’s community at all. The culture has lost its memory of what real community feels like. I’ve lived in a few and I’ve always liked them. The only one I’m in right now is the South End Rowing Club, my swim club. It’s the one place I actually enjoying being. It’s not a fancy fitness club. It’s all volunteer, and you can feel it. There’s something greater than the sum of the parts.

So if looking out for number one is wrong, what’s right? I read once that we should look out for the well-being of everything that lives, not excluding ourselves. I think that makes good sense.

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9 Responses to “Look Out!”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for sharing these thoughts. I was reading an article this morning discussing social media, which stated that the fragmentary had become hegemonic. A lot of what you are saying here is in line with that I feel.

    Have a good day.

  2. floatingclouds (@floatingclouds) Says:

    I don’t think it is just the conservatives to blame for this outlook. In my experience, liberals and lefties often have an elitist, narcissistic looking-out-for-number-one outlook as well. They also view helping themselves, and those who act and look like them, as priority. This selfishness is cultural and systemic. There are some very poor, rural places, where communities work to help each other still, such as in West Virginia. Although, most real community or fellowship these days, comes from groups like your swimming club, or from church or faith based groups. It is getting harder and harder to have a sense of belonging or neighborliness. Most workplaces now lack meaningful organizational culture. So, you are isolated at work, and suspicious of or competitive with your co-workers as well. Many younger couples that I know, don’t even consider community or neighborhood as something they could or should have in their lives.

    • markbittner Says:

      Language and common conceptions about political positions (and stuff) make it hard to respond to this. I don’t believe there is such a thing as “a conservative” or “a liberal.” Conservative and liberal are actually modes, not places. There is a time to be conservative (which means something completely different from what we usually think) and a time to be liberal (likewise). But you can’t be one or the other. Not really. And then what a person is psychologically and what they might advocate is quite often two different things. I knew people who considered themselves hippies, but were quite authoritarian in their day to day dealings. But generally speaking, people who identify as liberals, as distorted as that might be, don’t usually advocate selfishness as a virtue. But (and I’m hearing this every day) people who call themselves “conservative,” which, again, has become a meaningless term, usually do. What is conservativism? What is liberalism? What do these words really mean?

  3. Tim Mueller Says:

    Enlightened thinkers exalted the dignity of all men. Sadly, that paved the way for our current exaltation of the primacy of each individual. Adam Smith, likewise, touted “self-interest” as a way to unleash the power of the individual. Sadly, that has led to the “old switcheroo” where we are told that “selfish” and “self-interest” are one in the same. No. It’s never in anyone’s self-interest to be selfish. Self-interest is about the rewards for involvement and investment in community, an intentionality that calculates the wants and needs of others as being of equal value with one’s own desires. There is room for both competition and cooperation in community. Communities based on the economics of leisure (think: Disneyland every frickin’ day of the year) require no personal investment or involvement–sweat equity, if you will–hence, all relationships are tentative and temporary and empty.
    You’re right, Mark: communities thrive on hospitality–opening our homes to others makes us stronger and better, because “letting people in” makes us recognize (and celebrate) our vulnerability. That’s quite the opposite of the message one gets when he or she happens upon a gated “community”.

    • markbittner Says:

      We disagree about something. It happens. I don’t believe in enlightened self-interest. To me, enlightenment and self-interest are completely different things. I don’t believe there’s a place for competition either. I’ve been meaning to do a post on the differences between the ideals of the Western Enlightenment and what Buddhists and Taoists and the like say enlightenment is. Enlightenment, of course, is an English word that means what we want it to mean. In any case, we’ve assigned that word to two almost diametrically opposed philosophies. One last thing, I’m aware that what self-interest signifies can be different things to different people. I tend to think, look after the good of the whole and you yourself shall prosper. Not as much as you would if went whole-hog out for yourself. But that’s not any good for you anyway. I think we agree there.

    • Tim Mueller Says:

      Perhaps I should have said “Western thinkers” instead. “Enlightened thinkers” is a oxymoron, indeed. “People who got their names on the marquee during that intriguing period of history known as the Enlightenment”, while more accurate, requires sitting down to catch one’s breath afterwards. My intent was to depict the collapse of a large house of cards. Instead, I inadvertently erected quite the gleaming Bavarian castle. Thanks for the correction!

  4. Tim Mueller Says:

    Conservative and Liberal are simply distancing devices. They say more about who we are NOT rather than who we are. At least, that is how they are USED. People don’t seem to care what the words mean; they are more interested in the emotional impact that the use of each word brings.

  5. joe Says:

    you might be interested in “kent state-the day the 60’s died” –pbs.
    a républicain claimed the 58% polled reaction “the soldiers were acting in justified self-defence” was the day they won their majority amongst most americains,chilling.
    but it should be noted that the idea of nature as being “red in tooth & claw” is highly contested,in drought situations,both ‘gators & ‘crocs will adopt all other babies,whether they are theirs or not,to the Limit of the mother’s ability,imagine if people did that! 😉 joe.

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