Do any of us really actually care for each other? Or is everything we do ultimately in our own self-interest?
Isn’t looking out for the interests of my family & children in a way acting to guarantee the continuation of my genes? And is that in my self-interest?
How often is altruism really selfless? If you derive an improved sense of internal self-worth from the anonymous altruism you carry out, can you really call that truly selfless?
And can we fault anyone for putting themselves first? If the first tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is physiological, isn’t that just another way of saying survival? And who can fault anyone for wanting to survive? After all, if we don’t exist then we don’t even have the opportunity to argue about what self-interest is.
This image of a giant drug spoon has been lodged in my brain for the past month or so:
Built by artist Domenic Esposito, it was originally installed outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, a pharmaceuticals manufacturer, to protest that company’s role in the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States. What particularly fascinates me about this photo is the people walking past it. For the purposes of this post let’s assume they are employees of Purdue. I’m fascinated by the idea of what might have gone through these people’s heads as they passed the spoon: did they know what it was referring to? Did they feel any guilt? When they sat down at their desks and were still thinking about it, were they dismissive of the spoon & what was trying to be said by the people who placed it there?
What if you weren’t a chemist at Purdue but you worked in the maintenance department at the headquarters, fixing squeaky hinges and blown lightbulbs? By working for Purdue Pharma, are you in some way complicit? Do we all have a responsibility as humans to think about the consequences of our actions on other people? Or is our first responsibility to our self-interest i.e. survival? And is this why appeals to “family” are so powerful in advertising? Because when advertisers say “family”, what they are really saying is ‘Your survival and the survival of your family is paramount, we get that, and we’re in the business of prioritising your survival. Buy our products.’ So maybe the Purdue Pharma maintenance man says to himself “I’m not a bad person. I just fix squeaky hinges. I’m not getting people hooked on painkillers. The doctors who prescribe them are. And…” – perhaps most importantly – “I have a family to feed/mortgage to pay/etc”.
According to Wikipedia, Purdue Pharma has 5000 employees worldwide, and in 2017 made revenue of US$3 billion. How many of those 5000 people think about whether they are complicit or not in an opioid crisis? How many of those people think they are complicit but justify their job? How many of those people think that Purdue Pharma is complicit in the opioid crisis but they, a person working at Purdue Pharma, are not complicit because they “do not support Purdue Pharma’s role in the opioid crisis and are actively working to change the company for the better from the inside”. And how many of those people actually believe that change from the inside can really happen inside a giant for-profit global pharmaceutical company?
And what about the suppliers to Purdue Pharma? And the logistics companies that transport their drugs? And the public health systems that buy their products using taxpayers’ dollars? Obviously you don’t have to look very far to find other examples of the same sort of thing: people working for Uber after it became public in 2017 the company carried out the Greyball program, people working for HSBC in 2012 after it became public the company was to be fined US$1.9 billion by US authorities over its involvement in money laundering including providing banking services to Saudi Arabian banks linked to terrorist financing. And on and on.
A couple of years ago a friend of mine chose to start working for an online gambling company. I never called him out on it. I was afraid it would hurt the friendship and I wanted to keep being friends. He has now quit that job but I have still never asked him why he decided to work there. Now I justify not asking by saying to myself “He doesn’t work there now so what would be the point?”. I don’t want to hurt his feelings and it seems like, at the end of the day, that’s what is most important to me.