Why Doing Good Is Selfish

Consider the following legend about Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) from J. E. Gallaher’s Best Lincoln Stories (1898.)

The Fable of Abraham Lincoln and the Pigs

The Fable of Abraham Lincoln and the Pigs

Once Lincoln was traveling in a mud-wagon coach along a swampy, rural area. His fellow passenger was his good friend and US Senator Edward Dickinson Baker, who later lost his life in the Battle of Ball’s Bluff at the onset of the American Civil War.

While they were conversing in the mud-wagon coach, Lincoln remarked to Baker that in doing good and evil, all people are motivated by selfishness. Just as Baker challenged Lincoln’s assertion, their coach crossed a rickety bridge over a slough (a large swampy marsh.)

Abruptly, Lincoln and Baker glimpsed a mother pig making a terrible squeal because her piglets were stuck in the swamp, couldn’t get out, and were in danger of drowning.

Abraham Lincoln As their coach started to head away, Lincoln yelled, “Driver, can’t you stop just a moment?” The driver replied, “If the other fellow don’t object.”

With Baker’s approval, Lincoln jumped out of the wagon, ran to the slough, lifted the piglets one by one out of the swamp, and carried them to the dry bank of the swamp.

When Lincoln returned to the coach, Baker remarked, “Now, Abe, where does selfishness come in this little episode?”

Lincoln replied, “Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I would have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?”

Psychological Egoism

Being moved by the plight of others—even the suffering of animals (or sentient beings to use Buddhist terminology) as in the aforementioned legend of Lincoln and the piglets—is considered a selfish deed per modern philosophy’s theory of ‘psychological egoism’.

Egoism has its roots in the philosophy of the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BCE,) who argued that the human mind is driven by the need to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. Egoism contends that deep down all our actions are motivated by what we perceive to be in our own self-interest. For example, if Tom saves Mark from drowning in a river, egoism contends that Tom’s seemingly altruistic behavior is actually motivated by his own self-interest to avoid potential social censure for not helping Mark or to be regarded a hero within his social circle.

Idea for Impact: Be Selfish, Be Generous

Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

The great Indian philosopher Aurobindo wrote in Towards the Light, “The secret of joy is self-giving. If any part in you is without joy, it means that it has not given itself, it wants to keep itself for itself.”

The Dalai Lama once advised, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Per the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness, altruistic generosity encourages us to perceive others more positively. When we discover the suffering of others, we realize that those individuals could just as easily have been us. Intuitively, we contemplate “I feel their pain; I can’t let that happen” and are driven to helping others.

When we do something for others and lose ourselves in the service of others, not only do we feel closer to them, but also they feel closer to us. By focusing on giving rather than receiving and on contributing rather than consuming, our generosity can engender an outward orientation toward the world, shifting our focus away from ourselves.

As our whole perception broadens, we realize that the biggest beneficiary of our generosity is often ourselves: at the outset, we are filled with joy with the recognition that someone else is happier because of us.

Idea for Impact: If you want to feel good, help someone else.

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