On Selflessness and Nation Building

The other day I learned that David Sedaris, one of my favorite American essayist and public speaker, does a very peculiar thing. These days he lives in England, which is not particularly peculiar. His peculiarity is that every day he spends five or six hours picking up trash along the roads around his home.

Why does he do that? Because, he says, he just likes doing it. He does not do it for some greater good or public service, according to him. Does it make him a public-minded person? Not necessarily. Doubtless, his actions result in a cleaner road than otherwise, but his motivation is not to do good — he merely does what gives him personal satisfaction and which does not harm anybody.

I believe (perhaps mistakenly) that people who are primarily motivated by doing “good” for others often see themselves as morally superior to those who let others alone. If you like to pick up trash, good for you but slipping into the role of a person who is selfless tarnishes the enterprise. Worse, it can persuade the person that he has the moral authority to force others to do one’s bidding. Continue reading