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.


CS Lewis (1898 – 1965), the British novelist and Christian apologist, was pretty accurate in his observation about do-gooders. He wrote,

It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

I place the likes of Mr MK Gandhi in the category of “omnipotent moral busybodies”. They place themselves above the rest of us and give themselves the authority to dictate to us.

As I see it, there are two problems with doing good to others. First, how does one know what is good for others? Who is so wise and omniscient that he knows what’s good, true and beautiful, and that others don’t know for themselves? Everyone makes mistakes, even the most celebrated leaders in every field. The mistakes of great men lead to great harm.

The second point is that unless one’s help is expressly solicited, one should not interfere. I can request your help and you may grant me your help. But I should not ask you to help someone who has not requested help. You may of course offer to help but when it becomes a command that someone must do something “for their own good”, it stops being morally justifiable.

Leave People Alone

I think the Kantian categorical imperative provides a useful mechanism for determining how one should live. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

My maxim is “Leave people alone to pursue their own interests, as long as no one else is being harmed.” If that became the universal law, I would not mind it. If everybody minded their own business, and in doing so did not cause harm to others, I think the world would be a better place.

I like prohibitions more than I like requirements. People should be prohibited from doing harm to others (not to themselves), and people must not be required to do anything specifically, even those things that are good for the person. All laws, in my considered opinion, should constrain behavior rather than require behavior. Laws that prohibit harm to others are necessary; laws that require people to do good to others should be disallowed.

Example: “Don’t litter” is a prohibitive law, and I approve of it. “Clean up the messy streets” is a law that mandates action, and therefore is not acceptable to me.

The Content of One’s Actions

I should roughly define the words selfish, selfless and self-interest. An act is selfish if the only consideration is the person’s own gain regardless of the effect of that act (positive or negative) on others. By itself, noting that an act is selfish cannot be judged to be morally good or not without also inquiring into the content of the act.

A selfish act need not be morally tainted and a so-called “selfless” act need not be morally good.

All of us are self-interested. That is so because we are individual selves. The self is involved in all evaluations, and acts of will. We cannot act selflessly because it is a logical impossibility. There has to be a self to act and if the self were to be obliterated, there is no self remaining to act. One becomes an purposeless automaton, programmed to do what it does without a sense of self. It is meaningless to talk of selfless acts.

What I am arguing is that we are all selfish to the extent that we are all self-interested. The scientist who discovers the cure for a deadly disease is motivated by something in his self. That it leads to good to others does not make his discovery selfless.

The content of one’s actions does matter. All acts are self-interested and selfish but there are acts that are in some objective sense good, some neutral and some bad. The discovery of antibiotics is good (although antibiotics, like all good things, are not immune to misuse), while the suicide bomber “selflessly” blowing himself up and killing innocents is objectively bad.

Freedom Fighters

But we do hear of selfless people. What about the “freedom fighters” who fought for India’s freedom from the British, you may ask. Were they not doing it for a purpose beyond their self? I will stray from my point on self-interest for a bit here.

Were they really fighting for freedom? Whose freedom and from what? Freedom from foreign rule? That they appear to have accomplished. But did the individual Indian become free? Sure they became free from their British overlords but they were merely replaced by Indian overlords. I am unable to distinguish between being ordered around by a white-skinned person and being ordered around by a brown-skinned person. It really makes no difference to me what the color of the skin of the person wielding the whip is. I object to being whipped, and could not care less about the nationality or the skin pigmentation of the person doing the whipping.

Oh yes, India is a democracy. Charles Bukowski noted that “the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.”

I object to taking orders from others. I want to be left alone to do what I wish to do, as long as I am not harming others.

Nation Building

What about the great leaders who selflessly toil in the task of nation building?

Nation building does not happen through the selflessness of people, great or small. This is an easy mistake to make and therefore quite popular. A family requires selflessness of its members. In that context, selflessness works very well. The powerful human emotions of love and affection make that selflessness possible. Extending the model of a family (a few people at the most) to that of a nation is an easy conceptual leap but is fundamentally flawed because of the fact that the concept of love does not operate when the numbers get into the thousands and millions.

Communism and socialism are two systems which depend on the selflessness of people. And they fail miserably. The African American economist Walter E. Williams says that he loves communism because in his home, they live by the communist principle of “from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs”. Unfortunately, he says, the problem with communism begins when you start to forget the names of people, and what each person’s abilities and needs are — as would be the case when you have umpteen million people to love and care for.

The problem with communist and socialist systems is that human beings have cognitive limitations. And that people are not self-effacing saints that only care for the good of others. Requiring selflessness of people is a recipe for failure. You cannot build a nation on that.

An Attitude of Humility

What I argue for is an attitude of humility, of recognition of limitations of human foresight. I subscribe to the Zen Buddhist attitude of the “Don’t know” mind. I don’t know what’s good for others. I should not presume to tell others how they should arrange their affairs.

Though it may not seem so, nation building is actually done by the ordinary people going about their own business doing what they think is in their own self-interest. Those people who have the greatest freedom to follow their own interests build the most prosperous nations. These conditions generally obtain in the economic system called the “free market.” Nobody in that system has to consciously undertake the grand task of nation building. All they do is do what is in their self-interest and what emerges is no one’s intention or design.

Nation building is an emergent process, not an engineered activity like the building of a car, bridge or a machine. Adam Ferguson of the Scottish Enlightenment put it as the result of human action but not of human design.

Building Pyramids of Skulls

The great nation building processes undertaken by great men with lofty goals end in disasters. Examples of these are unfortunately too easy to find. Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Pol Pot are globally well-known nation builders. Less known are the great nation builders of India — Gandhi, Nehru and now Modi. The Great Leaps have invariably ended up at the bottom of the chasm, killing untold millions of innocents.

And talking of nation builders, here’s a limerick by the great Robert Conquest:

There was a great Marxist named Lenin
Who did two or three million men in.
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

Nation builders usually end up building huge pyramids of skulls.

Gratuitous trivia: Robert Conquest, born in the same year as the Soviet Union, outlived it when he died in 2015 at the age of 98 in Stanford, CA.

Author: Atanu Dey


5 thoughts on “On Selflessness and Nation Building”

  1. “and in doing so did not cause harm to others” . Now throughout the essay the author has been virtually been on toes so as to not cause harm to others. Very good. But how do you know what action/inaction of yours is causing harms to others? It’s only after you do and how people respond to it . right?
    So don’t you think people can know what’s good for others ? I mean will it take special R&D to know if I nurse a Leprosy patient.
    I found author being shrewd there. Gandhiji was invited to Champaran to fight for farmers’ rights. Gradually as he visited length & breadth of India he came to know of issues plaguing India and he at least tried to solve these. The fact that he got wide support that most people held that what Gandhi ji was doing was “good” for them.
    Selfishness is a virtue hard to come down from a free market propounders like you. You don’t have to bash some people like Gandhi, Teresa or Baba Amte just to put weight to Liberal philosophy. Infact, I don’t know how you concluded that Gandhi and likes curbed else’s liberty. By being morally Superior?
    If you can’t match Einstein’s intelligence it’s your fate. Accept it or try hard to change it. Gandhi through his good work is disturbing you because it makes you morally inferior than either you put blanket on face and sleep or emulate him .


    1. Not causing harm to others comes from a deep appreciation of the way things are. Sure, all actions will have consequences that will perhaps be negative and harmful. But you have to understand the context in which the author is framing his arguments; else you will be constantly picking up the wrong end of the stick and spout nonsense while at the same time appear to sound very intellectual.

      Enlightened leaders will always help in bringing peace & prosperity to their society; such as those in the USA, Singapore and many other nations in Europe. Those societies that get unenlightened ones will be stuck in poverty, misery & strife. Enlightened leaders know and understand the importance of freedom and how life/society self organises in the most optimum manner possible (& simultaneously minimise harm to others) when people are free to do what they like without causing any negative outcomes for others. Enlightened leaders also know that they do not have all the answers to the problems in the world unlike a Nehru, Gandhi, Teresa & let freedom to fully play out in people’s lives to bring about positive changes. Socialism (Nehru’s ideology), Catholicism (Teresa’s ideology), Gandhian values have only managed to cause negative impact on balance.


  2. So Coca Cola employing all means available to convince the populace that they crave sugar and acid is free market enterprise and buyer-beware, but Gandhi convincing (presumed with informed self-interest) people that they need to behave in a certain manner is reprehensible holier-than-thou. Nice.

    Humility suggests we not claim we have all the answers, but be open to partial answers from others even if their overall character profile is far from perfect. Otherwise it’s a race to the bottom. “Only the blameless can cast a stone” means nothing will ever be redressed. That was not Gandhi’s fault, but someone who came ~2000 years earlier.


  3. @og – both Coca Cola and a Gandhi should be allowed to engage in all the product marketing they want. The point is Gandhi’s strong influence still lingers without a dispassionate analysis and realization of the pernicious effects of his missteps, and the harm continues. This is a man who supported the Caliphate (what ISIS has rekindled today) and kept quiet when tens of thousands were killed in the Mopplah rebellion. You could read Ambedkar’s scathing analysis of this.

    It is akin to extolling the virtues of Coca Cola as medicine for over half a century and most Indians blindly accepting it. (Ironically, when it was first released, Coca Cola was branded as a medicine).

    @atanu – I too feel your disappointment with Modi, and the realization of his promise has been quite limited. But don’t you think it is mostly the pace at which he is creating change, or do you see fundamental philosophical issues that are continuing to cause us to hurtle in the wrong direction? The lack of corruption at the highest levels is quite remarkable. I never thought I’d see a day where the top brass in the Indian central administration are more honest than their US counterparts. I’m sure there have been non-corrupt communists too, so its tenuous correlation to economic development isn’t lost on me. A lot of nonsense (e.g. farm loan waiver) continues to be engaged in for political survival reasons. There has been no effort to extricate the government from education as you’ve lamented. I feel disappointed with the pace of reform and change and the compromising for political survival. But don’t think the directionality is totally messed up. For example the crop insurance scheme launched in 2016, when more widely deployed, could be a healthy alternative to this nonsensical loan waiver. I’m giving Modi more slack only because of the multi-dimensional heap of shit he inherited.


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