I recently encountered a quote from Richard Bach, the pop philosopher/author who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, that bothered me. The context isn’t important, but it was cited with approval as enduring wisdom by the quoter. The statement:
“Anybody who’s ever mattered, anybody who’s ever been happy, anybody who’s ever given any gift to the world has been a divinely selfish soul, living for his own best interest, no exceptions.”
I can see why this quote might be popular, unlike his career-making best seller, which I threw against the wall after eight pages. It provides the perfect rationalization for selfishness and unethical conduct for people who don’t have the patience to read Nietzsche or the stomach for Ayn Rand. As a whole, it is nothing but a repackaging of “everybody does it,” but with a devilish seductive twist: everybody who’s smart, talented and successful does it. Wow. Translation: if you are divinely selfish, it means you might be one of the people who “matter.”
Who are the people who don’t matter? Why, all the people you screw along your way to happiness, that’s who.
The quote thus sets up an insidious class system: the people who give something to the world by caring only about themselves, and the useless, plodding saps who hold themselves back and don’t carry their weight because they impede their productivity with such trivia as caring, fairness, kindness, and trust. This is manna from heaven for all the cheaters, liars and exploiters in our midst. Roman Polanski, Charlie Rangel, Bernie Madoff and Barry Bonds can cite it to show that they are simply carrying on the grand tradition of Richard Wagner, Thomas Jefferson, John D. Rockefeller and Babe Ruth. Life is like this! Extraordinary people don’t have to play by the rules, and if you make them, everybody will be the poorer for it.
Of course, Bach’s quote, not to put too fine a point on it, is utter crap. It is a self-serving “Get Out of Ethics Free” card that combines “everybody does it” and “the King’s Pass” with “the ends justify the means.” To begin with, it is absurdly exaggerated. Every happy and and significant person has been divinely selfish? No exceptions? Does anyone believe that? Unless Bach is playing word games with “selfish,” it can be disproven with 5 seconds of thought. Let’s see: actor Rick Moranis, who helped give the world the divine “SCTV” comedy show (which, I may add, has a lot more value to humanity than Jonathan Livingston Seagull), abruptly quit his career to devote full time to being a parent after his wife died. Was that devinely selfish of him?
If everyone is out for himself or herself, than nobody can or should trust anyone else. Without trust, it is just all out war, every day, everywhere. Sure: the smartest, strongest, richest, cleverest and most talented will tend to come out on top of the heap, and will accomplish more too. But they will have taken the trust out of the world, which is far, far more of a loss than anything they may have given in return.
I was thinking about the Bach quote when I read a story in the New York Times, inspired by Armando Galarraga’s lost perfect game. The theme of it, not especially original, was that we all get robbed in life. It included this anecdote:
A man walked into a Fulton Street pawn shop in Brooklyn a month ago and asked about the iPod in the window. The manager promised to hold it for him until he returned with money. Enter Abdul Malik Hakeem, 40. He asked about the same iPod and the manager said he was holding it for the first guy. “I said, ‘I’ll give you $20 more.’ Boom. Sale.” Mr. Hakeem shrugged. “I felt bad, but at the end, I still win,” he said. “That’s how life is. You gotta get around.”
There was nothing illegal done here. The pawn shop owner’s promise to the first customer isn’t an enforceable contract, because it was gratuitous: he was just being nice. Still, both the owner and the second customer, who told the story, behaved unethically. The owner’s promise was still a promise, and the principles of honestly, fairness, trustworthiness and caring require that he keep it. The second customer used money to induce someone to break a promise for his own benefit, and to harm a stranger. He shares responsibility for the broken promise.
I sympathize with the store owner; I’m sure he’s held merchandise before, only to never see the customer who promised to buy an item return. He has reason not to trust the first customer, and experience, not to mention old sayings (“A bird in the hand…”) dictated that he would have been a fool not to take the extra 20 bucks. Still, if he didn’t trust the first customer, he shouldn’t have made an unequivocal promise to hold the item. He should have said, “Listen, if someone comes in and offers me more for it, I’m going to sell it.” He didn’t, so he had an ethical obligation to reject the extra twenty dollars.
Now where are we? The storekeeper can’t be trusted by customers, because he doesn’t trust them. And the guy who bribed the storekeeper, in effect, to break his promise, says it’s worth it because he “won.” The Golden Rule is for suckers. This is Richard Bach’s world, and he recommends it.
Don’t believe him.