Self-Interest Comes First!

by DR. SAMI ALRABAA January 13, 2011
We, human beings, like most species on the earth, are driven by self-interest. Self-interest comes first. It is one of the most vital instincts, in addition to greed and egoism, which dominate human behaviour and help us survive among fellow humans: Darwinism. We go straight, right, left, upwards, or downwards, driven primarily by our own self-interest.
Self-interest is observable in all humans. It is explicable in theory. According to the theory of Evolution, species that survive are those that are programmed to keep themselves and their close families safe. Self-interest is a survival instinct. It is in a sense a rational behaviour, but instinctive.
Very often, morality and correct principles come second. The majority of us try, fore and foremost, to satisfy our own interests. We love and hate, help or desert, all driven by self-interest, consciously and unconsciously. Self-interest is an instinct among other ones which tenaciously drive our behaviour.
Those of us who are parents would say, “I’d do everything for my children”. Our children are part of our personal instinct.
But how about our children, do they treat their parents likewise? Of course not. Their behaviour is also driven by self-interest. When they grow up and have children themselves, they replicate the behaviour of their parents. They would also do everything for their children. It is a genetically inherited instinct.
To use a simple example, my 14-year old son, Simon, I think, hates my guts, I feel it because I often ask him to study and revise for his next exams. He’d rather love to chat on the Internet and meet his friends like most youth. He avoids me all the time.
On the other hand, he loves his grandparents because every time he meets them, they flood him with pocket money, chocolate, and allow him to watch TV as long as he wants. I don’t.
Lots of adults tell you, they hated their parents because they were strict with them, at least here in Germany. They were demanding. In case of divorce, children prefer to stay with the parent that is less demanding.
Conflicting self-interests are also part of the equation. Self-interest backed with power win at the end of the day. Here is another example. If you dogmatically stick to principles, for instance, to fairness, which collides with self-interest of your boss, you’ll definitely lose.
I remember, when I was teaching in Kuwait at a private university, my boss fired me for one simple reason. I flunked a student who deserved an “F”. I sacrificed my self-interest for the sake of global fairness. My boss’s self-interest was another one. It is a private university, students pay huge fees, and regardless of performance, they “deserve” to pass. My boss’s equation was very simple: If we flunk weak students, they would go somewhere else. That would mean less money for a private university. My boss was defending his self-interest and I hid behind a common principle. Both were, in that case, irreconcilable.   
Later I regretted my decision. I think I was idealist and stupid at the same time. Well, as a young teacher, you are enthusiastic and want to change the world overnight. This is what books teach us, but reality teaches us another lesson.
On the other hand, I also remember that Egyptian professor at the College of Higher Education (Kuliat Al Dirasat Al Ulia) who would lick “every thing on the dean”. He used to enthusiastically commend her on every occasion. He even suggested recommending her for a Nobel Prize. For what? She never published anything, for lack of time! Why? Well, at Kuwait University our professor earned so much money that he would never earn back in Egypt.
In other words, if you want to keep a job or a good relationship, you have got sometimes to sacrifice principles and correctness.
The same applies to politics and major human issues. We humans welcome principles and morality so long they do not collide with our self-interests.
The West, for instance, blasts the dismal human rights record of China, but it doesn’t do the same with Arab countries, in particular Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt, and Jordan. Why? Well, the West needs both the Arab market and Arab oil. As a matter of fact, the West is hypocritical. While the West blasts the Chinese human record, it invests huge sums of money in China and maintains excellent trade relations with the communist empire. Raising banners of human rights is a lip service to appease human rights organizations. At the end of the day, self-interest is the name of the game.
Here is another example. The USA, and for that matter the whole West, blasts Iran and Burma for their abysmal human rights records.
I’m pretty sure that if these countries decide one day to establish good economic relations with the West, it, (the West) would definitely turn a blind eyes to human rights in those countries like it does with many other “friendly” states across the world. The motto is: self-interest comes first. Human rights? Well, we don’t want to interfere in other nations’ internal affairs. 
But why does the West, once in a while, whistle the “siren” of human rights and lack of democracy, especially in unfriendly countries? The answer is very simple. The West wants to show the world that it is leading in everything, also in terms of human rights and democracy.
Many suspect, the West (ab)uses human rights and democracy values as a propagandistic instrument as it did during the Cold War. It wants to spread the impression that it is a “custodian” of these values in the current global civilization.  
But people are not stupid, in particular those who live in the West. They know that very often the state authority in the West also abuses human rights: major parties are ruled by clique-connected people, and main stream media are controlled by wealthy tycoons like Murdoch. 
Both individuals and states follow the instinct of their self-interest. If we carry on like that, progress on the human front will remain slow. Business as usual will remain ruled by self-interest, whether we like it or not.
Be careful, say always “YES” to your boss or your organization, if you want to survive, otherwise you would join the army of losers. 
If you want to survive or even prosper in this world we live in, you’ll have to pursue your self-interest even if you had, here and there, to act against widely propagated principles or cherished moral values. That was so as Charles Darwin lived and will continue to be so for the coming thousands of years. Come on! Be realistic!
I wish all of you a Happy New Year and much success in boosting your self-interest in 2011 and beyond. Contributing EditorDr. Sami Alrabaa, an ex-Muslim, is a professor of Sociology and an Arab-Muslim specialist. He has taught at Kuwait University, King Saud University, and Michigan State University. He also writes for theJerusalem Post.


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