Why is extreme selfishness funny?

Here is a screenshot of a to-do list that the author undoubtedly meant as a joke, but I wonder why some people would post this kind of thing or find it funny.

The first point is being spiteful to his wife. The second point is selfish in relation to his own children. Third point is to deceive (to lie without words) to his own family for selfish gain. I find it kinda sad that Americans post this kind of thing and/or think others will find it funny. I’d be fine if he were making fun of it, but there is no hint that the author is making fun of this sort of ethical egoism. Ethical egoism is the sort of extreme individualistic philosophy which claims that the only good thing to do is whatever each individual’s selfish desires lead to. It explicitly rejects altruistic impulses as evil! Here is the author:

Ironically, the author identifies as a “Collaboration Engineer” which indicates that he engineers working together with others. This kind of ethical egoist attitude doesn’t help engineer collaboration. I’d love to see a cross-cultural study to see what societies think this kind of thing might be humorous. I don’t think you’d see this sort of thing in American culture a few generations ago when America was less prone to ethical egoism.

Of course, I used to love the Seinfeld sitcom which was all about shallow, selfish characters, so I sometimes find ethical egoism funny too. I don’t think most cultures would find Seinfeld funny. When one of the main characters dies (Susan, George’s fiancée), nobody displays any genuine emotions of empathy for her nor her family.  The characters are about as close to ethical egoism as it is possible to get.

Western civilization wasn’t always so individualistic.  Since at least the 1960s, Western culture has promoted the pursuit of self-interest as a road to happiness, but that is an unusual conception of happiness.  Sean Illing gives a brief history:

Aristotle was one of the first to offer what you might call a philosophy of happiness. For him, happiness consisted of being a good person, of living virtuously and not being a slave to one’s lowest impulses. Happiness was a goal, something at which humans constantly aim but never quite reach. Epicurus, another Greek philosopher who followed Aristotle, believed that happiness was found in the pursuit of simple pleasures.

The rise of Christianity in the West upended Greek notions of happiness. Hedonism and virtue-based morality fell somewhat out of favor, and suddenly the good life was all about sacrifice and the postponement of gratification. True happiness was now something to be attained in the afterlife, not on Earth.

The Enlightenment and the rise of market capitalism transformed Western culture yet again. Individualism became the dominant ethos, with self-fulfillment and personal authenticity the highest goods. Happiness became a fundamental right, something to which we’re entitled as human beings.

A new book entitled The Happiness Fantasy by Carl Cederström, a business professor at Stockholm University, traces our current conception of happiness to its roots in modern psychiatry and the so-called Beat generation of the ‘50s and ‘60s. He argues that the values of the countercultural movement — liberation, freedom, and authenticity — were co-opted by corporations and advertisers, who used them to perpetuate a culture of consumption and production. And that hyper-individualistic culture actually makes us much less happy than we could be.

One of the economic paradoxes of the last half century is that America has been getting richer and we are living longer, but measures of happiness have not increased with the increased production of almost everything else.  There are various explanations why this might be, but one explanation might be the cultural shift toward seeking happiness in selfish consumerism rather than in searching for meaning in life which often comes from self-sacrifice.

Posted in Culture, Philosophy and ethics

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