Self-Interest and Self-Righteousness – Values of the Wise

Image by Gerd Altmann

I was reading an intriguing page-turner called Radical Wordsworth, a book about the poet extraordinaire, William Wordsworth (born almost exactly 250 years ago)(link). A quote that got me thinking about self-interest, greed, self-righteousness, and certain cognitive biases that cause one to make an exception out of themselves, so so speak, and self-righteousness and a lack of humility is the following (p. 121):

Wordsworth arrived [back in England, after being in France around the time of the French Revolution] amidst a growing movement for the abolition of the slave trade and swiftly came to the conclusion that if the revolution prospered in France, then the spirit of humanitarianism would spread and bring an end to the vile trade in human flesh. At the same time, he watched anxiously as the forces of reaction took hold and his native land moved inexorably towards armed conflict with the new republic across the Channel.

So, WW (whom I will call him—and not to be confused with his American predecessor of the highest caliber of artistic ability, Walt Whitman!) was fairly progressive in that time of his life (early 20s) and felt that hopefully the revolution in France—marked as it was by an ostensible love of liberty, equality, and fraternity—would make the slave trade absolutely glow in its barbarity and callous love of money. Humanitarianism, author Jonathan Bate called it. At the same time, the forces of reaction worked against that spirit of progress and high virtues such as freedom and goodness. I would note that a term for hard-core ideological conservatives (at least in this country, at this time) is reactionary. So, one could then say that WW hoped that this progressive desire to free the chained and give hope to the downtrodden was being countered by a fear of such values and a conservative backlash or reaction. 


Let go off onto a tangent and point out that I am not reflexively progressive—liberal, radical, revolutionary, and egalitarian, if you wish. I value progress, but I do have some respect for some tradition under some circumstances. I believe, for example, that under no circumstances should anyone pay more than 33% of their income to Federal taxation (though the top two or three tax brackets should pay at least 25%). And I believe that political correctness, post-modernism, and the like are tearing at values and ideals and institutions I would consider to be traditional/proper, such as the case both Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom made when they were alive and sharing their unmistakable views with the world (written link)(YouTube link)(Charlie Rose interview). As well, the inimitable Mort Adler was a big proponent of “great ideas of Western civilization” and how they can’t just be discarded because they were, say, written by imperfect white men from prior centuries (link). Finally, I think that certain things that are going on in society nowadays are very disconcerting (the way sports works now, the waning excellence of public education, the way the news works now, and of course obnoxious social media getting its tentacles into almost every aspect of society).

In a word: the love of money, certain illegitimate aspects of government, and the overindulgence of America’s youth have torn at our national character and nearly brought our most important institutions to their knees. I might sound conservative in a way when I say: I believe that so-called traditional values are not being honored as they should, and that that does have some causal role in the decline in American society in the last 40-50-100 years. I’m not lobbying for a sexist/racist/patriarchal culture a-la the fabled 1950s, I’m just saying that there is a lot that is going on that is not morally good or socially salubrious.

By “traditional values” of course I do not mean the darker side of America’s past, but things such as willingness to share, work ethic, personal responsibility, trust in others and in social institutions, and generally the belief that to serve America is far superior than to act as a parasite on it. That reminds me of an old saw that I think works beautifully:

Politics: (n.) from poly, meaning “many”, and ticks, meaning “blood-sucking parasites”. To be clear about my belief: I would say that politicians, the moneyed class, the educated elite, corporate CEOs, old-timey industrial tycoons and “robber barons”, members of the military-industrial complex, and white collar criminals have sucked more blood from this country than a millions welfare cheats, poor immigrants, uneducated types, street urchins, or lazy/entitled individuals could accomplish in a millennium! Think about all the fraud that has occurred re: COVID relief funds, or Medicare fraud, in the last two years (or two decades, respectively)—that is white collar crime!

Despite what I said above, I do not consider the basis of America’s problems with self-interest, self-indulgence, and disintegrating character to be largely the fault of the progressive spirit. One can easily see this if one compares, say, 1) F.D.R.’s societal/economic interventions to combat the Great Depression with 2) the love of money, certain illegitimate aspects of government, and the overindulgence of pleasure in America’s adults of that era (a Great Gatsbyesque and “Roaring 20s” and “hyper-capitalistic economic culture that led right up to the stock market crash of 1929, which kicked off the significant recession for the entire next decade).

That is to say that it seems almost inarguable that F.D.R.’s “New Deal type interventions in society” (the liberal/progressive approach) were fairly well-conceived and decently effective, whereas the relatively conservative/industrialist/materialistic forces in society at the time were those very ones which brought on the spectacular rise in the lifestyle of many rich individuals as well as the subsequent collapse of this “Gilded Age” lifestyle when their greed and self-interest crashed the stock market and ushered in a financial catastrophe of gargantuan proportions. In a word, “gilded age” refers to everything being covered with gold, and the New Deal meant jobs and soup kitchens. Which would you say is better from the moral point of view? I would urge you to read The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath or watch the more recent movie The Wolf of Wall Street, or the 80s movie Wall Street, if you are having trouble deciding.


Okay, so back to the WW idea about the forces of revolution in France versus the counterreaction in England. My thesis is that two important reasons human beings tend to—by and large—resist social justice and progressive reforms in modern society have to do with a) self-interest and b) self-righteousness. First, self-interest:




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