Hawza in a Nutshell – Psychological egoism

Amother left behind two sons, a mule, a cow and a small plot of land under the supervision of her elderly uncle. He was very poor and barely had enough food for himself, but despite all this, he promised to look after the boys.

The elderly man tried his best but as the boys were a bit older, he passed away, and the boys were left to fend for themselves. The eldest, Yahya, decided that they should sell the land; he would take the mule and his younger brother Harun should take the cow. They would start a new life in opposite parts of the city and the one who succeeded would help the other.

Harun agreed, probably because he had no other choice. Yahya worked hard and it paid off. His life took a fortunate turn when he found a job with a fishmonger. He saved enough money to exchange his mule for a horse. With the horse, he could make money by delivering important documents and parcels across the city.

Meanwhile, the younger brother was not so lucky. His cow dried up leaving him with no means of income. He decided to take the cow to the butcher and the butcher in return gave the boy some money to make ends meet until he found a job.

Years later Yahya became very rich; he got married and was blessed with a daughter and a son. He became so successful that people would relate his story to their children so as to inspire them to work hard. News reached Harun about his brother’s wealth and out of embarrassment; he decided not to meet Yahya.

Harun worked hard as a cobbler but he would only ever have enough to feed himself and his barren wife. Many years later their paths crossed and Yahya instantly recognised his younger brother who looked very old and had already developed a hunchback. Harun didn’t recognise the wealthy man staring at him and now hugging and kissing him. He introduced himself to Harun, who took a step back, flabbergasted. Yahya offered to help his younger brother but Harun refused saying he was content with his life.

Both grew old and died, one got a much higher place in heaven whilst the other barely made it to heaven. Yahya asked why his brother got a higher place, when he prayed more than him,  gave more to charity than him and even offered to help him when he looked like he was in need.

The reply was when Yahya prayed he prayed for himself, when he gave charity he gave for himself and when he offered to help he did it because he didn’t want people to judge him. On the other hand, all Harun prayed for was for Yahya’s prayers and dreams to come true and because of this selfless act, he had a higher place.

In recent months we’ve discussed the role of intention and what makes an action good. In class, Sheikh Shomali raised a very important question; to whom should these good actions belong? Do they belong to the individual and what that individual represents? This would mean that the person performing an action is only doing it from an egoistic point of view. So whatever one does is only for his/her own gain. Or should the good action be performed only for the gain of others? This means that for an action to qualify or be deemed good it should be performed for the benefit of others; this would make the individual an altruist. Finally, the good actions could be a combination of the two depending on the situation.

Dr Shomali said that according to some Islamic philosophers human beings perform actions only because of self-love. They argue that no matter what we do after careful examination it becomes clear that we do it out of self-love. Even if we want to gain proximity to God we do it only for our self-interest because we want to reach the highest place in paradise. Even a mother who is looking after her children does it because those children belong to her and again it is out of self-love. The mother will not love another child to the same degree as she would her own. What about martyrs? They give up everything to gain something greater in the next world.

According to this viewpoint, it is impossible for human beings to do something unless they find it beneficial for themselves; this is called psychological egoism in the west.

After listening to this I felt a little uneasy because no matter how hard we try we will always end up being selfish. What is the difference between psychological egoism and selfishness? People who are selfish are not really doing good for themselves. For example, imagine there are two thirsty people with one cup of water. The selfish one takes the water and quenches his thirst but if the person had acted with psychological egoism, he would have given the water away because he would be thinking of gaining something greater, ranging from self-satisfaction to a place in paradise. Sheikh said some of us only experience the joy of taking but there is joy in giving.

We, humans, are always calculating. Those that are selfish are short sighted and thrive on quick fixes such as for example brushing debris under the carpet instead of cleaning it up properly. Those who are really interested in self-development act for the long-term goal, to clean the house using the vacuum cleaner and take the time to clean thoroughly for the benefit of everyone living in that house. We are generous and kind in this world so we can gain more both here and in the hereafter.

Sometimes when we perform an act we don’t think about our self-interest. A mother or father wakes up in the middle of the night to tend to their child; they don’t calculate or think tactically on how they can benefit from this action. They simply do it. In this world a mother’s love for her child is unmatched; it’s an example of pure selflessness. We’ve heard many stories where people, both believing and non-believing, have put themselves at great risk to save someone else, sometimes even animals.

Sheikh Shomali said we have to distinguish between two things. One is the desire the benefits for ourselves and the other is the desire for benefits for others. We gain interest in something not just because it can benefit us but because it could benefit others around us. This distinction puts a lot of selfless acts into perspective, the love of a mother for her child and the love of Prophets and Imams for their community.



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