The Logic of Egoism

350 years ago Thomas Hobbes taught us that in a state of nature it is war of all against all. Donald Trump is unlikely to have read Hobbes, yet his inauguration address was an incantation of the Hobbesian world. All nations should look only at their own interest according to Trump. Nations should be set against nations in a terrifying zero sum game. In such a world the US would compete against all other countries and would take its disproportionate slice of a cake that does not grow.

This is not the whole story, of course. America First is a Pandora’s box. If one stresses national egoism it demonstrates allegiance to egoism in a broader sense. For Donald the interests of Donald are the starting point. What Donald fights for ‘with every breath’ is Donald. Donald then has a communality of interest with his family, so he fights also ‘with every breath’ for his family; he has a communality of interest with his fellow billionaires, so he fights with all his might for them. One of the outer circles of his communality of interest is America, so also there he engages passionately. But make no mistake, when there is a conflict of interest between those of Donald and those of America, the logic of egoism means that the interests of Donald will always win. This is the path we are on now. The path Hobbes warned about!

In contrast, civilization is predicated on cooperation; cooperation beyond a narrow definition of egoism. Civilisation assumes a degree of altruism, although this altruism many be tainted by self-interest – ‘we do justice that justice shall be done to us in return’. Civilisation embodies a belief that life and society are not zero sum games – a belief that has been borne out by millennia of evidence. It is the cornerstone of our unprecedented current wealth. How sad that we are now condemned to a period of zero sum games and war of all against all!

Perhaps one can hope that the current wave of xenophobia and populism in the Western world is just the last spasms of an old regime stemming itself against the dislocations of a changing, interconnected and wealthier world. But sadly it may be the last spasms of the era of liberal democracy! Pray that we shall not give up the gains of enlightenment in the pursuit of inhumanity and self-defeating egoism!

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