Selfishness as the Source of Violence

By Diondra Marchus

“This great evil – where's it come from?
How'd it steal into the world?
What seed, what root did it grow from?
Who's doing this?
Who's killing us,
robbing us of life and light,
mocking us with the sight of what we mighta known?
Does our ruin benefit the Earth,
aid the grass to grow and the sun to shine?
Is this darkness in you, too?
Have you passed through this night?”

—Have You Passed Through This Night?, By Explosions in the Sky

There comes a point in every life when one makes the crushing and perplexing realization that the world is fundamentally flawed, that all of humanity recognizes the problem and agrees that it must be fixed, and that in spite of our agreement it continues to plague the Earth. The problem is violence, and though we feel victimized by it, and though we feel it is out of our control, we have no one to blame for it but ourselves.

In fact, ironically, it is our very desire for self-preservation which causes violence. The preservation of the self is dictated by human nature and society as the primary goal of every individual, and as long as this is so, we will continue to terrorize each other in defense of ourselves. Conversely, if world peace is ever to be achieved, it will require of all parties concerned a complete paradigm shift, contrary to our human nature, which decentralizes the pursuit of self-preservation.

To clarify, by “self-preservation” I mean to refer only to the traditional definition: “preservation of oneself from destruction or harm,” or “a natural or instinctive tendency to act so as to preserve one's own existence.” However, by the “self” I mean to refer not only one's physical body, but also to one's identity or way of life (culture, religion, political ideology, nationality etc.), and even one's loved ones. I am including loved ones because I agree with Judith Butler's interpretation of the self in her book, Violence, Mourning, Politics:

“The ties we have to others…constitute what we are…compose us. When we lose certain people… It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. If I lose you…I become inscrutable to myself. Who “am” I, without you? …I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well.”

In other words, Butler says, “we are not only constituted by our relations but also dispossessed by them.” Anyone who has lost someone very close to them will be able to attest to the truth of this statement. And if this is true, then the desire to protect one's loved ones is also a desire to protect oneself.

The same logic applies to the desire to protect one's nation, religion, or way of life from ruin. If these things are essential to one's identity or self, then protecting them is the same as protecting oneself. This is a natural instinct; the protection of oneself and of the people, places, things and ideas that make up oneself is shared across all boundaries. Regardless of gender, nation, culture or religion, all people value their selves and wish to preserve them.

Someone wishing to object to this premise might point out the existence of people who, like suicide bombers, bring harm to themselves. Yet even those who choose to take their own lives, an act that would appear directly opposed to self-preservation, are still acting in order to protect themselves. People do not commit suicide because they are masochistic, but rather because they have already lost other parts of themselves (loved ones, identities, ways of life). These losses have been so painful that they wish to save themselves from further harm by ending their lives. Thus, suicide is actually a perfect example of how violence (in this case self-inflicted violence) is caused when the self is harmed or diminished.

Furthermore, I would argue that whenever someone is involuntarily deprived of something that forms the self, violence or conflict results. For example, in the Sudanese classic book, Season of Migration to the North, by Tayeb Salih, a liberated and modernized female character living with the misogynist traditions of her village is forced to submit to an arranged marriage, thus being raped of her conception of herself as an autonomous being with value and agency (in addition to being raped physically by her unwanted groom). She then acts violently, killing the man and being killed herself in the process.

Additionally, the man first perpetrated sexual violence against her for the same reason she ultimately killed him: He, too, felt stripped of part of himself. When she refused to sleep with him, he feared that if he let her get away with it, he would lose his identity as a male with authority. This fear is the underlying cause of domestic violence in many cases.

However, while both man and wife were motivated by self-preservation, one acted violently only in self-defense, while the other acted preemptively out of the fear of a potential loss of self. Often, even the mere threat of deprivation of self can cause violence.

We see examples of pre-emptive violence especially in international relations. For example, fundamental differences between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union led to violence during the Cold War when the United States perceived the expansion of Soviet-backed Communism in much of Eastern Europe and East Asia as a threat to its own selfhood, which in turn depended on remaining a democratic nation.

Nation-states have an aggregate selfhood to protect, made up of and theoretically representative of their citizens; the United States generally seeks to defend itself by defending freedom, democracy, capitalism, consumption, individualism, modernization, hegemonic power, and, some would say, Christianity. By contrast, the national identity of the former Soviet Union was associated with communism, egalitarianism, a centrally planned economy, a one-party system, and secularism or atheism. Consequently, though there was little evidence that the U.S. was in actual danger of a Communist take-over (Despite Brezhnev's empty threat to Nixon, “Your grandchildren will live under Communism”), the nation acted preemptively in defense of its identity and way of life by fighting Communism in Vietnam and perpetrating spectacular acts of violence in the region.

Sometimes, the mere existence of the “other” is perceived as a threat. During the Second World War, the Nazi party perceived the Jewish people (in addition to the Romani, homosexuals, the mentally disabled and other groups) as threats to the purity of the Aryan race and believed that their own self-preservation depended on the violent extermination of these “others”. This misconception by the Nazis resulted in the preemptive violence of the Holocaust, which is remembered as one of the most heinous incidents in human history.

More recently, on 11 September 2001, the U.S. experienced one of the most heinous events in its national history. Because the U.S. is often considered a Christian nation, 9/11 and the conflict in Iraq have repeatedly been painted as clashes of religion (Bush's likening of the War on Terror to a “crusade” only aided this misconception). However, while it is not wrong to say that religion has, in some ways, led to the Iraq War, it was by no means the root cause. In fact, it is nearly undisputed that the Al-Qaeda terrorists deliberately chose to destroy the World Trade Center, an icon of U.S. economic dominance and cultural imperialism, in order to symbolically attack the American way of life, not Christianity specifically. It is important to remember, amid all the talk of religious war, that Al Qaeda did not attack a religious symbol on 9/11.

Yet, even if they had, it would not be sufficient to label 9/11 or subsequent U.S. retaliation “religious violence.” The violence perpetrated by both parties intended to defend a way of life and sense of self, which may have included, but was in no way limited to religion. According to Osama bin Laden in his “Letter to America,” Al Qaeda attacked the American way of life on 9/11 in retaliation because the U.S. had been threatening the Muslim way of life and self for decades:

“Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands… You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices because of your international influence and military threats… Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis; These governments give us a taste of humiliation, and place us in a large prison of fear and subdual.”

In reality, it is never true, though it is often suggested, that religion, racism or ideology are the underlying causes of violence. It is appropriate to say that the Holocaust was the result of racist anti-Semitism, the Cold War was a clash of ideologies, and the 9/11 attackers were motivated by religion. However, while these statements are true, they also do not represent the whole truth, for all religious, racial and ideological identities represent parts of the self, and thus, all religious, racial, or ideological violence is, at its core, motivated by the desire for self-preservation. In other words, our beliefs are not the problem, our selfishness is.

Regarding the problem of our self-absorption, David Rieff, an American author and political analyst, says this:

“There are instinctual [reasons] that are probably hardwired into us for why we usually care more about the fate of neighbors and fellow citizens than that of strangers. It may not be politically correct or morally reassuring to say this, but surely it is to be expected, because we are human beings and not altruism machines, that we empathize more readily with people who more closely resemble us… This may not be true for a small minority of people who can genuinely claim to be cosmopolitan in the best and truest sense of the word—people for whom flag, or tribe, or race, or religion really no longer are essential for their sense of self, and, indeed, may seem to them like atavisms that stand in the way of their self-realization. But for most people the emotion-laden abstraction that is a national flag and the sustaining integument that is family and neighborhood are not so easily superseded.”

Clearly, Rieff is offering a pessimistic, realist view of our predicament suggesting that it is unnatural and unrealistic to expect people not to care selfishly for themselves and those close to them “because we are human beings.” I believe Rieff is entirely correct. Human beings are naturally selfish beings. However, using this fact to justify our selfishness and the violence it produces is, in my view, logically unsound and comes dangerously close to employing a naturalistic fallacy (a claim that what is naturally occurring is inherently good, right, or acceptable); just because it is human nature to be selfish does not mean it is always morally acceptable to be selfish. Obviously the world is in a natural state of war, yet, no one believes that this state is “good” or “right.” Instead, humanity endeavors tirelessly to alter this state and achieve peace. Thus, just because things are a certain way doesn't mean they ought to be. Just because we are selfish beings, obsessed with our own existence, doesn't mean we ought to be.

The reality we must face is that this obsession is not only morally reprehensible at times, but a little ridiculous in light of the fact that our existence is finite. We spend our whole lives trying to delay the inevitable, yet, death is imminent no matter where you live or how much your country spends on national security. When we set up preserving our selves and our way of life as our life's goal, we cannot win; we take up a losing battle and we take down others with us in the process.

Therefore, we should learn to pick our battles and set our goals more wisely. Instead of fighting for our own lives why not fight for peace and against the root cause of violence, our own self-absorption? Why not turn the battle into an internal one and kill the parts of our selves that cause violence instead of killing others to keep our selves, good parts and bad, intact? In other words, to quote the late Michael Jackson, why not “start with the man in the mirror,” and “ask him to changes his ways”?

What if these words were more than clichés? What if global peace, justice and equality were our life goals? What if we held the advancement of these goals above any other interests of our own? David Rieff was right to say that most people's interest in their selves is, “not so easily superseded.” A complete shift in humanity's way of thinking about life that is contrary to the natural tendencies “hardwired into us” would be an extremely difficult, seemingly impossible feat. However, no one has ever suggested that the solution to global violence would be easy. The hard truth is, it's only logical that if it is natural for humans to be selfish and violent, then it will take something unnatural or supernatural to change these patterns and change the world. People like Gandhi, Jesus, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa are widely considered to be some of the most inspirational and exceptional humans ever to have lived. Why? They did things that were unnatural and/or supernatural in the name of goals much bigger than self-preservation. They sacrificed themselves for, or dedicated their lives to, the salvation of humanity, justice, peace, and equality. This kind of self-sacrificing behavior is what it takes to change the world.

Diondra has recently graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in Global Studies and a passion for women's rights. She will be spending the next year in Tijuana, Mexico living and volunteering at a shelter for victims of domestic abuse. Diondra intends to return to the U.S. to begin graduate studies in the Fall of 2010. Visit her blog, for anecdotes about life in the shelter, feminist musings and hopefully, secret Mexican recipes. Email:

Please email Diondra for a list of works cited in this essay.