The Self-Interest of Animals

A couple months ago, my cat Enoch had some inflammation in his eye. We were worried it might be the sign of an infection, so to get ahead of it, we bought some ointment that we swabbed onto his eyeball with a Q-Tip. After a few days, it cleared up, and everything went back to normal.

Animals operate entirely on self-interest. They seek reward and avoid unpleasantness. But they have no ability to understand when short-term unpleasantness is necessary for long-term reward (or survival, even). It’s sad.

That’s the core concept that many conservatives champion as the ideal financial system: animalistic self-interest. The premise is that our base instincts will ensure we’ll be properly motivated, the idea being that we’re simply mammalian creatures who can do nothing but seek reward. But animals are incapable of recognizing when what they think is in their best interest is actually not. My cat struggled because he believed it in his best interest to writhe and struggle free of my grip before the unpleasant goo-stick touched his eye. People put off going to the dentist because they’re afraid of drills, and then end up having to have entire teeth extracted instead of cavities filled.

We have the capacity to see beyond our immediate fears and desires, though. It’s grossly underutilized because our financial system is structured to reinforce focus on responding to short-term interests, but the ability exists if we try.

Perhaps instead of embracing greed and self-interest, we should turn around and confront our evolution, look it in the face, and say “no.” Instead of continuing to reward the attributes that benefited our primitive ancestors — aggression, greed, pursuit of self-interest — we should reward the attributes that will best benefit our descendants — intelligence, compassion, introspectiveness, foresight — anchoring us to the future instead of the past.

We’re better than our primitive heritage. If we’re just going to give up and structure all our infrastructures and systems around the primitive beasts we used to be, we may as well climb back up into the trees.

2 thoughts on “The Self-Interest of Animals”

  1. Defying evolution? Now you’re playing back into Creationism and Fundy Territory, Man Created by God and all that.
    Seriously, we as a species have to some extent already started doing that, embracing our creativity, mutual interests, foresights, it’s part of how we’ve come this far.
    And on the flip side, some would say we’d be better off back in the tree with our ancestors, that apes take basically enough food and shelter for their needs, and don’t worry about taking more.
    Socialism sounds great, until everyone starts deciding what they want on a pizza.

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