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November 12, 1982


The New Conflict of Egotism and Altruism

The long growth of individuality and freedom culminated in the selfishness of' 60s people.
But the reaction to that is making more Americans realize they have obligations to others.


By Myriam Miedzian


Back in the late '60s, when freedom, spontaneity, and self-fulfillment had, in the eyes of many, taken on the sanctity reserved by previous generations for the Ten Commandments, my husband and I had an ongoing argument with friends who refused to put a diaper on their young son. The diaper, they claimed, would be a severe infringement on his freedom, especially in the warm California climate where we all lived at the time.

"What about our beautiful handwoven Polish rugs?” we would ask.

"What do you care more about, your rugs or Richie's development as a free, unrepressed human being?" was invariably the gist of their answer.

The argument was never resolved. We entertained Richie and his parents in the backyard.

Our friends' attitude was shared by other extremists. I remember students complaining that they hadn't been able to get any sleep because a roommate at the college dorm had come in at 3 AM and turned on the stereo full blast, or made love loudly on the bed next to theirs.

Their roommates were just "doing their own thing." Complaints were dismissed as "uncool."

At first I associated this kind of behavior with youthful excesses. But as time went by I came to realize that Richie's parents refusal to put a diaper on him, or college students' 3 AM loud lovemaking were just more extreme versions of an attitude prevalent among large numbers of Americans who, while they conformed to minimal requirements of civilized living, did not go much beyond that in terms of their own behavior or in terms of teaching their children consideration for others.

I was reminded of Richie one Sunday morning years later when I was working on a project with a colleague at her home. Earlier that week, when Helen had found out that her daughter, Alison, and mine, Nadia, were both 9 years old, she had suggested that I bring Nadia along. "Alison and Nadia can play while we work." It sounded like a good idea and all went well for about a half hour.

Then one of Alison's best friends dropped by unexpectedly. Almost immediately Alison and her friend went into Alison's bedroom and shut the door leaving Nadia alone in the den with the TV set. Nadia was hurt and bored. Neither Helen nor her husband ever said a word to their daughter about her obligation to entertain Nadia.

Wasn't this simply a more subtle version of Richie's parents insisting that he be free of diapers? Alison preferred playing with her best friend, just as Richie preferred running around without a diaper in hot weather. To make Richie wear a diaper or to make Alison play with someone that she no longer wanted to play with would be to put a limitation on their freedom to do as they wish.

Being considerate of others sometimes involves doing what one does not feel like doing. In the last 15-odd years, many parents have been unwilling or unable to teach their children to do this, and have often been unwilling to do it themselves. The result has been the dwindling of a sense of social or familial obligation. Our littered beaches and parks (who enjoys cleaning up?), our libraries with their ripped-off books and ripped-out pages (it's so much cheaper and more convenient than buying the book or Xeroxing the pages), our lonely old people whom no one seems to have the time to visit (going to the beach is so much more fun) are a testimony to this.

How is it that so many people have lost sight of the long established truth that in order to live together with any degree of harmony and happiness people cannot always do whatever they feel like doing? Everyone must repress some of his or her desires. The do-your-own-thing (and ignore-its-effect-on-others) philosophy of the '60s and '70s can best be understood as a pendulum-swing reaction to the previous Judeo-Christian ethic.

For centuries, people's lives had been dominated by the fulfillment of familial, social and religious duty. People married whomever their parents chose for them, and stayed married regardless of how they felt about each other. They worked at a trade or profession determined by their parents or by economic necessity determined by their parents or by economic necessity. They followed rigid religious and social taboos concerning social and, in particular, sexual behavior (a young girl could be “ruined” for life by one sexual adventure).

By the mid to late 19th Century, a reaction to this programmed and stifling way of life had set in. The right of individuals to make their own decisions, to live their own lives had become one of the main themes of many philosophers, poets and novelists. This new concern accelerated a movement toward ever-increasing individual freedom that had started hundreds of years earlier.

This movement reached its peak in the 1960s. The concept of fulfilling one's obligations and duties was not just put in its place but almost completely thrown out. It now became one's duty to do whatever one felt like doing regardless of the consequences to others. The pendulum had swung full sway.

In the '60s, there had been an underlying belief that the new freedom would rid individuals of the hostility and resentment created by repression. Instead of altruism fostered by blind adherence to obligations and duties, in the new liberated world, spontaneous love and caring would abound. (Remember the Flower Children?) By the mid-'70s, this connection had been severed. The revolt against the Judeo-Christian ethic had turned into a self-centered looking out for No. 1.

It became socially accepted that in any particular situation people's only obligation was to look out for their own and their families' interests regardless of the effect of their behavior on the well-being of others. The notion of making any kind of personal sacrifice for the sake of others, or for the sake of what one considered to be morally right, was considered antiquated.
A recent study has found that while children have a capacity for empathy and altruism from at least age 1 on, this capacity is undermined by mothers who teach their children to ignore, or not worry about, the suffering of others (usually other children). Parents are afraid that feelings of altruism will take away from their children's ability to compete successfully in later life.

While Americans' deep concern with personal success and material well-being is nothing new, this concern was in the past tempered by religious teachings concerning altruism and consideration for others. Today there is no such tempering force. (That is why the "Moral Majority" is able to argue that only a return to old-fashioned religious belief can save us from our current moral depravity.) But religious admonitions are not the only reason for acting altruistically, for teaching our children moral behavior.

Only an extraordinarily shortsighted view of life, one which is incapable of seeing beyond immediate success and pleasure, can fail to realize that consideration for others. The fulfillment of obligations, is essential to human life and happiness, and must be taught to children from the youngest age. One does not have to believe in the sanctity of the Bible to understand the long-range value to all of us of living by a precept such as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Someday we may slip on the banana peel casually dropped on the sidewalk. Someday we may be the sick or lonely grandmother or cousin or uncle whom no one visits.

While by 1982 many Americans would be ready to acknowledge the value of inculcating certain rules and obligations concerning littering and other amenities of life, many would say that feelings cannot be legislated and so in the area of personal relationships we must be allowed to act spontaneously.

"I wouldn't want someone to come and visit me out of a sense of obligation," I can hear someone say. "I would only want them to come because they feel like it." This overlooks the extent to which all our attitudes and behavior are learned. Children whose mothers encourage them to disregard the pain of others are learning egoism, just as children whose mothers encourage them to help others who are in pain are learning altruism. Their sense of obligation will be tinged with a heightened sensitivity.

This is in no way to deny the enormous conflicts and difficulties inherent in any system of morality which recognizes our individuality and freedom, as well as the need for consideration and obligations to others. Many women today already are torn between these two values - they are suffering deep conflict between their sense of obligation to their children and their commitment to work that they find self-fulfilling. Many adults suffer moral torment when their own needs conflict with the needs of an aging and chronically ill parent.

To balance one's own needs with the needs of others is not easy - there are no simple clear-cut answers; frequently we will end up with highly imperfect compromises. We seem to have no choice but to face these problems, however, for most of us would be unwilling to go back to an ethic of self-sacrifice and thwarting of the individual, and yet we have come to recognize the need for something other than egocentric self-fulfillment.


Myriam Miedzian of Manhattan, a former professor of philosophy, is a free-lance writer.

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