People tend to laugh at me when I describe myself as “pragmatic”. I think because the term is so often conflated with “selfish ahole”. But that’s utterly incorrect. Being selfish and hurting others is usually the opposite of being pragmatic.
Humans are a social species. I am evolved to be one fraction of a unit. I put the number at about one-seventh, but that’s a crude approximation that I’m happy to revise. Regardless of what the exact ratio is, the success of a human is hugely dependent on the success of their group. As a result, screwing over the people around you is shooting yourself in the foot.
“You’re nice to service workers!” – Well, yeah. The interaction goes faster and is more pleasant for me that way. Plus, if you’re being a jerk they’re less inclined to be helpful.
“You give things away for free if you don’t need them!” – Yeah? It rarely sells for enough to be worth bothering about. Better to encourage a strong freecycle culture in my area, so that I can get stuff I actually need without having to buy.
“You take the time and energy to help people whenever you can!” – Duh. Firstly, helping people earns you social credit with not only that person but also any witnesses. If you are known as someone who helps others, people will be more inclined to help you when you need it. Plus, if someone is struggling, the group performance is down. And I want group performance up.
In the vast majority of cases, the pragmatic approach is to be kind, easygoing, generous, and supportive. Don’t just take my word for it; look up “prisoner’s dilemma” experiments. (There are plenty of others, but that’s a good place to start.)
So why do we excuse or even idealise people who hurt others for personal gain? Why do we act as if it’s “rational” or “practical” to screw over group welfare? Why are “logical” characters so often depicted as being driven by selfishness? Why does our culture treat taking as being inherently better than giving?
Yes, my ethics is hard-headed compared to most people I’ve talked to. A careful model of cause-and-effect, cost-vs-benefit, long term-vs-short term. That’s why I describe myself as a pragmatist. But that system led me to be a strong believer in communal welfare. Because I hold, that objectively makes the most sense.
If giving you something doesn’t hurt me, and helps you, the logical move is to give that thing to you. (The caveat of “doesn’t hurt me” includes the possibility of you using whatever-it-is to cause me harm.) Now I am no worse off, and you are doing better. The world is objectively improved.
Sure, I may not have personally benefitted, but group welfare is up, which is good news for me. And I might benefit further in time; choosing to invest in you may well result in you being able to help me when I need it. Of course, it also might not. Such is the way of investments. So you want to have a diverse social portfolio and not invest more than you can spare.
But there are many things you can “give” with minimal cost to yourself that buoy up group wellbeing. You can give…
- a dab of your time and energy to the cashier by smiling and returning their greeting.
- social connection by complimenting a stranger on their cool crazy hair colours.
- an easier time by holding a door for someone struggling with a load.
- vindication and increased drive by leaving a note for your favourite content creator saying how much you love their work.
- release by listening when a friend needs to vent.
The pragmatic approach is to do these small acts of kindness as much as possible. Really! It not only earns you a steady bank of social credit, and seeds numerous small investments, it normalises a kind and friendly culture. Which is exactly the sort of culture I want to live in, and I assume the same is true for you.
So this holiday season, go forth and give whatever you have spare. Give kindness. Give support. Give energy. Give time. Give connection. Give opportunity. Give material clutter that someone else desperately needs.
And if anyone pooh-poohs your sage pragmatism, laugh at them for their nonsensical fantasy thinking.