The psychologist Carl Jung wrote of the collective unconscious, a source of deep common understanding and knowledge that every person seems to somehow draw from. I’ve always liked this concept, and I’ve often thought we could take this further and consider the concept of the collective self. While Jung’s collective unconscious is present in our lives as a source of awareness and feeling, the collective self is something else: it’s the source of our shared willfulness, our common motivation, our us.
I like to introduce the concept of the collective self into ethical arguments to help explain how human beings can be self-interested and concerned for the well-being of other individuals at the same time. It’s often said that we are all motivated primarily by self-interest, but if we examine the goals that truly drive us in our everyday lives, the things that we care about and work hard for, we quickly see that we tend to be motivated not by private benefit but, more often, by public benefit of one kind or another.
Our concern and desire for the well-being of other members of the social groups to which we belong, or the well-being of humanity as a whole, is not a derived element, not a projection of individual self-interest mapped according to utilitarian needs onto others. Rather, our concern and desire for the well-being of numerous collective groups to which we belong is a primary instinct. We care about us. Us, it turns out, is no less a strong glue than me.
Of course, we humans like to see ourselves as a fiercely individualistic species. Hah! The evidence has never supported this belief. We’re highly territorial, and ornery and violent too. But in terms of the motivations that bind us we are no less driven by the “hive mind” than any pack of bees. Our minds are naturally wired for groupthink (indeed, this is why we can be so susceptible to mass-oriented political movements like communism and fascism, which take the collective self in dangerous directions). At every level of our lives, from politics to religion to education to sports and arts and entertainment, we tend to align our thoughts with those of our loved ones, family members, neighbors, co-workers, associates and friends. We align our feelings with them too. We think and feel together. The countless conflicts we get into often have less to do with clashes of individual self-interest, and more to do with clashes of collective self-interest.
I find that I can think much more clearly about questions of morality and ethics when I think about the collective self. In last weekend’s installment, Socrates asked how a person could ever wish to do evil to others. This ethical question and many like it often devolve into confusion over subjectivity, or private interest, of who’s doing what to who? What if something that’s good to me is evil to you? Human beings are, some moral philosophers will inevitably declare, ultimately selfish above all else. Morality itself is at stake when this point in the philosophical debate is reached. If we are all looking out only for ourselves, then morality is a sham.
Too many philosophical discussions have ended at this point. I’m surprised there isn’t a more general awareness — I can’t possibly be the first person who has thought of this! and yet the idea often goes unsaid — that “self-interest” does not have to equate to individual self-interest. Our concern for our families, our neighbors, our fellow citizens, those who share anything with us, indeed for everyone in the world, is a primary thing. When somebody calls somebody else selfish, the discussion should not end there. Instead it should lead to the question: which self? We all belong to several.
The misconception that we live only for ourselves, that we seek only to maximize our individual happiness, helps to encourage the sickness of hedonism, gluttony, greed. The irony of our selfish age — back in the 1970s, Tom Wolfe coined the term “the Me Decade”, and many might say the Me Decade never ended — is that many people would probably be more generous, more loving, less suspicious, and therefore much happier if they only felt they were permitted to be so. We all yearn to commune with the collective self. All too often this is the most difficult yearning of all to satisfy.