Self-Interest Vs Collective Interest

It is common nowadays to see people more concerned about their selfish interests than the interests of the organisation or community that they belong to. All this they do in desperate bids for self-preservation. Often it is the contention of team leaders that the team members do not put enough effort for the collective interest and are only interested in oiling their wheels. More often than not, this contention itself is raised because of the self-interest of the team leaders in trying to achieve laurels for themselves.

This problem has been  debated and philosophised for centuries. The growing tendency to become increasingly narcissistic makes this more relevant today. Progress brought about by the human mind has only compounded the problem and confounded the confusion. Parameters and benchmarks of excellence have become increasingly individualistic. One can spend days, weeks, months, and even years without any face-to-face contact with any human being and yet feed on the toils of numerous humans, all the while enjoying such labours without any in-depth understanding of the actual condition of these fellow beings.

Swami Vivekananda made real an idealistic model of preferring the collective.

This isolation has resulted in self-interest being put ahead of the group interest. Such a shift leads to a decline of collective growth and sustenance, and the quality of collective welfare. For instance, if the members of a cricket team were to put their personal careers ahead of the goals of the team, it might be that the individual team member earns awards for one’s individual performance, but could frequently jeopardise the growth of the team.

Psychologists study the common trait of giving preference to the individual interest over common good and use the results of studies to better negotiate with individual members of a group to align the group interests to their self-interests. There are interesting observations that come out of such studies. For instance, every member of a team draws from the collective or group the maximum one can and claims it a right for being a member of the group, but shies away from contributing to the group in the same manner. For example, an employee of a large multinational company would enjoy all the perquisites and freebies available to an employee as a right, but would have great difficulties in working without compulsion for an urgent crisis that the company is facing. So, the collective is emphasised when it concerns some self-interest, and the collective is relegated to a secondary place when it concerns self-interest. Essentially, it is the self-interest that takes predominance at all times.

Individual members of a team can be motivated to put the collective interests ahead of their self-interests if they can be shown with certainty that in the long-term, preserving the collective interests would automatically preserve the individual interests. It is imperative that the individual members of a group identify themselves closely with the group for the collective goals to be achieved. Also, some people are naturally inclined to put the interests of others or the group ahead of their self-interests. Making them models worth emulation would help other group members to get inspiration to be less focussed on self-interests and more aligned to the collective interests.

The group or collective can also reward or reciprocate the actions of individual members of the group that are focussed on achieving collective goals. This would ensure that the individual member has an evident reason to be not prioritising self-interest. The gallantry awards given to members of the armed services could be a case in point. Similarly, the collective can punish the individual members if they do not focus on or align to the collective interest. However, all such methods of rewards and punishments to ensure the participation of the individual members of a group to achieve a collective goal have serious limitations. For instance, rewarding an individual member of a group uses the resources of the entire group and is definitely at a cost to the other members of the group, who are not rewarded. Punishments can further alienate members of a group, who were not focussed on the goals of the group and thus attracted the punishment in the first place.

The question of the conflict between self-interest and collective interest is also that of the conflict between liberty and civility, it is also about the conflict between fairness and welfare. It is also about the conflict between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’. The present-day market economy has as its foundation the overt emphasis on self-interest. If the common good is focussed upon, many of the products and services that human beings use today without compunction, could not be even thought of as a product or service. It is essential for the sustenance of the market that the consumers are not enlightened about the common good.

All questions of giving precedence to the collective good over self-interests also end up becoming questions of equitable distribution of resources. Also, it is a common trend of thinking to make the collective in its own standing, as opposed to the collection of individual members, to be the only entity responsible for achieving collecting goals. For example, we constantly blame the government for the provision and maintenance of public services like washrooms, roads, and transportation. However, we conveniently forget that such public services cannot be provided or maintained without the support and active participation by the members of the group, in this case citizens, in the form of paying of taxes and maintaining discipline while using these services.

The present conflict is also a major point of contention in matters involving ethics in the public sphere. In matters of national importance, this conflict often rears its ugly head and compels the structures created by the collective like the government to impose restrictions, prohibitions, and bans. However, an enlightened leader who is wise enough to understand that being an empathetic leader would only help her or his cause, would prove to be a leader, who always thinks of the collective, both as the common good and the good of the individual members of the collective.

Swami Vivekananda made real an idealistic model of preferring the collective. He did that mainly in the sphere of religion and spirituality. For him it was not sufficient that an individual spiritual aspirant gets the God experience, but he wanted that all beings be one with God. Swamiji found that the One and the many are the same and the microcosm and the macrocosm, the individual and the collective are identical. Only when all of us human beings strive for and acquire this knowledge of oneness can we be truly the same in both our self and collective interests. Till the complete realisation of this oneness and as a path to that final destination, we have to gradually uncover layer after layer of distinctions between the individual and the collective and treat them as one.

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