Are all activists just selfish?

When you are working on projects that are not financially or in any material sense rewarding, it is common to hear from fellow activists or people in communities you are working with that these people who are doing this work are “selfish” because that’s just the sort of thing that makes them happy – at least for now. I have always found this notion to be disturbing for few reasons: 1. it stands on the fallacy that starts with the premise that ‘all actions humans do are selfish’ therefore reaches the conclusion that ‘socially directed actions (broadly “sympathetic actions”) are also selfish’. 2. It strengthens the myth concocted by the capitalist ideology that humans are primarily or exclusively selfish and seek to do things that satisfy them, most of the time materially.

But there is also a deeper problem with this way of looking at our social lives. It is based on the assumption that any action (including any sympathetic action) is genuinely “selfless”, and the assumed implication is also that it is therefore morally superior, only if the source of the impulse (moral motivation) is external to the human self.  The act has to be grounded in something outside our personal wants and desires. This is a belief in which God continues to linger as the linchpin for “genuinely moral acts”. Because human is seen as naturally sinful and without God or any external authority does not have any reason to be good.

In fact, these were the accusations leveled at atheists of the 18th and 19th centuries – against people like Hume and later Shelly. That they can and will only act in a sociable way only if and when it suits them and not otherwise – so a society of atheists would be immoral, unjust, and even untenable. Similar reasoning pervades the discourse on sociability and viability of non-authoritarian forms of societies, without the guardianship of the states and corporate masters.

The only options focusing on selfish or selfless acts leaves us with are either being selfish or a slave. Instead of focusing on this wrongly formulated quasi-metaphysical question, it is more important to look at whether the actions are making any meaningful positive changes.

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