I recently re-watched Breaking Bad‘s series finale, and it got me thinking. Don’t worry, this won’t be an article about the show – we’ve already spilled a ton of words on that particular subject. But I do want to briefly touch on the show’s closing episode, as it provides some good context for a discussion around the motivational forces behind every human action.
In Breaking Bad, Walter White goes from a timid house cat to a homicidal wholesaler of methamphetamine. He’s able rationalize these actions by relentlessly citing the philanthropic motivations allegedly behind them; the impetus is always “for the family,” whether the action is lying to that family or bombing retirement homes. The elephant in the room, of course, was that Walt wasn’t doing it for the improvement of his kin; instead, all of his deviance was for him, because he liked it, and was good at it.
While the majority of the show is pretty clear-cut, at least in this regard, the concluding episode is open for debate about the extent to which Mr. White redeemed himself. Since I’m trying to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that my initial interpretation was that we saw Walt get his Red Dead Redemption on (Hey! It’s John Marston!), but Bullets, a fellow Blogcatter, argued that what we actually saw was Walt finally embracing and wholly acknowledging his selfish nature.
I think that it’s fair to have that argument, but the way Bullets and I had been considering the subject is wrong.
It’s fine to question whether or not Walt’s priorities changed at all, which is what we were really debating. It doesn’t make sense, though, to wonder whether Walt was acting in self-interest, because he always does, as that’s the only possible path. In fact, in considering this episode, I’ve realized that behaving selfishly, and doing only what we want, is the only possible course of action that any of us has available.
For all I know, this has probably been voiced elsewhere, but here’s the theory: That every person acts, or is capable of acting, only in ways that s/he desires, and the true definition of selfishness, the way we’ve always thought about it, has nothing to do with one’s ability or inability to place another’s desires over his/her own, but instead looks at what desires one has, and how one prioritizes some of those over others.
Here’s an example, mundane but illustrative. It’s a November Sunday and I want to sit around all day and watch football. Unfortunately, my girlfriend has come down with the flu, and she needs me to run to CVS to procure some medicine. The latter course of action is the one which I ultimately pursue.
Now, one might be quick to heap praise upon The Kid for acting so selflessly, but please, there’s no need for a third round of applause. You see, I really was acting exactly how I wanted. Why? I pursued my preferred course of action, given the circumstances that I faced.
Prima facie, it would seem like I would have preferred to loaf on the sectional and watch the Redskins get their asses kicked, again, but that’s actually incorrect. That’s a desire I have, of course, but it is trumped by other factors in play. For one, I want my girlfriend to feel better. For another, I want our relationship to stay intact, and I figure I’ll earn brownie points by running the errand. I want to be thought of as a supportive boyfriend. These things are more important to me than a sloppy game of pigskin, so I go to the store, because when I consider the variables behind all the options laid out in front of me, I pick the choice that is preferable to me.
In this case, I’ve weighed my girlfriend’s needs as more important to me than football, so I’m not being selfish, yet I’m still doing what I’d rather do. It seems we need a new word. Any suggestions?
One reason confusion arises is in distinguishing between, for lack of other terms, “better” and “better for me” – as in, ‘it’d be “better for me” if I could just sit and watch football, but it’s probably a “better” idea if I run to the drugstore.’ Even though that’s the way we anecdotally think about things, I believe those two terms are technically synonymous.
Another typical point of confusion comes from our failure on a minute-to-minute basis to differentiate between “Ideal” and “Preferred, given the circumstances.” The way we always think about that situation is, “Ughhh, I really don’t want to go to CVS. I want to watch football!” Yet the truth of the matter is, that phrasing is technically disingenuous, when looking at the decision from a more macro perspective. I do want to go to the pharmacy because I believe that choice is the optimal one, given the circumstances. What I should really be saying is, “Ughhh, I wish the circumstances were different, such that watching football resulted in the optimal outcome.”
I’d rather my girlfriend not be sick. I’d rather we already have medicine. If that had been the case, I wouldn’t have had to go anywhere. Yet because that situation was not reality, I made the trip, and acted in a preferred way. It just wasn’t ideal, because the circumstances were not ideal. Begrudging a situation is not the same as not doing what I wanted to do.
It would be incorrect, then, to aver that I was not making my preferred choice – that I was not doing exactly what I wanted to do. That I wanted to ignore my girlfriend’s health to watch RG395 hobble around, but instead was somehow, through some Imperius Curse-esque phenomenon, forced to forego that in order to pursue her preferred course of action. That, obviously, wasn’t what ended up happening; I went to CVS because the way I weighted the decision made that course of action more appealing than any other.
In fact, I can’t imagine a situation in which any person would have the ability to act in a non-selfish way. Even a standard example like “If I put a gun to your head” is simply another instance of prioritization; yes, it’s not ideal, but you could have chosen to die instead, right?
Or consider an even more dramatic situation: My friend and I are prisoners, and our captor gives me a choice. I could either die in a gruesome fashion, or I could save my self by choosing to have my friend killed by that same method. Death by chocolate, perhaps? Whatever the technique, volunteering to be the victim, however noble of a choice, is still selfish, in this way. It’s just that I care less about my physical life than I do about my legacy, or my friend’s life, or spiting our tormentor, or any number of other possibilities in play. Despite biting that bullet, I’m behaving selfishly, given the circumstances and my priorities. Being a martyr and being “selfish” are not conflicting qualities, but instead are inescapably linked.
Obviously this isn’t a very practical thing to understand, but it’s sort of uplifting. Good news, everybody! Things might not be ideal, but we all get to do whatever the fuck we want!
I also think it’s interesting in how this theory relates to the subject of free will. Typically, philosophers have speculated about the “capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” In the context of this Blogcat, the debate can be thought of as centering over our capacity to have any input into our individual prioritization of various factors – whether (a) we have any say in that, or (b) its predetermined.
I have no ambition to jump into that debate here; millions of words, from thousands of men and women, across hundreds of years, have been unable to conclusively solve that riddle. I do want to mention, though, that I don’t think my claims here are necessarily deterministic, or that they deny humanity its free will; while it certainly smells a bit like determinism, my theory is still open to the possibility that we have complete freedom of will over choosing how to prioritize various factors. That said, I do feel that once the ranking of those priorities has been established, we have no choice but to act in the way that we’ve deemed will benefit us, however you define it, more than any other path.
I also believe this theory still allows for moral accountability, which is one of the main reasons we ethically “need” free will to exist – if the world is completely deterministic, then murderers really had no choice, or free will, in their actions, and thus how can we blame them, if it really weren’t their fault? Even though your actions will always be “selfish,” in the way I’ve been saying, it’s still more noble and worthy of praise to sacrifice for others than it is to ignore their needs. I’d still be a bigger asshole if I just vegged on the couch instead of doing a favor for the ol’ ball and chain. But even so, helping the needy by donating to charity would still be “selfish”; you’ve just deemed it better for yourself than being greedy. Kudos to you.
So I urge you – go consider Walter White in Felina. Question whether or not his desires are still the same, whether he’s become altruistic, or has gone all in on Heisenberg. Be my guest.
Just don’t think he, or anyone else you know, is ever putting anyone else’s interests above his own.