Self-Interest and the Common Good: Progress?

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In the earliest human societies, which were hunter-gatherer bands, self-interest and the common good were one and the same, although the concept of the common good would not be formally described until the fourth century CE.

The struggle for survival of both individual and group was their shared primary concern and was inherent in the band lifestyle, which required collective action for foraging and protection from predators.

Over time, bands joined together to form tribes in which hierarchies evolved as a form of social organization. With the advent of agriculture, tribes gave up their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became farmers. Farming and sedentary settlement gave rise to the concept of private property, and self-interest began to replace communal motivation and activities.

Then, when tribes established cities, their hierarchies became the dominant social structure. Self-interest and the common good were no longer synonymous. As society’s transition continued from cities to states and nations, the common good became subordinate to self-interest. This situation, unfortunately, persists in our world today.

It was not a quick or simple transition. Many civilizations arose, shaping our history to varying degrees on foundations of many different economic systems. The most onerous among these was slavery, the epitome of political and economic inequality. Under slavery, there is no common good at all—only slaves and masters, rich and poor.

It is fascinating to realize that the cultures and economic systems supported by slavery have since perished—as if Plutarch’s pronouncement that “An imbalance between rich and poor is the most fatal ailment of all republics” had the power of prophecy. A partial list of the fallen: Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome; the colonial empires of Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and Portugal; and the antebellum American South.

Although political inequality is gradually disappearing as more countries become democracies (or at least, more democratic), economic inequality between haves and have-nots is actually increasing—ironically, with the active support of some of those same governments.

For example, in the US of the 1960s and 1970s, ongoing corporate tax exemptions/forgiveness and subsidies, along with a general abandonment of antitrust enforcement, encouraged the formation of huge conglomerates. In the 1980s, corporate and high-income tax rates were cut substantially, the “too big to fail” concept was introduced in the Continental of Illinois Bank bailout, and S&L deregulation cost taxpayers $1.2 trillion. Then, because banks were allowed to engage in investment activities in the 1990s, irresponsible risk-taking led to the worldwide financial collapse of 2008, with a $700 billion bailout of “too big to fail” institutions in the US alone.

It cannot be claimed that any of those governmental actions was taken to enhance the common good or to satisfy the fundamental human drive toward freedom and equality and building a better future. Rather, each action was taken to satisfy the self-interest of the wealthy.

For the future, as more and more people become aware of their political and economic power and begin to exercise it, we can look for a resurgence of concern for the common good in both political and economic systems. But it will not come easily.

Oliver & Barbara

A Peak Experience

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My body is a microscopic speck.
My spirit is a universe of light.
My consciousness is in touch with all that is,
And overall, an overwhelming peace.

This poem was inspired by and describes a spiritual experience I had about 30 years ago.

Sitting quietly alone in the family room of my home, I became aware that my physical sense of being was diminishing until it was a tiny spark of light. At the same time, my consciousness was expanding until it was in contact with everything in the Universe.

The experience lasted for about 45 minutes and was succeeded by an incredible sense of peace, which lasted for about three weeks. During this period, life proceeded normally. Some good things happened, some not so good. But my overall sense was, “Everything is okay,” and the experience has affected my thinking and behavior ever since.

Still, its significance only occurred to me recently when a friend was describing an especially moving sermon by the pastor of her church, on “Saying ‘Yes’ to Everything”—I realized that was what was happening during the period of peace I experienced.

I am one with you and we with all else that is in our Universe.

The Importance of Sharing

“Sharing” can be conceptualized as the mutual enjoyment or expression of an idea, thing, feeling, or experience (such as equality, a meal, love, or sex). Sharing was and is fundamental to the development of all human relationships and civilizations.

Its importance is underscored by the fact that it is very ancient. As noted in To Find the Way of Love, sharing was part of creation, when the fundamental particles first formed relationships (i.e. shared potentials) and the evolution of the universe began. 

The book also posits that the eventual appearance of life on Earth 200–300 million years ago was accompanied by a divine imperative for all species: “Life shall beget life.” At first, sharing wasn’t really a part of that picture; competing for resources was. To fulfill the divine imperative, an individual animal’s most important actions were simply to eat and have sex.

But eventually, when the Age of Mammals began, evolution of the ancestral brain led animals—and ultimately, humans—to develop altruism, a concern for others, which was most fully expressed through parenting. The imperative to beget life then came to have two seemingly contradictory, but in fact complementary, aspects: self-interest and altruism. 

In practical terms, those aspects mean the individual must sufficiently care for itself to be capable of reproduction and must also be committed to the protection and nurturance of progeny until they achieve maturity. And that means—even mandates—relationship.

To fulfill the imperative’s self-interest aspect, eating and having sex are still paramount for most individuals. But to fulfill the altruism aspect, an individual has many choices among countless potential actions that enhance another’s life or chances of survival, even at a cost or peril to the self.

Sharing simultaneously satisfies the requirements of both self-interest and altruism. It’s vital to help our children understand sharing from an early age, to ensure their strongest, healthiest, and happiest foundation in the relationships that make human life and society possible.

Barbara & Oliver



• Sharing was part of the process of creation.

• Sharing is essential to the development of human relationships.

• Sharing can satisfy both self-interest and altruism.

• It is very important for children to understand sharing early in life.

Whatever Happened to “the Loyal Opposition”?

For many of us, an awareness of politics first arose in a high school civics classroom. Among the topics typically covered in that curriculum was “the loyal opposition.” This concept originated in the British Parliament to support bipartisanship in a two-party governing system in which the minority party could disagree with the majority without being considered disloyal or treasonous.

It spread throughout the British Empire and was adopted in the United States during the Presidential campaign of Jefferson and Hamilton. Under this concept, the President’s party controls the executive branch and the legislative branch (Congress) is divided between the parties according to the votes of local elections.

Although it may seem paradoxical or counterintuitive for opposition to be a unifying tool, that was nevertheless the idea.

Under this concept, each party recognizes the legitimacy of the other party as well as its equal commitment to country, Constitution, and the common good. Each party, however, is free to promote its own vision of government, and differences between the two are to be debated.

The opposition of the minority party is to be accepted as loyal (not seen as treason or sedition) when it proposes a reasonable alternative for debate. Ultimately, whatever the outcome of a debate, both parties are supposed to support the decision.

This concept and process worked for a long time in American government because both parties recognized the need for compromise to resolve contentious issues—but eventually, in the 1970s, decay set in.

Like an invasion of pathogens, lobbyists and special-interest groups contaminated the body politic through campaign contributions. Various power-seeking individuals, corporations, and institutions became excessively invested, financially and emotionally, in the outcome of legislative debates.

As the contamination of money spread further into both parties, they began to view each other as “not like me” and therefore dangerous, echoing an ancient survival mechanism used to identify predators or prey.

Politicians, increasingly indebted to special-interest groups for campaign contributions, more often used “back-room deals” to avoid open debates. These led to the end of compromise, because secrecy allowed the risk of public exposure of selfishness or inequity to be avoided. Self-serving individuals in both parties began to demonize their opponents.

Eventually, the unifying concept of loyal opposition was replaced by destructive partisanship, damaging the country and the common good.

A revival of the loyal opposition concept and its practice would require the elimination, or at least limitation, of money’s contamination in public elections. The ultimate, though presently impossible, solution would be public financing of elections.

But meanwhile, an excellent beginning would be an amendment to the Constitution that’s been proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (see, which would overturn the deplorable decision of the Supreme Court that currently allows corporations and individuals to make unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions.

Quick Blog Takeaways:

  • “The loyal opposition” supports bipartisanship.
  • The deterioration of the loyal opposition began in the 1970s.
  • The loyal opposition was killed by the infection of money.
  • Resurrection of the loyal opposition requires a Constitutional amendment.
  • The people have the power to pass such an amendment.

Oliver & Barbara



Protest, Violence And That “Pesky Reptilian Brain”*


*See Kirkus Indie review

In To Find the Way of Love, I stated what we all know instinctively: Fear separates. Love unites. One of many lessons of history is that overreach provokes reaction. Sometimes it takes years or decades, but action and reaction are inevitable partners in the dance of life.


Throughout the world, people are joining in protest of the way things are, the status quo. In America, perhaps different from other nations in magnitude only, the “99 percent” are having their say all over the country. First, it was the Wall Street occupation; then, it was everywhere.

 In Los Angeles, the City Council embraced the protestors. Then, according to the papers, it had second thoughts.

In New York, on Wall Street, we saw video footage of an Iraq war veteran admonishing the police, over and over, “If you want to be tough, want to fight, go to Afghanistan. These are Americans. You are supposed to protect them.” The cops on screen all looked young and unsure of how to react to a veteran who had served his country several times.

In Oakland, the situation got uglier. Reports came over the Internet that Scott Olsen, a Marine who’d served two tours in Iraq, was struck in the head by a projectile fired by the Oakland police, leaving him in critical condition. He’d survived combat overseas; Oakland was a more serious matter.

We remember the Democratic Convention, many decades ago in Chicago, when demonstrators were attacked with tear-gas and batons; the deaths of college students at Kent State; the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi. It’s an endless list of brutalities. This is reaction to action, just as the protestors worldwide are in reaction to the Powers That Be, whom they experience as operating at their expense.

The reptilian brain, the earliest brain structure to develop, is primitive and focused on survival. Force and fear operate on a survival assumption—this assumption protects the status quo. That is why all social movements have been so costly in terms of human sacrifice, time, and societal ruptures. Over time, given enough death and destruction, movements also can morph into what they originally defined themselves as being against.

In trying to protect themselves against any loss whatsoever, power structures have often lost everything, and then the dance begins anew.

It is never just an issue of rich and poor and everything in between. It’s an issue of excessive concentration of wealth in the few, at the expense of everyone else, and there is no value added for anyone else. That is experienced as exploitation. Excess provokes reaction when the opposite of excess is when too many others experience deprivation and fear about survival.

Restraint, moderation, and a belief in what’s often left at the doors of houses of worship—brotherhood and sisterhood—would help. These are very big and complex issues for small blogs and our sensationalized news programs.

We can have better goals and look for adults to set better examples, not fire up the people with short-term interests at the expense of a better world. We can make equality a virtue and turn away from divisiveness and decisions made solely for profit.

In the book, I speak about the concept of “like me,” because being different was dangerous for survival in the development of earliest civilization. Have we come far enough since then? Gangs, countries, tribes, the question seems to remain, “Are you like me, or my enemy?” Not like me…wrong neighborhood, wrong ethnicity, wrong religion, wrong color, wrong tribe. Then, for survival the next question was,  “Do I greet you or eat you?” There are many ways to do the latter: eat up resources and opportunities, pit people against each other, create endless possibilities for divisiveness and fear. The other possibility is to recognize that we could all be heading for an impoverished and violent world.

While we remain concerned about the future of our world, we are basically optimists who believe that, in spite of ourselves, we are moving in the right direction. If everything is local, not just in politics, we may yet evolve into a saner human community where the response on the “like-me scale” of “Do I greet you or eat you?” is I GREET YOU!

Oliver & Barbara

Self-Interest and Altruism

In To Find The Way of Love, I describe how our brains are hard-wired for both vengeance and forgiveness. Both were vital to survival in our earliest days. They have become transformed into self-interest, which we see enacted everywhere in our society, and into acts of altruism, humanity, and courage, which demonstrate our better selves.

There is a reason we thrill to examples of this behavior. People can’t seem to get enough and are deeply touched and inspired by acts of unselfish behavior for another’s good. Look at behavior in times of mutual grief and tragedy, people coming together with a common will: rescue the miners, find the lost child. But watch reactions to years of greed, illegal but protected behavior, andvarious excesses at the expense of others, and a deep, simmering resentment emerges that fuels protests: the civil rights and women’s rights movements, the Wall Street sit-ins, even the Tea Party. People come together, join in solidarity to have a voice.

Then watch reactions to protest. How many elected officials across the globe are interested in listening to the voice of the gathering mass? Watch commentators dismiss them, politicos deride them and discount them: “No clear message.” “No focus.” Trouble-makers.” While this may in part be true, where is the dialogue to clarify the message? When self-interest and fear cloud judgment, violence often erupts. Many of us remember Kent State and the unnecessary deaths that resulted. This showed hierarchy at its most rigid and unyielding. This was and continues to be a polarized society.

Technology, especially the Internet, may provide a path to a better, saner world. Two billion people, one-third of the world’s population, are connected to the Internet. Transparency may end up being more powerful than secrecy. We recently read about police attacking the Occupy Wall Street protestors, who promptly posted a recording of the event on the Web. Soon everything truly will be local.

Fear separates. Love unites. It is helpful to acknowledge and accept that we all possess self-interest and that we are all capable of altruism. What is reinforced, supported, and understood to be in one’s long-term interest can mitigate the regressive pull to short-term self-interest. This would need to be supported by truth telling and evidence rooted in earned trust. Few could argue against truth and trust. The problem would then become, whose truth would be trusted? That is when honest debate and exchange of ideas, supported by a new custom of shunning personal attacks in favor of focusing on issues, and proposing solutions in clear, understandable language could transform our world.

There are places in the world where political campaigns are limited to weeks and personal attacks on opponents are illegal. It’s been working for many years. But in our country today, politics are drowning in self-interest, and mendacity appears to be the norm. It can be thought of as unruly sandbox behavior. We may need a kindergarten for politicians with wise role models, where playing well with others is required and reinforced behavior.

Oliver & Barbara


image of truth definition Truth and honesty are values that most parents want to pass on to their children. American history is replete with treasured folktales such as, “Honest Abe, he walked miles to return a penny to a widow.” And honest George Washington’s tree-chopping confession, “Father, I cannot tell a lie. It was I.”

But what do we tell our children about truth and honesty now, and where do we look for modern examples? To corporations, such as banks? To politicians, lobbyists, the “one percent”? To our political parties and governments? To the television, radio, newspapers? Hopefully, to our schools, and our children’s’ teachers…

Today, who stands up for truth and honesty, stripped of self-interest and bias? In the current toxic atmosphere, people are always promulgating their own view as THE correct one, defending it and attacking “the other.” There appears to be no middle ground, and the only objective is to gain advantage—not to promote truth and honesty. This kind of behavior has become so blatant that no one is even embarrassed to distort facts or lie outright. When someone of leadership status makes a speech or public statements that impartial fact-checkers find to be distorted or untrue, no one is ashamed. As often as not, the misstatements or untruths are just repeated.

In Nazi Germany, Joseph Goebbels stated, “If you tell a lie big enough and repeat it often enough, people will believe it to be true.” We’re all in serious trouble when people—entire societies—become inured to feelings of guilt and shame and able to lie with impunity and without conscience.

In law, in medicine, in relationships, and inside ourselves the truth is our protection. Without  truth, what kind of world would we inhabit? What could we agree upon? When the truth is irrelevant you have chaos. We set our children on a path, one would hope, to contribute to this shared world and live a life that is worthwhile and fulfilling. They learn from us and we learn from each other. Philosophers will argue that truth is often just a matter of belief—relative, not absolute. We adults can debate that point forever, but our children will follow the truth they observe in our behavior.


  • Truthfulness protects our relationships
  • Without truth there is chaos i.e. the absence of trust and connection.
  • Children learn truthfulness from how their parents behave more than from what they say.

Oliver & Barbara

Inequality and Evil

I mention in my book, To Find the Way of Love, that although the concepts of inequality and evil are absent from each of the dual theories of the Universe’s creation—the physical and the spiritual—the concepts of freedom and equality do appear in both. Freedom and equality are conceived in these theories as characteristics possessed by all of the fundamental particles that comprise all matter. The particles are equal in that no particle is better than any other or controls any other; and yet, particles can be different from one another, as iron differs from oxygen and protons differ from electrons. They are different but equal.

Only in recent millennia did this natural paradox become important, and problematic, as humans began to attach value judgments to differences. The reasoning arose that if two things were different, one had to be better than the other. This reasoning was extended, incorrectly, to people; if two people were different, one was superior to the other. Thus, inequality and evil appeared together—long after the Universe came to be.

Evil is not some mysterious thing: it is any act or belief that interferes with freedom and equality, or with the formation of free and equal relationships. It’s only a matter of belief, for example, that because men and women are different, one must therefore be better than the other. Such assumptions of inequality are the root of evil.

Perhaps ironically, this human propensity to make comparisons and turn them into negative judgments evolved from a crucial survival mechanism that first appeared eons ago in the mammalian brain. With a new brain structure, the limbic system, came mammals’ drive and ability to nurture and protect their offspring; and unlike their reptilian forebears, mammalian brains carried an innate prohibition against eating their brethren. This meant they also had to evolve a capability to rapidly identify others of their own kind, thereby solving the “eat or greet” dilemma posed when meeting a stranger.

Unfortunately, what was once a positive survival mechanism has since become a destructive, self-limiting means for discriminating against anyone or anything that’s different from the self or what the self is accustomed to. It would be a better world if each of us took responsibility for our biases and their consequences. It would be a safer world for all of us if differences were not so often, automatically, imbued with value judgments. It would be an impressive step forward for humanity and its future if we could move beyond those ancient, instinctive discriminatory impulses to a more conscious recognition of the potential value in our differences, and to an awareness of the necessity for treating all humans, despite differences, with respect as equals. Perhaps becoming mindful of the way of love can be a key to making that transition.

Oliver & Barbara

How Not To Screw Up A Relationship

We recently saw some interesting figures on single-ness in the United States. Two years ago, 43% of Americans over 18 were single; of that group, 61% had never married, 24% were divorced, and 15% were widowed (CNN Living, August 19, 2010). Then and now, alarming numbers of failed partnerships reflect the difficulty of meeting relationship challenges. Nevertheless, singles in America ten years ago spent over $489 million in one year to find each other, and despite ever-rising divorce rates, television ads for dating services show that they’re still at it. (Imagine what today’s expenditure might be.)

Who’d have thought statistics and commercials could speak to human longings for relationship? And results from study after study continually testify to longevity’s correlation with happiness in relationships and social networks. Bad relationships are stressful, lonely, and unhealthful. Good relationships are as good as it gets!

The contentment and happiness possible through mutually supportive partnerships is an achievement that supports health, stability, a sense of belonging, and opportunities for growth. It’s easy to forget, though, that relationship achievements, like all other meaningful achievements, take work, effort, skill, even practice. For those who’ve found their partners, and for those who will, the great challenge becomes not to screw it up.

It’s a given that all people come with their own strengths and weaknesses. Differences between individuals are inevitable but don’t have to spell relationship doom. They can even contribute positively: differences mean that together, a couple can do better than either one separately, because between them they have more resources available. Recognizing strength in differences, however, requires both a tolerance of differences and a mutuality of respect. If either person in a dyad doesn’t regard the other as an equal, trouble looms.

Along with respect, sharing and listening are “intimacy essentials.” Listening, though not always easy, is an indispensable part of sharing. Patience is another important element, especially in times of stress. All of these elements build trust, and all are crucial buttresses of a successful intimate relationship.

Close relationships demand an honesty with self and other that can be difficult or scary. Many people are conflict-avoidant and keep differences hidden rather than airing them; unfortunately, this creates and perpetuates secrecy and emotional distance. It may take courage to speak up, but doing so is a significant demonstration of trust in ourselves and in our partner. Saying “This is who I am, this is how I feel” is healthy (and gets easier with practice).

Secrecy is to be avoided. The resentment secrecy feeds is toxic and can build an impenetrable wall, turning partners into enemies. To combat this, both parties must be willing to act with honesty and courage to clear the air. Whenever relating gets difficult for any reason, a first critical question to ask yourself is, “How am I contributing to this?” The next step is to own up to it and invite your partner to meet you halfway.

Everyone brings baggage of past hurts, traumas, and disappointments, along with a host of assumptions and expectations, into adulthood and into relationships. Self-relationship and unresolved issues are major factors in any attempted partnership. We often choose a partner who puts us up against our old wounds and unfinished business. With honesty and courage, people have many chances to grow and heal within a dyad instead of reenacting past dramas and unhappiness.

Eventually, as daily routines and preoccupations take over, couples can come to disregard the specialness of their achievement together. But we’ve found a great reminder: weekly “couple meetings,” to talk about each other’s actions that we appreciated during the week. It’s also a good opportunity to clear up misunderstandings or anything that felt awry. Even 15 minutes put aside for significant sharing, without interference from other commitments, sends a mutual message of valuing special time together no matter what else is going on.

The longer we two are a couple, the more strongly we feel that intimate relationships offer bountiful rewards, and the more often we’re reminded that reaping these rewards requires practicing honesty, courage, patience, kindness, sharing, self-review, self-control…and upholding a basic tenet that underlies the ability to have any kind of positive interpersonal relationship: respect for human equality.

Oliver and Barbara

Avoid the Infection

There is health—mental, physical, spiritual, all-encompassing—and there is what we like to call the infection. It appears wherever there’s human life, and it can spread rapidly. Worldwide, vast numbers of people carry the infection. See: theft, murder, terrorism, fear mongering, racism, jingoism, denial, belief in the divine right of those-who-have. The infection’s root cause nihilism, sociopathy or other a belief that we should have what we want regardless of impact on others, and a belief that we can never have enough.

Defining how much is enough and how much is excess has been difficult in the modern era. And who gets to decide? We aren’t speaking here of the world’s worst and most obvious of desperations, such as the billions on the verge of starvation (while others are upset if foie gras becomes unavailable). We’re talking about the addiction to “more,” and about its consequences. This was brought to mind by a piece in The Economist  in July 2002, which describes consumerism and “the 1 Percent” as creating a hunger in the others, “an insatiable longing.

Pondering the phrase “insatiable longing,” we remembered a close-to-home example of the phenomenon some years ago, when one of our daughters brought a sensible, hard-working young woman to visit. Within a few days, she was splurging madly on boots she’d never have considered before, breathlessly describing the feeling of being amidst so much opulence in the endless display of must-have things set on the glittery streets of Beverly Hills. We think (hope) sanity returned when she went home…

Unfortunately, this infection isn’t heralded by skull and crossbones. It flies in on the gossamer wings of that which is to be had, which IS had by the world’s elite: personal planes, personal islands, personal armies and security squads, boutique medical care, multiple homes, seemingly unlimited wealth… The infection’s spread is fueled by the belief that having more makes you more—eligible for membership in the private club of “the special.”

How do we keep from catching the infection? It brings no lasting happiness. It leads to dissatisfaction, to feeling that we’re less. It fuels envy, rage, insecurity—nothing healthy. Rather, it encourages unhealthy behavior. It encourages inequality and feelings of superiority; it separates us. It tantalizes us into consuming not what’s necessary, not even what we can afford, but what we can put on credit because we MUST HAVE IT. The infection creates, sustains, and supports an insatiable longing that leaves any consideration of debt behind. And yet, no material possession can satisfy that longing more than very, very briefly. 

Some suggestions for keeping perspective and avoiding the “infection” include, try to understand the hunger expressed as material longings. You already know in your gut that the fleeting satisfaction of consuming is indeed fleeting and no match for feeling love, belonging and acceptance. Never go out shopping when you are feeling unhappy or insecure. Instead, try exercise or calling a friend. It might also help to play the game of imagining that you are trying to create a longing, in others, to buy  something. How would you pitch it? That might be the pitch that you are buying.

Then, imagine it’s six months later, when the thrill of consuming has worn off and you’re left with a credit card bill.

It might be helpful to spend ten minutes each day focused on something with no monetary price tag: something you have seen, heard, tasted, touched or remember.

Experience a simple pleasure: listen to music, take a walk and be conscious of your surroundings, talk  with someone you care about, relish a healthy meal. Then, go inside yourself and make an inventory of what soothes you. Use it. 

Most importantly, think about what is enough for you.

Oliver and Barbara