Here is a sentence that I'll call The Morality Filter:
People work for their self-interest to the maximum extent they consider possible.
If I'm pondering the moral framework represented by somebody's actions or claimed motives, I consider the Filter. I say that it applies to everybody: politicians, financiers, terrorists, Mother Teresa, Adolph Hitler, your neighbor, me and (unless you're a mutant) you.
Skeptical? I can hardly blame you for that; on the face of it the Morality Filter sounds rather bleak. However, as I will explain later, the Filter is not as depressing as it might sound.
To understand the entirety of what the Filter means, we need to look at it from various angles, as it has more than one interpretation. Let's start with the first and most obvious: the genetic point of view.
We try to reproduce. The gene, as Richard Dawkins informed us, is selfish. It cares not even for the life of its host; it simply wants to replicate. Of course, a gene is not a “people”, but we can see that kind of attitude extending upward into human behavior. To put it bluntly: people like to reproduce and (at least in the case of males) there's a bias towards reproducing at every possible opportunity. We can surely see this tendency in people. As the comedian Chris Rock once remarked, “A man is as faithful as his options.” (As I explain later, this is not an absolute, and I doubt Mr. Rock considered it so.)
Dawkins and others have also demonstrated that altruism can be a selfish act from the point of view of the gene. Once again: genes are not people, but the principle of altruism at least becomes knowable to us as a potential strategy. Of course, even simple logic can show us that altruism often works for our self-interest. I hope this is not a controversial point that needs further explanation.
When we bring memetics into the mix things become more complicated. Note the word “consider” in the Filter. A religious person might consider that the best way to promote their self-interest is to behave nicely. If they believe in an afterlife they might even die for their cause as a means of promoting their self-interest. We can argue that they are factually mistaken, but the Filter remains valid nonetheless.
In other words, the “self-interest” someone works for can be a matter of their opinion.
The Up-Side of the Filter
So far, all this sounds depressing. Are we nothing but selfish jerks? Not necessarily. Note the word “self” in the Morality Filter. What is a “self”?
To a greater or lesser extent — I'll leave it to you to figure out how much — people see themselves as part of the larger whole. Of course, some people merely pay lip service to universal One-ness (or whatever you want to call it), and you can tell it's only an intellectual exercise or even a self-serving deception. Hey, there's money to be made in appearing to care about others! But to the extent that we see our selves as part of the whole, helping others is helping ourselves.
Why does a soldier throw himself on a live hand grenade to save his platoon mates? Is it not obvious that in that moment he sees himself as part of a larger organism? In that instant his heart-felt sense of “self” is more inclusive than his intellectual definition of self, and clearly it is more compelling.
My intuition is that in most cases of heroic self-sacrifice people are acting in the interests of a larger “self”. Indeed, it is common for heroes to say afterward, “I only did what anybody would have done.” That sentence expresses an attitude of larger self-hood even though it isn't literally true.
I have the feeling that love — actual love, not our idea of it or some other caricature — is the action of this insight into our One-ness, at least as it applies to our connection with our fellow humans. Other people may also see One-ness with mammals, or all life, or (in rare cases) the entire universe.
Perhaps, in a later article, I'll talk about universal One-ness. I can't claim to be an expert. However, it does seem that several years ago I caught a glimpse ... for about 15 seconds. It profoundly changed me.