In various chat forums around the web, I have come across long discussions about selfishness and altruism. Moralistic posters argue that we should do something for its own sake, not for any benefit that we derive from it. They loudly condemn the hidden agenda behind actions supposedly done out of the goodness of one's heart which actually work to the benefit of the person doing it. If they come to believe that there is a hidden benefit to moral actions, they condemn all human beings as pathetically selfish. On the other hand, you have extreme libertarians, particularly of the Ayn Rand variety (I've heard Objectivists called Randroids, which left me in stitches--it calls to mind Daleks in dark pin-striped suits.) These people argue that there are really no true selfless acts, or if there are, there shouldn't be. They claim that altruists are in fact lazy people who are actually trying to hoodwink honest, hard working people into handing over the fruits of their labour. When faced with the poor and destitute, the Randroids would echo Scrooge's words: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? And if they be like to die, then perhaps they'd better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
In fact, both these views share a common view of human beings as atomized, disconnected entities, in which the self extends only as far as our physical form. Moralists stress the benefit of all outside this self, while Objectivists stress the benefit only to this limited self. The common error is the belief in this limited self. As we mature, we (hopefully) move beyond this limited self to an expanded self, including first our family, then our tribe (political, social, ideological, or religious,) moving on to a broader conception of the tribe, and ultimately, to identification with all of humanity and even to nature itself. Having a good grasp of ethics simply means that you are mature enough to know that what's good for others is good for you. The whole selfishness-altruism argument is a red herring.
Selfishness is bad for you. Suicides happen because the victim feels disconnected from other people and unable to influence them. We're social animals; we have an inherent need to be with others, and this means sharing. Indeed, the more we cooperate, the more we thrive. Any business that doesn't offer win-win transactions won't be in business for very long. Unbridled greed is as bad for capitalism as poor productivity. The reason that capitalism works so well is that it limits competition to the least common relationships and encourages cooperation in the vast majority of relationships. Monopolies and cartels are broken by the state because they violate this principle; they allow a few people at the top to cooperate and screw everyone else. Communism failed so miserably because, despite all its propaganda about comradeship, it encouraged competition, betrayal, and political in-fighting at virtually every level of society. Regardless of our fetishistic glorification of competition, our most hallowed model of competition is sports. But sports is about a group of people playing by the rules of the game; ritualistically limited competition within a framework of cooperation. When someone breaks the rules, they are penalized. When someone cheats, they get thrown out.
Behaviour which genuinely works against one's own interests is rarely beneficial to anyone, because it usually permits others to break the social contract without penalty. This is called enabling. It permits someone to pursue a course that is ultimately self-destructive well past the point where it would otherwise be prevented. In this relationship, the pair consisting of addict, alcoholic, or criminal, and his accomplice, act as a single destructive unit. The same could be said for the devoted follower of a bloody tyrant. Eventually the bubble bursts; the destructiveness which the enabler seeks to keep at bay overwhelms the enabler, and everyone else along the way.
Apparently selfless behaviour works to establish and maintain a social contract which works in favour of the selfless person as well. The self expands to include others and certain ideals, without which the person would consider life meaningless. A man who sacrifices himself by throwing his body on a grenade to protect the members of his platoon is acting on a social ethic which exists to keep him and all he loves alive. This serves the extended self. This does not make it any less good or selfless. The dying man has simply assimilated a communal ethic to the point that he acts upon it without thinking. He would expect others to do the same. That it fell to him to do it was merely an accident of circumstance.
Religion, and nearly all ethical systems, work to encourage this expanded sense of self. The figure of God represents a commonality amongst all of creation; the communion with God is meant to be an expansion of self without limit, the identification with all people and all things. An infinite self is the same as no-self, because there is no other. This cannot be maintained for more than brief interludes, but it has a powerful impact. Technically speaking, this experience may be a brain-fart--a combination of broken signals to part of our brain, that producing a feeling of dislocation in space. No longer identifying ourselves as being in one point of space, we identify with everything. This is usually combined with a driving certainty in the physical reality of the experience. This confusion of subjective experience as objective reality is called reification. Nevertheless, the outcome of the experience is to try to repeat it and act upon it. If the result is a genuine wish to connect with and help others, then this is a very useful brain-fart. In other words, it confers an adaptive advantage, and should no more be discounted than any other experience.
There is a downside, however, which is that the experience is non-rational, completely subjective, profoundly attractive, and open to a wide variety of interpretation after the fact. If it occurs within a religious, mystical, or occult framework, this sensation of certainty can be hijacked for some rather dubious beliefs. The self, once expanded, is for a while soft and malleable; it is remarkeable not only for what can be included, but for what can be taken away. The result may be a greater love for all humanity, but it can also be redirected towards a simple change of tribal allegiance, with all that is outside of the tribe being considered outside of the experience and therefore not worthy. The tribe can take possession of the experience and charge admission for it. While strong tribal allegiances were beneficial to our ancient ancestors, they can be disastrous in a modern, multicultural world armed with deadly weapons.
While the reification of the mystical experience may be false, there is one fact about the experience that we can be certain of: we enjoy, indeed, we crave the feeling of being connected with more than ourselves. The point of religion should be to expand this connection as far as it can possibly go, to dissolve the opposition between tribes, rather than planting yet another flag on the plain of Armageddon.