How Being Selfish Benefits Everyone

Marcel Gregoriadis
3 min readJan 6, 2023

Let me tell you about the meaning of life.

Like every biological organism, humans at their deepest level have just one goal: to increase their share in the gene pool. This is the highest biological imperative. Everything, be it the will to survive and reproduce, be it the development of consciousness, of arts and religion, or love and friendship, evolved in each of us to serve this single selfish interest in the most effective way. Now, if we’re so selfish, how does it explain love, altruism, and the empathy for other people that we most genuinely feel?

The human empire is built on cooperation. We help one another and gain in reputation. This in turn makes us more attractive as partners for further opportunities for cooperation, and ultimately leaves us with greater access to resources. This is the game all humans play, consciously or not. In fact, consciousness has in part evolved to create the illusion of our identity and its oh-so-good intentions, just for us to be able to act upon them more convincingly toward our peers. This is why sometimes we might engage in prosocial activity where there are no prospects of personal gain and even when there is nobody to witness our generosity, e.g., when donating money to a homeless person on an otherwise empty street, or donating to charity without telling anyone. So it isn’t really that we are manipulative narcissists not deserving of any trust, it’s rather that we are wired to behave benevolently and to genuinely care for each other. This is no accident — it is what nature figured out to be the best strategy with regard to the biological imperative. It should therefore not come as a surprise that similar strategies are implemented in the design of peer-to-peer (P2P) computer systems.

Illustration of a peer-to-peer network.

In a P2P network, the participating peers communicate with one another, and the application is executed on the peers’ devices rather than on some controlled server. As every peer is in full control of its own device, the application it runs, and the messages it sends out to other peers, it is completely autonomous and cannot be forced to obey the protocol rules. Moreover, an engineer of these systems must always expect the user to try to abuse the protocol, to attempt to maximize their profit, and to take more than they contribute. Thus, engineers build a system protocol where the collective most egotistical usage of the system is at the same time what drives its productivity. And how is it done? Essentially, by mimicking what humans have been doing in societies since the era of hunters and gatherers: observing the behavior of other peers, and based on that offering or rejecting cooperative behavior to them. Since there exists no better strategy for the individual to maximize his or her profit, extensive and universal cooperation is the only rational outcome.

That said, being kind to strangers, and having love and empathy for other people is in our very best (most selfish) interest. At the very least, it is so because it feels good and keeps us sane — as this is what we are programmed to do.

If apparently being good is the rational strategy to optimize for personal advantage, how does it explain the evil in the world? How does it explain criminal and antisocial behavior, and most disturbingly, its auspicious prospect of personal benefit?

When such things are observed in a peer-to-peer network, it is called an error in the protocol. Likewise, in real-world interactions, it is a testimony of a societal structure and culture that corrupts the soul… So while the title is chosen provocatively, the covered meaning tells a more hopeful story.

To say that being selfish benefits everyone is just one way to look at it. The other is that being a nice person and providing value to your peers is also what’s good for you! ❤

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Marcel Gregoriadis

I try to understand the world by writing about it. My essays revolve around psychology, sociology, and philosophy.