Selfishness, to a lesser or greater extent, has always been (and will continue to be) necessary for survival. But is it really that simple? Or is there a false dichotomy at play when people call survivalists selfish?
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Survivalism– Selfish and Uncivilized?
Almost a decade ago, Charles Pellegrino released a book called The Last Train From Hiroshima. In it, he quotes one of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s nuclear survivors as saying those who survived were generally those who didn’t try to help anyone else.
They were the ones “who stayed where we were… who took refuge in the hills behind the hospital when fires began to spread and close in, [and] happened to escape alive. In short, those who survived the bomb were… in a greater or lesser degree selfish, self-centered – guided by instinct and not by civilization.”
That’s very clearly a case of survivor’s guilt. And it makes sense that some people, seemingly surviving by dumb luck, would feel they acted selfishly in not trying to help those less fortunate. It definitely is selfish to act that way; to put one’s own survival ahead of others.
But is it really a lack of civilized thinking? Or is it actually the smart thing to do? Better yet, is selfishness really a malicious thing in the face of life or death?
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Altruism and Heroism
Philosophically speaking, the question is whether or not survival excludes concepts like altruism and heroism.
Altruism, as defined by TheFreeDictionary.com, is first and foremost “unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.” But, to throw a spanner in the works, altruism is also “instinctive behavior that is detrimental to the individual but favors the survival or spread of that individual’s genes, as by benefiting its relatives.”
That second definition is really telling us that altruism can be a selfish selflessness at times. And it seems to be especially so when the individual’s personal survival is jeopardized in order to preserve the greater good, so long as that greater good is the individual’s loved ones.
Let’s move on to heroism: according to Greater Good Magazine, “Heroism is different than altruism. Where altruism emphasizes selfless acts that assist others, heroism entails the potential for deeper personal sacrifice.”
In heroic deeds, the individual may either risk their lives or less dramatic, more social factors of their livelihood – like financial stability, credibility, etc. So in a way, heroism is altruism taken to the next level of selflessness.
Interestingly enough, most of those who perform an act of heroism tend to say it was an impulsive decision. There was no great “civilized” thought process behind it at all. It was as instinctive at that moment (but not necessarily at any other moment) as survival was for those who expressed survivor’s guilt after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
TheFreeDictionary.com simply defines survival as “the act or process of surviving; the fact of having survived.” That’s not entirely useful in answering our question of whether survival precludes selfless behavior though, so let’s look at the word’s root, “survive,” instead:
“To remain alive or in existence; to carry on despite hardships or trauma, persevere; to remain functional or usable; to live longer than, outlive; to live, persist, or remain usable through [detrimental circumstances]; to cope with (a trauma or setback), persevere after.”
None of these definitions strictly require one to be selfish in order to survive. In fact, some of them – in a philosophical kind of way – seem to demand selflessness.
If surviving is, in part, the fact of “remaining functional or usable,” we have to ask ourselves whether that applies only to things – like a phone surviving a drop – or if it applies to people as well. Not, of course, to imply that anyone ought to be used: but rather, that surviving allows the individual to be useful.
Useful to whom, though? To ourselves, naturally, but if our usefulness as survivalists is only to ourselves, then are we truly being useful?
Isn’t it more truthful to say that by surviving, we retain the ability to be useful to society?
Let’s look at it in terms of the traits successful preppers and survivalists have in common.
With regards to selflessness, one of those traits is a belief in family values. We want our families to survive. And just like with altruism, wanting to protect our families is a sort of selfish selflessness.
Secondly, successful preppers are those who have compassion. Compassion is defined as “deep awareness of the suffering of another accompanied by the wish to alleviate it.”
Us survivalists don’t stock medical kits in order to only patch ourselves up: we use them to look after those around us too, even if they’re absolute strangers.
Now think about the bigger picture. Every time we stock up on things like food and water in preparation for a major disaster, we’re improving the local economy little by little.
And when something like a hurricane hits, those resources are very quickly in short supply. Everyone else is now scrambling to get what little there is left, often acting violently against each other. The economy takes a knock as inflation rates and even theft statistics soar.
However, because we prepared in advance with the goal of surviving, we aren’t adding to those negative effects. Plus, by showing compassion in sharing with a few select others, we mitigate those negative effects even further.
How about an even bigger picture in issues like global warming: it’s threatening the very existence of our entire species. By doing things like pursuing sustainable, homegrown food – such as raising rabbits and growing our own fruit and vegetables– we’re minimizing our own carbon footprint.
When we pursue DIY projects like alternative energy, we compound those universally beneficial effects of pursuing personal survival.
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Of course, there’s some inherent selfishness that goes along with being a survivalist too.
For example, going back to the concept of being compassionate: there’s a point where compassion becomes stupidity.
Preparing for disasters big and small can get expensive – and if you’re lavishing your stockpile on every Tom, Dick, and Jane who approach you begging for help, you’re going to end up being no use to yourself or anyone else. You’ll simply run out and end up endangering the survival of your family and the rest of your prepper community.
In fact, there are even 17 Types of Preppers You Should Avoid for much of the same reasons. Some put your resources (material as well as immaterial, such as your time) in jeopardy.
Others put your lives into direct danger due to superiority, inability or even by raiding your stockpiles because they focused on guns and ammo at the expense of everything else.
Is survival selfish?
As you’ve no doubt realized by now, the only correct answer is “yes and no.” It depends largely on the situation and the individual. One day, someone may act instinctively for their own survival, but the next – even faced with the same scenario – they may act altruistically instead. The same is true vice versa.
There seems to be a very fine line between bravery and foolishness, as well as smart and selfishness. Sometimes, those lines are so fine they don’t really exist at all.
So is survival the selfish antithesis of altruism and heroism? Quite the contrary: it seems to be a prerequisite in some cases. And – not to sound like a stuck record – it certainly appears to be a sort of selfish selflessness.