The Common Cause report shows us that intrinsic values, such as equality and connection with nature, are associated with actions and attitudes towards a fair and sustainable society. Our ability to act for a greater good – as individuals, as a society – in other words depends on how altruistic or unselfish we are, how important it is for us to act in the interest of others than ourselves. In Schwartz´s model, those that he calls ‘self-transcendent’ values are in tension with the ‘self-enhancement’ values on the other side of the circumplex.
The self seems fundamental here. How do we perceive the self? Here is one perspective.
The story of the Separate Self
At the roots of our society is the story of the Separate Self: ‘You are not necessarily a part of anything; you are alone in a world of other separate selves.’ This is an old story, but it has become more obvious in the light of today’s globalization and erosion of community. If you don´t get what you need, you can buy it. If the person who grows your food, builds your house, or takes care of your kids, moves or dies, you can just get it from someone else. If all the fish in the seas get eaten, you can just buy fish from another sea. We don´t belong anymore (and for want of belonging, we instead focus on belongings…).
The notion of ‘self-transcending’ values can be said to be part of this story of separation. Because we are separate from others, we must transcend self-interest in order to care for them.
This logic is often reflected in the way NGOs present issues such as climate change or world poverty. We should do something about it because it is the right thing to do. We should care about other people, even if they are far away and we have never met them. Sustainability becomes a moral issue, and this can feel pretty overwhelming.
How powerful are morality and altruism as motivations for social change?