Date: May 6, 2020

Should you Recycle? Here’s the provocative answer.

Here’s some thought that I came around: In the end, the universe is going to end. NO doubt. In fact, you are probably going to die way before you get to see that. With that philosophy, what difference does it make whether you put that paper in the recycling bin or the regular trash can, knowing that you will not be penalized for it in any way?

If we think about it rationally, you have only so much time in your lifetime. Everything you spend doing is time that you will never be able to get back. Just like how you are spending the time right now to read this article. So why would you go out of your way to take a recyclable item and put in the recycling bin while you can put it the garbage can, which takes much less effort?

You’ve been taught your entire life that recycling is good for the environment. You’ve been taught that recycling helps society. But you also know very well that whether you put that thing in the garbage or the recycling bin will not change anything. You will not contribute to climate change in any significant way. With that philosophy, it is to your advantage to be lazy. The only time you should recycle is when people are looking at you, where it is to your advantage to recycling in order to show them that you are a respectable human being. You are playing the long game in order to gain their respect for you.

You’re might be telling me that this is not you because you are not a selfish person. You care about other things and other human beings, and you understand that the world does not revolve around you. Yet you have no logical explanation to explain why you would recycle. I’ve given you a logical reason to not recycle, the same reason why you don’t want to give money to charities unless people see that you are donating, the same reason you help people to help yourself.

Some might call it the God Complex, but fundamentally, you simply understand that your time is precious. You are in control of your story. And there’s no point in doing things that are meaningless to you, that does not benefit yourself in any way. And don’t start telling me that recycling is meaningful to you. I won’t buy it. I will maybe believe you if you say that helping people makes you fulfilled and happy, but that’s a lie for most people. The same lie students tell when they say they want to be doctors because they want to help more people. I truly don’t think you would do that if it didn’t come with that fat salary. Else you would be working for a nonprofit organization, volunteering your time selflessly. Humans are selfish by nature. Thomas Hobbes, a famous English philosopher in the 17th century, argued that humans are willing to hurt each other if we think it will help us.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages”, Adam Smith wrote in his book The Wealth of Nations in 1776.

It also makes sense from a biological standpoint why humans would be selfish by nature. Charles Darwin proved it himself. His theory of natural selection justifies selfish behaviour, “survival of the fittest”. The human being can thus be viewed as a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains who does everything, in the end, to maximize his own interest and ensure his survival. As a human being, you understand the range of alternative choices open to you, not only at the moment but also in the future. You understand the consequences of every possible choice and have reconciled all your conflicting desires into a single undeviating principle designed to maximize your gain in any conceivable situation.

Have I convinced you yet?

Not so quickly, there are a few flaws in the provocative explanations that I have given. It does not account for emotions such as Altruism and unconditional love. If my explanation to this point were to make sense, how can I explain why people still give money to beggars? Why do people leave tips to waiters at restaurants that they will never return? Why do we help strangers in trouble? Why do humans vote, knowing that their vote most likely won’t make a difference? Why do people stay married when a divorce plays to their advantage financially? Why don’t we always break the rules when nobody is looking? Also, why do “nice” people still exist if every human being was so selfish?

The explanation lies in 2 factors.

  1. Religion, morals and conscience
  2. The emotions, irrational stuff

1. Religion, morals and conscience

For a long time, religion has served as the moral high ground. Many religions have promoted people to be empathetic, caring and altruistic. I remember being in my ethics class and learning about Jesus, who loved others unconditionally in spite of their status, the excluded of society: prostitutes, widows, beggars, etc. When I ask some of my friends why they are so nice, they justify it by their religion. God has taught me to be this way, and if I don’t do it, God will know!

In today’s society, while religion is less dominant in society, morals still exist for us to abide by, which we are taught from a very young age. We are taught values of respect, of collaboration, we are taught to help others, that it is morally wrong to steal and to kill.

But I have always wondered if morals didn’t exist, if somehow in society, it became morally acceptable to kill another individual, if it became morally acceptable to own human slaves again, would we be able to do it?

2. The emotions, irrational stuff

In his book Passions Within Reasons, Robert H. Frank, a Cornell University professor, explains that the highly useful function of the emotions is precisely to short-circuit narrowly self-interested behaviour. Somewhere in the human evolution, emotions appeared and helped us better function as a society. We blush when we lie, we feel angry when we get cheated on, we feel guilty and embarrassed when we make mistakes that has repercussions on other human beings, we sympathize with other human beings.

So back to the original question, you recycle for many reasons. For most, it is this sense of guilt that prevents you from throwing it in the garbage can. For others, it is religion and morals, feeling that they are constantly being observed and judged.

Thank you for reading today’s article!

But wait, this answer does not satisfy me. When I put my plastic inside the garbage bag instead of the recycling bin, I do not feel any guilt…is there something wrong with me?

The thing is, some human beings feel emotions more strongly than others. We feel it from one extent to another, but it varies from human to human. It’s the same reason why some people donate money way more than others. Some are just more empathetic and forgiving.

So as a final point, I want to help those people like myself. I’ve always wondered, if you’ve been a rather selfish person all your life, can you change for the better? Can you become genuinely more altruistic by trying to help others? Or are you finding yourself helping others with the mindset of helping yourself in the end?

Perhaps the answer to this lies in stopping to overthink. Maybe it is because of years of insecurity and doubt, years of hearing criticism that has gotten into my head. Unfortunately, you cannot “control” your emotions. You cannot force yourself to feel more empathetic if you see someone struggling. But you can choose who you want to become as a person. You do not have to let your emotions control you, just like how you shouldn’t let people define the person you are. There are no good or bad emotions. They are merely clues to how you are feeling. Selfishness, in the end, is not even an emotion. It is just a stigmatized word that people use to criticize others. It’s the same voice that criticized you at the beginning of the article and calling you selfish despite not even knowing you. I simply won’t let that word define the person I am and my actions anymore. Just because I don’t feel as much empathy as others does not mean that I do not and cannot desire to help others. I help others because I want to be a better person in society. That’s all there is to it. I just have to stop overthinking it. I’m just a simple human being who was born no different than anyone else.

Maybe the selfish voice that doubts my integrity as a person is also caused by the fact that we live in a capitalistic society, where everything revolves around money. It’s a never-ending competition where you are trying to outrun your enemies.

That’s enough deep thoughts for today,

Steven Gong

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