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Selfishness is a word people seldom use nowadays, nor do we often come across its opposite expression altruism. So I was surprised when reading a book titled On People's Thoughts.
The book by Liu Dingxin, a PLA general, actually talks about how a balance can be maintained between these two mindsets.
I agree with the writer's conclusion that Chinese people have never been so selfish as they are now. Everybody is trying to make as much money as possible and the meaning of life lies purely in the pursuit of profit. Yet, unlike Liu, I don't consider it such a big problem.
True, I do hold altruistic people in great reverence. But I have never believed that whether a society is good or not is decided by how many such people there are. Complete altruists do not exist in this world and neither will they in the future.
In the three decades before 1978, selfishness and even individualism were considered the worst mindsets, ones that deserved political denunciation. All propaganda continuously talked about altruism as the goal everyone was supposed to pursue. Lei Feng was the national example of altruism that was created for the whole nation to follow.
Nevertheless, in my personal experience, I have never met a real altruist, not even during that time, when officials enjoyed privileges in ways that ordinary people could never think of. Loving oneself is intrinsic and so is the tendency to place one's own interest before others.
I agree with the writer that the political movements in the decades before 1978 that advocated people pushing their own interests to the back of their minds were not realistic and oppressed people's natural desire for better life.
Yet, it is important for people to know the limits of their pursuit of materialistic comfort. One can never have a lack of bottom lines when it comes to seeking profits, say. One should never make money by abusing power, by taking bribes or by embezzling public funds.
Selfishness used to be always associated with bourgeois, which was a label of bad ideology at the time. Now it is an individual problem. Someone may be very selfish, but you can have nothing to do with that person if you just keep away from him or her. Westerners may consider it as nothing unusual, but for Chinese, who have experienced the change from too much political concern for selfishness to the general respect for individualism, it represents the progress of Chinese society from an ideology-dominated one to an increasingly pluralistic one.
The rule of law, the awareness of which has been prevailing in the past decades, is the guarantee that one does not have to worry that too selfish people may infringe upon his or her interests and rights. One may file a lawsuit against anyone he/she believes has encroached upon his/her rights and interests in one way or another.
In this sense, seldom mentioning selfishness in our daily life is not a bad thing.
Yet, this does not mean that the cultivation of moral norms is unnecessary in our lives. Instead, as the traditional Chinese moral principles emphasize, education needs to cultivate people's sense of justice, sense of shame, sense of right manners and sense of right and wrong. People always need to be told where to toe the line with regard to the standards and mores of society.
Without the cultivation of moral norms and ethics, we can hardly expect a society to be nice enough for people to lead a harmonious life.
Chinese scholar Gu Yanwu (1613-1682) insisted that a sense of shame is of the utmost importance, as long as one has a sense of shame, one will know what is right and what should be abstained from.
The best society should cultivate a combination of the rule of law and the successful cultivation of moral norms and a sense of citizenship.
The author is a senior writer of China Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.