Blue People and Selfishness

October 16, 2011

Political Theory


Despite having nearly the same plot as Pocahontas, you have to admit Avatar was pretty freaking cool.  It had all the elements of a perfect summer blockbuster: A beautiful world, 3-D, crazy beasts, flying dragons, big guns, and Na’vi, who are basically tall smurfs with dreads.

"I'm telling you, I'm not a smurf"

Basically, if you haven’t seen it yet, or just need a quick refresher, in this movie, human beings have traveled to the planet Pandora, where they seek the element “Unobtanium” which humans need for some unknown purpose.  On Pandora already were the aborigines, the Na’vi.  They live in huge tree, called the Tree of Souls, which is sacred to them.  So, to reach the unobtanium, humans need to dig in the Na’vi’s land.  The Na’vi obviously do not like this idea and fight the humans for their sacred territory.  In an effort to repair relations, scientists have enabled humans to create “Avatars”, which basically turn humans into Na’vi.  Jake Sully, our protagonist, befriends the Na’vi in his avatar and eventually falls in love with one of the Na’vi.  The humans are extremely corrupt and will do anything to reach the Unobtanium.  This results in a battle where Jake Sully sides with the Na’vi and defends the Tree of Souls from the humans.

Now, how exactly does this relate to us?  Well, let’s first take a quote from Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”:

Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows…he willingly leaves society at large to itself…Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness. Selfishness is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another; individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of condition.

So, according to Toqueville, individualism arises from democracy, and eventually is absorbed by selfishness.  Now, let’s see what James Cameron, the director of avatar, has to say about his movie:

We went down a path that cost several hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. I don’t think the American people even know why it was done. So it’s all about opening your eyes.

Cameron states that a hidden message of his movie is the war on terror in Iraq.  There are also other messages in the movie which reference environmental destruction.  So, in Avatar, the humans charge into Pandora to get Unobtanium.  The need for Unobtanium causes the humans to kill many of the Na’vi and causes habitat destruction.  James Cameron believes this is similar to our modern day world where we charged into Iraq, and have killed many Iraqi people for little purpose.  It also is similar to our modern day destruction of habitats, such as the Amazon forest.

Now, let’s combine what we know of Tocqueville and of James Cameron’s views.  In the movie, humans are selfish, they choose to kill and destroy for Unobtanium.  Now, if James Cameron’s views are correct, have we as Americans become a selfish nation?  Individualism is a good thing according to Tocqueville, it comes from democratic ideals.  But, individualism eventually becomes selfishness.  Are we as Americans at the stage where our individualism has become selfishness?

What do you think about James Cameron’s views?  Do you think that Americans are absorbed in selfishness?

I also would like to ask one more question, which is unrelated to America and whether Americans are selfish or not.  So, this situation is going to be purely about the movie Avatar.  Let’s raise a scenario where Unobtanium is something the humans need to survive.  So, let’s say if humans do not bring Unobtanium back, then the Earth explodes.  So, Unobtanium has this weird anti-explosion property or something that can save planet Earth, and the human race from certain extinction.  Are humans still selfish in this situation?  Or are they just doing what they need to do to survive?

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About ngamin1614

I'm a sophomore at the University of Michigan. I'm originally from Nebraska, where the corn grows 6 feet high (there's a reason I came to Michigan). I think I'm gonna be a math and econ double major and hopefully after my undergrad, I can pick up a job and then get into business school. But, things change, so we'll see. I play tennis, listen to music, hang out with friends, and am always up for a good adventure.

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11 Comments on “Blue People and Selfishness”

  1. brianfrankel Says:

    I do not think that any population, be it Americans or Iraqis or even the fictional Na’vi, can be so easily defined as “selfish” as a whole. There are great people in the United States who, through their individualism and success, have proven to be incredibly unselfish. Take Warren Buffet, for instance. The most successful investor in the world and one of the world’s richest men, Buffet has donated a considerable amount of his wealth to charities, most notably the Gates Foundation (which happened to be started by another ultra-wealthy individual). So, while sometimes it may seem that our individualism is turning into selfishness, I do not think that it is nearly as rampant as people think. Every person has an aspect of individualism; the selfish, hurtful people are minorities.

    Your second point is even more interesting. At what point does self-interest trump all else? In my opinion, it is when existence is in jeopardy. To save ourselves, we should leave no stone (or in the case of the Na’vi, any tree) unturned.

    • marckarpinos31 Says:

      I agree with Brian, i don’t believe that we can describe a population as a whole selfish. Groups of people receive unfitting stereotypes as a result of a few more vocal and predominate members of the group. To address your point about the war on terrorism, some americans, perhaps less educated americans but americans non the less, will hold their breathe if they see an iraqi on their flight at the airport. They may view this individual as a terrorist solely because of their nationality or their religious beliefs. This goes along with what Brian had said and the point you were trying to prove, it is not fair to group all people under a stereotype as for the most part, the stereotypes are not fitting. The same is true for the opposite side, Americans cannot be viewed as selfish for attacking middle eastern countries as at the time of the 9/11 attacks it appeared to be the only appropriate move. At this point, many Americans are unaware as to what we are even doing over there, even people who do believe they are aware do not know the half of it. As a result, I don’t believe Americans can be viewed as selfish either and the stereotype is not fitting.

      To address your second point, I believe that is a tricky question. While I agree with Brian as to when it would be appropriate ( when societies ability to succeed is in jeopardy) we have to ask if their society is in jeopardy as well, what makes ours more important and more deserving? To quote brian, ‘at what point does self-interest trump all else?” I think that is a difficult question to answer because it requires a lot an “in the moment” through process that is very hard to emulate.

  2. Baihan Li Says:

    I have to say that, in my opinon, people are alway selfish. Even though Toqueville said that those aristocracy in Europe would sacrifice for their reputation, their land and their family, the only differnce between American and European is the definition of “self”. For those aristocracy, “onself” might refer to not only a man himsefl but also all his possessions. Or to say, they regard the social system as part of themselves, on which they build their superior world.

    Let’s back to problem of Avatar. What if Unobtanium is also vital for Na’vi? Would the slaughter of another species be justified if it saves human being? Well, this question outstands itself only because, in Avatar, Na’vi are capable of thinking and act pretty much like human beings. In fact, seldom do we think of selfishness when we face a inferior species. For example, we seldom think it is selfish to wear a sweater while a sheep is “naked” in a penetrating wind. Although there are a great number of vegetarians who claim killing animals is cruel, yet would any of them stop using wooden product like paper, the raw materal of which might be the home of other animals?

    Well, selfishness might be a property of nature. Tigers would never consider themselves selfish for eating a deer. Only we human being are puzzled by various moral problems. We have become so strong that some law of nature could not be applied to us. Just like Hobbes said, people searched for peace because of fear. The defination of selfishness will likely derive from the potential harm to we human beings as a whole rather than the injury inflicted on the “victims”.

  3. danieltarockoff Says:

    I agree with Baihan Li very much in regards to defining what “selfish” is. I think it’s more of the question of are we selfish as human beings rather than Americans. And yeah, I think we are. But at the same time, it’s almost as if selfishness has become an evolutionary trait of humans that we need to survive. We could never become completely selfless unless we went back in time a million years or so and got rid of the materialistic world we’ve transformed into. As a society we are too obsessed with our lives, attempting to give them significance simply by believing we are “better” than other species. So in response to that, we become selfish. Sure, there are plenty of people who are kind-hearted, giving, etc. But just as Baihan Li stated, what kind of person would take off a sweater in the cold of winter because they knew a sheep was at a loss of its wool? These are the aspects of selfishness that I’m talking about here.

    From the actual movie perspective, I can definitely see where James Cameron is going with his idea that the film outlines our war with Iraq. However, it’s not completely one-sided. I do agree with him that we instigated this war without enough reason, and it’s true that it feels like we’ve gotten into a battle over something we don’t even remember getting into a fight about in the first place. Still, Iraq is different from the Na’vi in Avatar. The Na’vi weren’t suspected of having weapons of mass destruction at disposal. It’s not as if America invaded Iraq in hopes of gaining precious resources like oil or something. They invaded on behalf of their own safety. This brings me to a point made by brianfrankel. When does our selfishness gain justification? The answer, it seems to be, is when our lives are at stake. There comes a point where a group decides whether or not they are “better” by whatever set of standards and that’s when someone becomes inferior. As Americans, yes, maybe we are a little more selfish than other countries. We’ve long proclaimed ourselves as “the land of the free.” Is this title undeserved, however? During lecture, the professor brought up how America IS the most free country. We have the most lenient freedoms, the most open ability to express ourselves however we wish. But that brings up the question of whether or not “freedom” should be a standard for who’s better than who in the first place. And it isn’t necessarily a good standard. We’d have to take into account too many things to ever decide something like that.

    I think your post brings up a lot of valuable ideas to think about. In the end, selfishness is inherently within us as humans and we need to find a way to manage it so that we can live in a war-less world. Is it possible? Only time will tell.

  4. Brian Hall Says:

    To be honest, I found Avatar to be rather trite and derivative. The concept has been absolutely beaten to death, what with Dances with Wolves, the Last Samurai, the second Alien movie (also by James Cameron), Darth Vader’s turning to the side of the rebels in the Return of the Jedi etc. ad infinitum. It is extremely ironic Avatar is a box office success, considering its heavy handed anti-corporate, anti-government, pro-nature message, but then its not really all that surprising. Hollywood has a long history of exploiting virtually every sentiment it can get its hands on to make a buck, and most people just don’t care. As long as there are 3-d explosions, it’s a winner. All of that said, I did enjoy the movie considerably, though I have no desire to ever see it again in my life.

    As far as the selfishness angle goes, I would say that we Americans are indeed very selfish. As a selfish individual myself, I don’t really care. It is interesting to consider what would happen if we met another alien civilization, however. Most likely it would end in untold destruction and genocide. Personally, I hope this never happens, as we would probably lose. The alternative is not much better; who wants smurf blood on their hands, literally or metaphorically?

  5. ksoisson Says:

    Like several people that have commented, I agree with Brian. There are of course those who are more selfish than others. I don’t believe Americans as a whole have been overcome by selfishness. I think many Americans are simply uniformed of what goes on in the world. You may argue that is a form of selfishness, but I believe there are other reasons, such as what media chooses to show. I don’t think selfish is the right word to describe what Americans are.

    And in response to your second question, I don’t think humans can be considered when they are faced with survival situations. When in danger, it’s kind of the fight or flight idea to remain in existence. Survival is not an argument of selfishness, but rather a necessary move.

  6. erfreed3 Says:

    From reading the comments, it seems that there is divided opinion on whether people are always selfish or hardly ever selfish. Personally I feel that we are neither always selfish or not selfish. Rather, we act more selfish or less selfish based on the scenario we find ourselves in. In some cases, I will choose to act selfish because I am looking to comfort my own needs at any expense. In other cases I am content and want to do something for others. But more important than selfishness and perhaps more accurate to describe the American society of today, is the idea of “self interest”. I believe that within our society, people are more or less always looking out for their own self interest. As Tocqueville described in “Democracy of America”, Americans highest ideal is that of self interest. I have to say that today, that still holds true. So to answer your question, I do not believe that Americans are absorbed by selfishness but rather self interest.

    To relay this in to your second question, I would have to say that we as humans always pursue our own self interests. Selfishness on the other hand, is a separate concept and one in which we do not always act on. In the case of survival, I believe that both self-interest and selfishness coincide making it obvious that we would enter Pandora to obtain Unobtanium at any cost. When our self interest (the highest of these interests being survival, according to Hobbes) is threatened, we will always do what is necessary to remove that threat.

  7. emmaknev Says:

    Wow! I never noticed the underlying tone of Avatar until I read this, and I can definitely see the parallel! To answer your questions though, I don’t believe that Americans have become selfish in respect to our individualistic nature. I agree with Tocqueville in that individualism is a good thing, that stems from Democratic societies. However, while I don’t necessarily agree with the War on Terror, I do think that we had more reason to invade Iraq (national security reasons after 9/11 attacks) than the humans did for their invasion of the planet Pandora. Our invasion was justified at the time, however I do think that it lasted way too long and as a result of it many innocents died who did not deserve to perish. I don’t agree with James Cameron’s view that Americans are absorbed in selfishness, either. Yes, some individuals need a lot of help in that area; however, it is unfair to judge the population based on a few individuals that I am acquainted with. Plus, our nation funds millions of welfare projects and is known worldwide for its charitable nature worldwide; that’s not something that a nation full of selfish individualists takes a big part in. As for your last question, I would say that the humans necessity of Unobtanium would probably be a justification for invasion, however not for the mistreatment of the natives. If humans were in need of Unobtanium and could only get it from the natives land, then the humans should strike up a negotiation with them, or find a civil way to solve the issue. Communication is key, and violence is not an answer to anything.

  8. ljgoslin Says:

    In today’s society I think it is acceptable to be selfish when it comes to capitalism. Now, let me define my idea of selfishness. When I saw selfish, I don’t mean that I think it is right for CEO’s to get billion dollar raises whilst the rest of society is struggling economically. What I mean is, capitalism is selfish by nature. If you were a store owner, you wouldn’t pay yourself the same as your workers. If you were a farmer you wouldn’t be happy with collectivization. The list could go on forever. Capitalism system is competitive, therefore it promotes self-interest. That being said, I do agree with Cameron that American’s have being too self absorbed. We forget the bondage that came with our independence, we forget to look out for our fellow land. One mention of taxes and people freak out. They forget all the necessities that the government provides for not only them, but for those who are worse off than they are. There is no sacrifice for the common good of man, everything is about personal economic survival. There is no exception for economic survival, however if it comes to the survival of the earth that may be a different story. I think compromise would be in order. To get this special substance the earth must promise they will fix the environmental situation of the Navi people. In return, they would obtain the substance to prevent the explosion of the earth. I think the Navi people would find that acceptable.

  9. aclieb Says:

    First of all, Avatar is a terrible movie. Visually, it’s stunning, I don’t think that can be argued but every other aspect of it was awful. The fact that is was nominated for best picture is a joke. I don’t even want to get into how incredibly unoriginal the plot was either. Enough about how terrible Avatar was and back to the point. Oh and I didn’t know that a flying dragon in a film constituted a perfect summer blockbuster, but I digress.

    The author of the blog mentions in the paragraph after the James Cameron quote how the humans in the movie invaded Pandora and destroyed the Na’vi habitat. Also, James Cameron thinks this parallels the situation in Iraq and the destruction of the Amazon. In response to that, I say what happened in Avatar parallels essentially every world power with a colonialist or imperialistic intention has done throughout all of history.

    Maybe it is because of the cynicism in me, but I think humans are selfish. Just look at the world. If humans weren’t selfish, we could live in a socialist world where there’s no such thing as an upper or lower class. I literally can’t even list off all the selfish ideas and events throughout history whether it is on the part of individuals, governments, or other organizations.

    Personally, I don’t think democracy is the only factor either. I agree with Tocqueville that democracy promotes individualism, which I suppose promotes selfishness. I also think selfishness resides in everyone and is innate. Democracy may just exploit selfishness and forces itself on individuals. So to reiterate, I believe not only are Americans, as a whole, selfish but so is the human race.

    The last question in this post is silly. Of course it is not selfish to demand a product from a foreign world in order to save a planet and all its inhabitants. The only thing selfish in this ridiculous scenario would be if the Na’vi didn’t give humans the Unobtanium to save an entire PLANET!

  10. dlwang Says:

    I would like to introduce the idea that selfishness may not be a “bad” characteristic, and possibly a good one. I agree with Baihan Li and company that humans are innately selfish, but I think that there is an unwarranted derogatory connotation that has been relentlessly attached to the term. Humans have other innate qualities that allow selfishness to result in altruism.

    There needs to be some level of self-benefit in an activity for humans to want to participate. The stereotypical opposite to selfishness is charity, but even this, I think, is grounded in selfish motives. Warren Buffet and Bill Gates donate millions because it benefits them in some way. Most noticeably, they improve their reputation with others and I think this desire to be admired stems from the social nature of humans.

    Some would argue that the occasional person is fundamentally selfless and intrinsically likes to help others. Although it may seem like I am arguing semantics, I believe that it is crucial to understand that these people only help others because it makes them happy. This distinction is important to note because it reveals the fundamental motivation for all human behavior. Charity occurs because some people enjoy seeing others benefit from their own actions. No one would engage in selfless acts if they themselves did not enjoy it. But this is not a bad thing. People tend to think that the idea of a selfish standard is upsetting and immoral when it is in fact natural.

    With this being said, I agree with the perspectives introduced in the first few posts. Selfishness is not an inherent evil; this is decided by other characteristics of the person. Selfishness is a given, but if the person decides that social status and personal reputation is trivial, then this unusual decision paired with innate selfishness could lead to immorality. I disagree with Tocqueville. I think that a disregard for society is what leads to “a passionate and exaggerated love of self” not selfishness.

    Everyone is selfish, including Americans, but this is not a bad thing and ironically can lead to selfless actions.

    I think the last question is irrelevant to the argument of selfishness and can be more appropriately analyzed using common sense. The hypothetical scenario posed questions whether a symbolic tree is more important than billions of lives. Obviously, it is not selfish in any way to ruin an aesthetic symbol that has no practical use in order to save a planet. If humans are allowed to obtain the Unobtainium, then a tree and some sentimental lands are destroyed. If the Na’vi refuse, then 7 billion people die. I agree with ‘aclieb’ in saying that it would be selfish of the Na’vi to condemn the entire human race to death in order to preserve a big tree and some special dirt.

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