I used to do favors for people pretty much immediately when asked, as long as they wouldn't represent a major inconvenience to me. I have two theories as to why. The first is that I felt like I existed in the context of a social group which did favors for one another, and that I expected that if I abided by the rules of that social group, I could be a part of a mutually reinforcing structure. The second, more cynical theory is that I did favors for those I perceived as eligible females because I was desperate for sex, and did favors for others out of symmetry. Both probably played a part, but I like to think that at least the symmetry argument is less plausible than the mutual-reinforcement one.
Lately, though, I've become more and more “selfish” in the sense in which I think most people use the term. That is, my concern for myself has become more narrow. When asked to do a favor, I usually reply right off with “What's in it for me?” and generally end up refusing. This is (I theorize) because I've come to see other people as aiming to suck me dry, to take my resources and leave me out to dry rather than help me develop as a positive participant.
Friday evening I went over to Henry's place to watch Citizen Ruth (a very funny movie regarding abortion). After that we went over to the Embassy to watch the debates from TiVo. We waited for KT and John-Eric to get back, and in the meantime all the role-players—everyone there except me—talked about that and computer games (which I also don't play) while I sat there staring. Eventually KT got back and we talked about philosophy, which was much better. John-Eric didn't seem like he was getting back, so around 23 we gave up and watched the debates.
I had a couple of beers while the debates went on. I thought Bush was a lot stronger this time than the first; in my opinion he actually won the debate, though I don't think the polls agreed with me. Afterwards most people quickly dispersed, but I stayed around and talked for a while. (Sorry, I'm about to get to the point…)
KT asked if I could drop her off at a bar where John-Eric was, in Oakland. Now, I don't really consider dropping someone off on the way to somewhere I'm going anyway to be a favor at all, just part of being a decent citizen. But Oakland wasn't on the way back. It was a small cost I was being asked to bear, but it was a situation in which if asked “What's in it for you?” I would have no concrete answer to give—exactly the kind of request that I've been refusing lately. So I was a little surprised at my immediate emotional reaction—“Yes”—although I had no compunctions about acting on it.
Now that I sit here analyzing this, I realize that there is a fundamental value divide for me between people who I believe want me to grow as a person and those who just want to take what they can from me. I realize that there are people who fall into the former category, contrary to any exaggerated cynical attitudes I might have—my parents, my good friends, certain trusted mentors. And I realize that people in the latter category strike me as fundamentally worthless and without value as human beings. That sounds strong, but the truth is that at most I feel a negative obligation to leave such people alone, and sometimes a desire to simply take what they have, whether out of payback or greed, but no positive reason to care about their well-being at all.
I guess this is long enough I should probably post it as its own entry, although I have some more interesting (and significant) stuff I still need to write about.