By Mark Joseph Goldenson
January 17, 1997
The blitz at Brinks shows the evils of egoismImagine this. It's 3 a.m. and you're comfortably snoozing in your Beverly Hills mansion, dreaming of corporate profits and extravagant soirees. Just as you're waltzing with the First Lady, a window crashes to the kitchen floor. You burst out of bed and rush downstairs, expecting to catch some crafty burglar perusing your diamond-studded butter knives. But when you flip the lights, a haggard homeless woman stands before you, clutching a loaf of Wonder Bread. She is an unemployed mother of three, and her children are hungry. You stare at the broken window and then at her. What do you do?
Now, try this. You're strolling through your neighborhood, a miserable patch of debilitated shacks, dreaming of fortune, fame and security. Suddenly, you hear the sound of tires scraping pavement, and then the crash of steel hitting street. You dart to the highway, expecting the tragedy of blood and twisted metal. But when you climb the highway ramp, your eyes find a sea of greenbacks and coins. Pictures of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Grant litter the road - an armored car has rolled over and gushed its fortune onto the local highway. Your local highway. Hordes of motorists burst from their cars and start swiping the unclaimed fortune. The police are nowhere in sight, your pockets are empty, and you are damn hungry. What do you do?
The first situation is a textbook favorite. Philosophy students have resonated answers off classroom walls for decades. The second is a fictitious test of morality. Fictitious until last week, anyway.
On January 8, a Brinks armored car bloated with $3.7 million overturned and spilled its innards all over a Miami highway. The residents of Overtown, Fla., a devastatingly poor section of Miami, swarmed to the sight, filling pockets, bags and boxes with liberated cash. One Miami officer called it "pure pandemonium combined with pennies from heaven." I call it a lucid lesson in the dangers of egoism.
Egoism is the belief that the morality of our actions is based only on personal gain. It is the belief that defends the behavior of the homeless mother and Overtown residents, Oral Roberts and Richard Nixon (if that's possible). It is a belief that often governs our moral vision, and it is blinding us.
After Overtown's highway was immaculate enough to eat on, police went door-to-door questioning residents, offering a two-day, no-questions-asked amnesty. Only two residents returned their stash, one of them a child who handed in his 85-cent harvest. Some feel Overtown's poor should keep their claim, citing reasons ranging from divine intervention to "entitlement" (from what right, I have no idea). One looter said it all, "Santa Claus came to the ghetto." Officer Bill Schwartz said, "Face it. It was a late Christmas for some people." This is egoism at its worst.
Will Overtown's defendants face the bank employees who will be laid off to compensate for losses? Will they face the cloud of mistrust that now plagues Overtown? Probably not. Schwartz commented, "No neighbors are talking to any neighbors. No one trusts anyone." Egoism demands willful blindness, a morally myopic vision that blurs two inches from ourselves.
But we blind ourselves because, sometimes, the truth is too painful to see. The end is always prettier than the means, especially when those means are immoral. We see the fruits of egoism, the homeless with food, the poor with money, and ignore the spoils. The problem is that eventually, and inevitably, our own backyard is spoiled.
Some Overtown residents discovered this the hard way. One woman retrieved a sack of money and gave it to her boyfriend, fearing it would be stolen. Now, her boyfriend and the money have skipped town, and she wants to file a police report. Another man grabbed thousands of dollars, tossed them in his house, and went back to the highway in search of quarters. When he returned home, his house was burglarized and the money was gone. So much for the spoils.
In these snapshots, the verdict is simple, because the hypocrisy is glaring. Egoism is destructive because it creates subjective moralities based on personal desires.
But what about the homeless mother? Does egoism have its place, or is it a universal evil like Windows 95?
These questions complicate the matter, ensuring the egoism debate will continue to bounce through philosophy halls. The final word must inspire a culture of compassion, but prevent a society of selfishness. Otherwise, egoism will reign, and in a world ruled by personal gain, everyone loses.
Mark Joseph Goldenson is a psychology and molecular and cellular biology freshman. His column, 'Gold Standard,' appears every Friday.