A basic assumption of many contemporary social science theories is that humans are “opportunistic” by definition and driven primarily by self-interest. This implies that a rational human being would exploit chances presented to him by immediate circumstances without any reference to moral principle or a general plan, if such exists. Being commonsensical, in other words, means maximizing your utility. Sociologists for long have argued that three things motivate human action: money, power, and social status. It is more rational to be self-interested than to care about others. Needless to say, these propositions don’t deal with emotional actions. Adherents of this belief have often coined notions such as altruism, sense of fairness, and identifying with a group as irrational.
Based on the above assumptions, social scientists have developed a theory of rational choice. Followers of this school of though often turn a blind eye to culture, a deaf ear to symbols, and tune out identifying with larger communities. Nevertheless, despite their stronghold in academia, when challenged to reflect on transcendent values, ethical and moral components of life, they struggle to conceptualize these terms. Fethullah Gulen’s discussion of envy, contentment, and selflessness is at the heart of these debates. His reasoning may help us develop more appropriate cognitive models and understand the world around us better.
Envy is often described as an internal disturbance and a feeling of indigestion and jealousy toward others, who possess more wealth, knowledge, beauty, happiness, a higher level of confidence, or a wider range of skills. An envy person does not appreciate any accomplishment or success that is not attributed to him. Psychiatrists do not recognize envy as an illness as a whole. Yet, they identify several psychological disorders that, in one way or another, are associated with envy. For example, some of those are feelings of internal weakness and insecurity.
According to Gulen, however, these feelings are natural and can be found in every individual. They can serve men both for good as well as for evil purposes. Assuming that human creature is perfect in nature, Gulen suggests that everyone can channel his internal energy toward sympathy, kindness, and goodwill. If this energy is headed toward hostility, the person himself will become the first victim of his envy. Constant pressure and discomfort will not allow him to enjoy the life, as he would constantly irritate people around him and receive their negative reaction. Thus, directing energy toward a positive future can make a much happier person than greed and jealousy. But is it possible to do so? Gulen’s thoughts on contentment may be of help.
As opposed to envy, contentment implies satisfaction with what you have and not desiring other people’s worldly possessions. Some scholars have called contentment “Patience” – patience toward one another as well as the attractions that may disturb you. One way to achieve this is to abstain from meaningless words and moves. On the one hand, this would imply avoiding waste of time and resources. On the other, being considerable of others and the environment. In other words, not using more than you need and not abusing your power and other’s rights. This, however, according to Gulen, would only be the enough to make it through the first level of contentment. Second and third levels are related to morals. Gulen’s recipe for that is to be grateful for being able to pray and not ask for more.
On the background of failed ideologies that were unable to unite people around universal values, Gulen offers a new perspective that may seem irrational to some but has a deep meaning behind it. He has re-introduced the notion of self-devotion or selflessness that has a potential to revive a faith, bring universal peace, security, and prosperity.
For him, our generation has so far been too materialistic and did not pay enough respect to our hearts and souls. Instead of seeking a new ideology, he suggests selflessly serving a new generation that will create its own world, free from our contemporary biases. Selfless individuals make a selfless society that may easily overcome a so-called collective action problem and secure a better future for future generations.
Gülen, Fethullah (2005) “Haset,” Sızıntı, N 320.
Gülen, Fethullah (2007) “Yasatma Ideali,” Sızıntı, N 337.
Gülen, Fethullah (2010) “Kanaat,” Sızıntı, N 380.