It is no secret that our brain is wired to instinctively look out for others, especially for the ones closest to us. Since we a social animal, actions that promote compassion and empathy are truly what motivate and nurture our human spirit.
However, in an increasingly selfish and competitive world, we constantly face situations in which the decisions that might be best for us may also clash with collective interests, at a small or large scale. This may start with our daily activities, the time we allocate to different areas of our life, or the money we spend.
In a recent interview with Tim Ferriss, Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey referred to this clash and how it can be solved by depicting his view on the ideal point in which a person becomes “the ultimate human,” a state he defined as “egotistical utilitarian.” Quoting McConaughey on Ferriss’ podcast:
“The decisions we make for the I, for ourselves, the selfish decisions are actually what’s best for the most amount of people — utilitarian — they are where the ‘I’ meets the ‘we’, where the selfish is the selfless, where what I need is what I want — what I want is the ego, what I need is the utilitarian — what I want is freedom, what I need is the responsibility […]
That’s the ultimate human, the egotistical utilitarian, where the decisions he makes for himself, most selfishly, happen to be the most selfless decisions as well at the same times, and where those two overlap and are one — that is the ultimate human.”
In other words, we should think of the relationship between our own ambitions and the desire for the collective wellbeing as two circles that can overlap at some point. This intersection is where the magic happens, and where, according to McConaughey, we become an “egotistical utilitarian.”
We should not be confused by the “egotistical” component of this concept. This word has strong negative connotations that are immediately eliminated once we understand how it applies in this case. The paradigm of the egotistical utilitarian is also true in the military, in which a soldier’s usefulness and individual, inner drive is the most valuable resource for the entire platoon or army. Likewise, the sum of every egotistical intention of every single soldier to survive and save the one next to him is the same as the intention of the platoon as a whole. Nowhere is this more obvious than with combat medics.
Among the central tenets of the military spirit is to make the two circles (individual — collective) overlap. While every member of the military is on his way to making himself an egotistical utilitarian, this spirit is best embodied by medics and corpsmen, whose central purpose to heal wounded soldiers and save as many lives as possible has tremendous benefits for the collective.
Well-known author D.S. Lliteras, who served in the Vietnam war as a Navy corpsman, expressed the character of the corpsmen (and ultimately the egotistical utilitarian) in an interview with The Military Channel. Lliteras recounts the resolution he made during a night full of fear in his first patrol, surrounded by enemies and sensing death was a highly likely outcome.
“It was actually a good thing, because it made me release myself and not take the fear too seriously. Sometimes it still grabs you — you never know when fear is going to grab a hold of you — but […] I was resigned to the fact that I’m not going to make it out of here, so I’m going to be as good a corpsman with the Marine Corps as I can.”
Lliteras went to the extent of accepting that death was around the corner, and getting past that to fulfill his mission, even if that meant sacrificing his life. The circle of his individual ambition — to be as good a corpsman as he could — overlapped with the essential collective purpose of surviving and succeeding in that particular mission.
Lliteras went on not only to survive that first patrol but to serve in Vietnam for two years. He took part in numerous operations that granted him the Bronze Star Medal with “V” device.
There are plenty of other stories from Navy corpsmen and Army combat medics that illustrate and represent the core principles of the egotistical utilitarian, whose most valuable contribution is ultimately to save lives. This story published by the U.S. Army details several occasions wherein medics were crucial in helping avoid death. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Ransom’s case is particularly remarkable. Petty Officer Ransom, who was stationed in Coast Guard Air Station in Sitka, Alaska “was called to assist when an aircraft with five aboard went missing in mountainous terrain in July 2015.”
“Once on scene, Petty Officer Ransom located four survivors, assessed their medical condition, and determined [that] three required immediate medical care […] He quickly provided critical lifesaving treatment to stabilize two victims suffering from hypothermia and a third person with severe traumatic injuries.”
This is just one of the countless examples in which combat medics and corpsmen exercise their egotistical utilitarian facet. They do so nearly daily, creating a tremendous amount of positive consequences around them by ultimately saving lives.
The sole calling of combat medics is to look out for the wounded, the weakened, and those who are left behind and provide them with assistance, thus allowing them, and in extension, the group to recover. That is the egotistical utilitarian’s consummate aspiration.
The article was originally published on November 20th, 2020.