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.

Egotistical Utilitarian
Recruits with Papa Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion, attempt Mitchell’s Advance event during the Crucible aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., Nov. 6, 2020. The Crucible is the final test of everything recruits learn during the recruit training process and the last thing between them and earning the title U.S. Marine. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Dylan Walters)

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.