Selfishness vs Rationalism
What 'The Big Short' Teaches Us About Human Nature
Adam Mckay’s biographical comedy-drama film The Big Short gives us insight into the complicated financial world, and the inner workings of Wall Street that would otherwise seem like another world to us. However, not only does the film break down complex financial jargon and concepts to make it more understandable, it also reveals to us the nature of the human condition. Although the characters all have different ethics and morals when it comes to making money, they are all tied by one idea–we may all coexist in the same society, but we live in fact as if it is survival of the fittest. The idea behind this is that it is human nature to do what is best for ourselves, as our inherently selfish nature means that we live for ourselves and not others.
The idea of the connectedness of humanity is something that poet John Donne comments on in 1624 his poem "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Donne explains how "no man is an island" highlighting how no individual is on their own. He then says that he is "involved in mankind," emphasising that it is our duty to be involved in the lives of each other, as it will progress us as a society. However, there is also the idea that we live by the idea that it is every man for themselves. This arises from our intrinsic nature to be selfish. The Big Short delves into this idea by showing us how different sectors in society have different ethics to making money, but all are essentially selfish.
Mark Baum is the most obvious example from The Big Short that shows us the battle between rationalism, trying not to be the "bad guy," and his own selfish desires. Throughout the film, we get an understanding of how he is against the financial system, and their greedy ways. Mark is a maverick. He fights for justice against the big banks of Wall Street. However, in the final scene of the film, he goes against his morals, and decides to sell his swaps, pocketing millions for himself, but at the expense of working-class Americans. Despite this, Mark is remorseful for his actions, unlike the banks. He recognises that he will be "just like the rest of them [the banks]" if he were to sell, and has to be assured by Vinny that they’re "not the bad guys" in this situation. What Vinny says to Mark underlines a key notion to the idea of humans being selfish and doing what is best for themselves–when everyone is selfish to varying degrees, it can be hard to distinguish who are the "good guys" and the "bad guys." In fact, in a selfish system like the financial system, can there even be a line drawn between the good and the bad? Or are all parties involved essentially the "bad guys" for their selfish ways, regardless of their intentions?
The character Mark is understandable to us, as many of us would act in the same way as him; we know that it is in our best interest to fight for what is just, and for what we believe is ethical, but at the end of the day, we can be easily tempted to do what will only benefit ourselves. We even do this knowing that it comes at the expense of others, and will make us hypocrites. However, Mark shows only one side to the idea that it is human nature to do what is best for ourselves. On the other hand, there are the banks and institutions of Wall Street, such as Goldman Sachs and Standard and Poor’s. Unlike the maverick Mark, who serves almost as the protagonist to the story, these banks and institutions serve as the antagonists. While Mark initially fights against the system, and for the working class, the banks and institutions have little empathy for American society. They attempt to make money in unethical and even corrupt ways, such as through inaccurate credit ratings that fraud investors. However, like Mark, they will do what is best for themselves, even if it comes at a cost to others. Where the banks and institutions differ to Mark is their morals. Mark sold his swaps knowing that he will be labelled a hypocrite, whereas the banks have no remorse for their actions, and instead blame "immigrants and poor people" for the repercussions of their actions. This is ironic as big banks are supposed to be one of the pillars of society. Instead, their selfish ways have turned them into greedy institutions that only work for themselves.
We may be critical of characters like Mark, or institutions such as the big banks of Wall Street for acting in selfish ways, but before we make these accusations we should take a look at ourselves first. Can we honestly say that we wouldn’t act the same way that Mark did? Of course we’d like to think that we wouldn’t. However, when it really comes down to it, is it that easy for us to walk away from hundreds of millions of dollars? We may judge Mark for being selfish, but the fact that you and I are more than likely to do the same proves that it is human nature to be selfish, and do what’s best for ourselves. The only thing that matters to us, is us.
The idea that as humans, we are selfish, and will do what is best for ourselves is not a new idea, but one that has been debated for centuries. The 18th-century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau has long since believed that, under the influence of civilisation, and temptations, humans innately become selfish. Mark’s actions in The Big Short reflect this; influenced by the temptation of money, he takes the selfish action of selling his swaps and contributing to the financial crisis like Rousseau would predict one to when faced with temptation. In today’s society, money can be seen as the ultimate temptation. Although we may not like to admit it, we value it highly. We may even know of people who value it more than their friends and family, or feelings of love and belonging.
The Big Short is not a film that delves deep into the realms of the philosophy, but it does touch on the idea of the inherent selfishness of human nature by presenting this idea from a modern angle. Even much before Rousseau commented on the nature of humans, Glaucon discussed the idea with his brother Plato during the Classical Athens period. Glaucon argued that the motives behind our behaviour are all from self-interest; the motive for us to do good things for others is that we will feel better about ourselves for doing a good deed. In modern times, this is what 20th-century philosopher Ayn Rand’s theory of "rational egoism" is based off. Rational egoism is the idea that a rational man would value his own life the most, and his ultimate purpose in life is his own happiness. According to Rand, then, there would be nothing wrong with being selfish, as it is rational to value oneself, and one’s own interests over others. In the case of the ethics of making money between the big banks of Wall Street versus Mark Baum, can it be said that both in fact were not the "bad guys" as they were acting rationally by putting their self-interest first?
It may seem like a bit of a stretch to label the banks as anything but the villains of the financial crisis, but it comes down to which perspective we are looking at it from. It can be safe to assume that most of us would see them as selfish and heartless for "defraud[ing] the American people, and prey[ing] on their dreams of owning a home," as Vinny puts it. Logic tells us that selfishness would usually equate to being immoral and un-empathetic–essentially being the "bad guy." However, Ayn Rand’s stance is different. If we were to look at the situation from her perspective, then being selfish doesn’t necessarily label you as a "bad guy," if you’re acting rationally by fulfilling your own self-interests.
So are humans really selfish? The Big Short certainly says so, as there simply aren’t any characters who make money ethically; they all make money unethically to varying degrees, from Mark who selfishly chooses to sell his swaps, but is remorseful for his actions, to the banks of Wall Street who completely disregard the American people, and everyone in between from Michael and Jared to Jamie and Charlie. But are these characters necessarily the "bad guys?" Selfishness is only natural, according to Rousseau, when there is a significant influence from a technologically advanced civilisation on us, and the temptations of money that come along with it, as there is today. In addition, according to Rand and Glaucon, they are simply acting rationally, as it is human nature for us to want what is best for ourselves. However, when we consider this question ourselves, the answer isn’t as black or white. Each of us have our own morals when it comes to the ethics of making money, and the point where we cross over from doing what is best for ourselves to being unnecessarily selfish at the expense of others. Some of us may think differently to these philosophers. It may, in fact, be the more rational action to act selflessly at times instead, and do good for others rather than ourselves. We may also consider the role that each of these characters in The Big Short play in society. The investors like Mark, Michael and Jamie, and Charlie have every right to make as much money as they want, and they too are influenced by emotions, and may make mistakes like the rest of us–they may understand a whole language we don’t, but they are no less human than anyone else. On the other hand, are the banks not supposed to be the pillars of which a society is built upon? If so, does this mean that their role is to be equitable, and treat all of the people in society fairly?
Although The Big Short shows the selfishness of humankind only in recent years, it is clear to us that this idea has been around throughout history, as we see through the ideas of various philosophers in the past. Selfishness is not something that we see only at some points in history, but it has been around since the beginning of civilisation. In the future, we may not ever see any change to this aspect of human nature. Even in recent years, with the rise in power of Donald Trump, Mark’s prediction that "in a few years [...] people will be blaming immigrants and poor people" has proven to be correct. Trump’s anti-immigration laws marginalise people based on something that they’re born with, and not a decision that they make throughout life, all for his own selfish gain. So with Trump in power, and America being a country with influence over the rest of the world, our selfish tendencies may only grow in the future.