On the one hand, our obsession with self is nothing new. On the other hand, the modern Western world has created an environment that has proven ideal for elevating the obsession with self to a dangerous level not only for the individual, but also for all of society.
Western culture has long placed heavy emphasis on the individual. Our own nation was founded upon the principle that each person has the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You, as an individual, have the right to pursue happiness, according to your own terms, as long as you don’t harm anyone else or violate their rights. Yet, even the founders understood this experiment in freedom required a certain level of morality and righteousness to maintain the system they built. Despite being an individualistic society, they correctly assumed it could only work if society as a whole continued to practice and culturally enforce a reasonable degree of morality.
For most of human history, the predominant culture has been one of honor and shame. While sinners have always been preoccupied with self to some degree or another, most people have not seen themselves as independent individuals but as members of a community. First and foremost, they thought about their place in the community and behaved accordingly.
For example, homosexuality was rampant in the former Greek Empire. Even so, homosexuality was not what Jerry Bridges would call a respectable sin. A man may engage in that unholy act behind closed doors, but he would never flaunt it. Why? It would bring shame to him and his family because society as a whole considered it shameful. Furthermore, he would never make a connection between his sexual preferences and his identity. That is a very modern phenomenon. In his mind, he was not a gay man. He was a man, who perhaps committed homosexuality at times.
Think back to the story of Cain in Genesis 4. Obviously, Cain had an unhealthy preoccupation with self, which ultimately led him to kill his brother. Then, God doles out his punishment, saying, “You will be a restless wanderer on the earth” (Ge 4:12). And the Western reader thinks, That’s it? That’s his punishment for murder? We may even think Cain would be relieved he got off so light, but he says to God, “My punishment is too great to bear! Since you are banishing me today from the face of the earth, and I must hide from your presence and become a restless wanderer on the earth” (Ge 4:13, 14).
Among other things, the story of Cain shows the significance of an honor-shame culture. Just the thought of being excluded from his family and community leads Cain to cry out, “Lord, my punishment is too great to bear!” (Ge 4:13). Though he elevated his selfish desires even above his brother’s life, he still thinks of himself not as an independent individual, but as a member of a community. In a very real sense, his identity was his community.
That has been the perspective of most human beings throughout most of our history. Even as we have progressively moved toward an individualistic society in the Western world, we still see this innate desire for community approval and acceptance. When teenagers or young adults decide to rebel against their parents and communities because they don’t want others preventing them from being their authentic selves, you’ll notice they always seek out like-minded people—online or elsewhere. They want to be independent, but they don’t want to be alone. They want to be independent together.
So, human beings are naturally selfish. We naturally want to follow our desires even if those desires contradict our God-given purpose and design. Then, as our sense of obligation to community deteriorates, especially within an already-individualistic society, and secular philosophies and worldviews creep into popular culture, we have everything we need for moral collapse.