Justice Conference 2018
Shining a Light of Illumination in Turbulent and Divided Times
30 March-2 April 2018

The Great Dichotomy:
from Egoism to Altruism; from Love of Power to Love of Justice

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland


The media drown us in stories of turbulence and division. To find hope we need a wider perspective. A universal theme, the struggle between good and evil, can help us to make sense of our world. Good and evil are not equal forces pulling in opposite directions, but the negative as the absence of the positive, as darkness is the absence of light. We are born with self-love, but our higher human purpose is to grow out of this and bring light. Our individual dichotomy is self versus others, egoism versus altruism, with the ultimate love the love of God. Knowledge faces the same dichotomy, for selfish purposes or to serve others. In the collective dimension of social organization, the dichotomy is between power and justice. Politics reflects the selfish side of human nature, where power corrupts individually and collectively. Justice is for the collective good, ensuring equity for everyone, and collective security for the world. Individual and collective transformation must go together with constant effort, changing ourselves and helping others to change. Our individual and collective problems come from the lack of love and justice, the wrong end of the dichotomy, showing us the direction of travel.

The media drown us in stories of turbulence and division, violence and suffering, as a collapsing civilization snuffs out the lights, and darkness closes in on us. It can be hard to cling to hope and to stand back for a wider perspective on where we are and where we are going. It may be helpful to return to a universal theme in religion and philosophy, the struggle between good and evil, and see whether it can help us to make sense of our world.

The Great Dichotomy

Life today seems so complicated, with change coming ever faster, and often seeming out of control. If you want a simple way to understand the world and yourself, the source of so many problems and the key to their solutions, you might try thinking in terms of a great dichotomy. So many things can be described in terms of polarities or opposites, positive and negative, right and wrong, good and evil. And these are not just white and black, but many shades of grey along a continuum.

Too many of today’s problems come from a focus on the bad rather than the good. Certain ideologies say that the poor are the problem because they do not make enough effort, so austerity and reducing social welfare should make them look for jobs and work harder. Migrants threaten our comfortable way of life and superior culture, so we should ignore the chaos and suffering that forced them to leave their homes. We fear change and cling to the past because the future seems so threatening.

Yet each of these can be turned in a positive direction. The poor would like nothing more than to have meaningful jobs and a way to contribute to society, with enough to eat, secure shelter, and education for their children to prepare for a better future. The great economic advances of the nineteenth century were stimulated by migration, and studies show that migrants contribute far more to society than they receive, a necessary support in countries with ageing populations. Properly managed, change always brings advances and a brighter future.

Good and evil are not equal forces pulling in opposite directions, but rather that the negative is generally the absence of the positive, in the way that darkness is the absence of light. Evil is what happens when there is a lack of good. This also helps to understand how we move from one to the other. To get rid of the darkness, you need to add more light. It requires a positive effort, and will not happen without that effort. The greater the effort, the more progress is possible. A bird can make the effort to fly higher and higher, but if it stops it efforts it falls back to earth. To advance, we need to concentrate on building more of the positive in all areas.

You might think of the dichotomy as like climbing a pole or a rope. The harder you try, the higher you go. But if you stop trying, you will slip back down. There is no ratchet to hold you in place. If you are not progressing, you will start going backwards, and you can easily slip and fall off if you are not careful. Resting on your laurels is not an option.

So how does this simple analogy explain so much?

Egoism versus altruism

We know that we are born with self-love, but our higher human purpose is to grow out of this and to learn to love others before ourselves. Our individual dichotomy is self versus others, egoism versus altruism. And the ultimate love is the love of God, of the absolute, perfect love. This turning in love towards the unknown and unknowable is liberating because there is no limit to hold us back. We can always progress knowing that the ultimate goal is beyond our reach. This is what spirituality is all about. This is the foundation of all religions. Bahá'u'lláh starts the Hidden Words, his distillation of all spiritual truth, with our need to "possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart" and "love Me that I may love thee". The beginning is all about love. If you do not make a constant effort to cultivate love, you will fall into indifference or even hate.

Another individual dichotomy concerns knowledge. One unique human characteristic is our ability to learn and acquire knowledge, to accumulate it collectively as culture, and to pass it on to the next generation through education. It is wonderful to seek knowledge, but for what purpose? It is the same dichotomy of egoism versus altruism, knowledge for selfish purposes or to serve others. 'Abdu'l-Bahá says that the learned must oppose their passions, that desire can reduce to ashes uncounted lifetime harvests of the learned (SDC p. 59). Wisdom is knowledge turned to higher purposes.

The same can be said about striving for leadership. Is it motivated by ego, or a real desire to serve others? Can one want to be a leader while being forgetful of self?

Power versus justice

This leads to the collective dimension of the great dichotomy, which concerns how we organize society. If we look at governance, we can see a dichotomy between power and justice. Power is usually seen individually or collectively as self-centred, winning out over others, the personal egoism of the despot or the collective egoism of national sovereignty. Justice is for the collective good, ensuring equity for everyone in the society, and collective security for the whole world. Again, Bahá'u'lláh's second Hidden Word starts "The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice," combining love with justice.

The problem of politics today is that it is driven by the selfish side of human nature. It is often said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is where the individual and collective dichotomies meet. Unless the individuals in a society are making every effort to progress spiritually, to abandon ego and serve others, no collective effort to advance can succeed. We see the rise and fall of civilizations as they build social cohesion and work for humanity's higher purpose, or decline in squabbling and corruption (Turchin 2016). Today political leaders delineate sharp dichotomies, become ensnared in contests for power, and engage in intractable debate that obstructs the search for viable solutions to the world’s problems. Their incessant focus on generating and magnifying points of difference rather than building upon points of agreement leads to exaggeration that fuels anger and confusion, thereby diminishing the will and capacity to act on matters of vital concern (UHJ 29 Nov. 2017). Bahá'u'lláh offered love and justice to the rulers and religious leaders of his time. When, out of ego, they rejected and even persecuted him, he withdrew their power and prophesied their downfall. Too many leaders today follow the same pattern of divide and rule, building a power base out of fear of the other, and clinging to power for their own selfish ends, mired in corruption.

The dichotomy helps us to understand how to move from power towards justice. Justice requires that we be at the forefront of all progressive movements, and committed to efforts toward social transformation. However partisan politics reflecting the disintegration of the old world order leads to increasing polarization and fragmentation in political and social life. Political goals, even when pursued in the name of justice, reflect the fundamental partisanship in contemporary political life, with policies implemented without building consensus, sowing seeds of discontent and continuing political struggle. Conflict and contention ultimately yield more conflict and contention. We should learn to frame concerns in a way that rises above fissures, to share views in a manner that transcends divisive approaches, and to create and participate in spaces to work together in the quest to enact solutions to problems. Justice is essential to resist the vain imaginings and idle fancies of social and political machinations, to see reality with our own eyes, and to identify the requirements for an equitable social order. Then unity is essential—forged through consultative processes, including action and reflection—to achieve the power required for positive social change (Universal House of Justice 27 April 2017).

Moving up the dichotomy requires setting aside partisan disputation, pursuing united action that is informed by the best available scientific evidence and grounded in spiritual principles, and thoughtfully revising action in the light of experience. Consultation provides a means by which common understanding can be reached and a collective course of action defined. It involves a free, respectful, dignified, and fair-minded effort on the part of a group of people to exchange views, seek truth, and attempt to reach consensus. An initial difference of opinion is the starting point for examining an issue in order to reach greater understanding and consensus; it should not become a cause of rancor, aversion, or estrangement. By acting in unity, a conclusion about a particular course of action may be tested and revised as necessary through a process of learning (UHJ, 29 Nov. 2017). Consultation is the collective tool for moving from egoism to altruism.

Individual and collective transformation must go together, which is why changing society must start at the grassroots in each community, transforming each person. This will become the raw material for social transformation.

This is not to say that any of this will be easy. Life is all about individual and collective struggles, changing ourselves and helping others to change. That is the purpose of life and religion, to refine our characters as individuals, and to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization (‘Abdu’l-Baha, SDC p. 46). This underlines also the importance of belief in the unknowable essence we call God, both as the ultimate target for our pure love and, through His Manifestations, as the source of divine teachings for the organization of society. God sends us examples of true selflessness to show us the path to follow: Buddha, Christ, the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, among others. When the light of belief in God dies out, as it has at present, it leaves all the darkness that we see in the world around us. Science shows that people who are being watched are more apt to be honest. If you believe that God is always watching you, and that you will eventually be called to account, in this life or beyond, it is a powerful motivation for good behaviour.

We should not be worried about what words we use to describe this process. Others may have their own vocabulary coming from a particular religious or secular tradition. The important thing is to be moving in the same direction, pulling together rather than at cross-purposes. Our political leaders may be beyond reach, but we can always start at home with ourselves and in our families and communities. Every little bit helps, and many drops can make a river. Try to become a shining light of goodness to chase away the darkness in your personal and professional life.

Our problems, both individual and collective, come from that lack of love and justice, the wrong end of the dichotomy. At least, this image helps us to see the direction of travel to get out of the mess we are in today. We are in a tunnel, but there is light at the end of it.


'Abdu'l-Bahá. 1875. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1957.

Bahá’u’lláh. The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh. Wilmette, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1954.

Turchin, Peter. 2016. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Chaplin, Connecticut: Beresta Books.

Universal House of Justice, regarding engaging in social action and public discourse, and non-involvement in political affairs (to an individual), 27 April 2017. http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/#d=20170427_001&f=f1

Universal House of Justice, on climate change (to three individuals) 29 November 2017. http://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/#d=20171129_001&f=f1