My heart and mind go out to both sides of this dichotomy. My first inclination is to believe that all people are at heart good. That in their inner-most being, they would first help others rather than themselves. That people would stop before acting to think, and then choose the option which would benefit the most people, even perhaps if that decision worsened their own position.
But then I think about myself (ironic). I realize that I most often don't stop to think before I act. In those cases I almost always act on my behalf, doing first what is good for me, even if it does help others (or sometimes even if it doesn't). In the other minority of cases when I do actually think before I act, I am immediately thrown into a battle between the part of me which wishes I would have simply acted (therefore acting for myself), and the part which says I should change my behavior because it really would make the situation better for the most people possible (myself included or not).
I also think about the state of the world. Author Duane Elgin said that "The character of a society is the cumulative result of the countless small actions, day in and day out, of millions of people." I think this is profound. And, looking at history through the lens of this quote, I see nothing but validation. All the mess we're in. All the mess any person at any time in history was in, was the result not necessarily (although possibly so) of a single, deliberate and conscience choice by another to hurt someone. But instead, the messes of history are the cumulative result of small, usually selfish choices. Perhaps just 'business, not personal' choices, who knows exactly, but the trends support this theory.
Now is the time in the conversation when you might say that this is an extremely cynical and negative viewpoint. However I would disagree wholeheartedly. Look at all other creatures on this beautiful planet. They all look out for themselves, they all put their own survival first. So whether you believe we're the Creation of an infinite God, or the result of evolution (or both or something else entirely), we're still animals, so why would we be different? Why would we instinctively choose others over ourselves when everything else doesn't?
We do, however, have something other creatures don't. Actually we have many things others don't.
We can reason. We can (sometimes) comprehend the consequences to our actions before we act. We can ponder the depths of the universe, create astounding technologies, and have faith.
We can also choose.
Every time we act, we can put on the glasses of reality and see ourselves and those around us as we really are; incredible creatures yes, but also creatures who instinctively look out for 'number 1' first. Seeing this, understanding this, and acting with this knowledge, is, I believe, one of the most positive first steps we can take. How can we better this mess if we don't first realize who created it (any mirrors around?)? How can we leave the world a better place than we found it if we don't stop and think?
Let's think. Let's cumulatively change the course of society toward creating a better future for our children than the today we're living in. Let's believe the best about humans, about ourselves. About our capabilities as individuals and as a society. But let's hold that belief in the palms of reality, not it the clouds of wishful thinking.