One of the most common moral principles taken for granted to be true, without questioning its validity and consequences, is the principle that selfishness is evil. No matter how much evidence there is to the contrary, it is always our thoughts and our feelings that are brought into question, but never the principle itself. To question the principle is akin to blasphemy.
But just as it was once blasphemous to state that the earth is round, the virtue of selfishness is a fact we must come to accept at one point or another. In other words, those who are still insisting that selflessness is a virtue might as well believe that the earth is flat.
In this article I would like to clear up the confusion surrounding selfishness, and to highlight the fact that not only does the problem with selfishness have nothing to do with selfishness itself, but that selfishness is a necessary quality for personal growth and the foundation for human happiness.
If you think what I just said is nonsense, then I suggest you read on…
The Meaning of Selfishness
Merriam-Webster defines selfish as:
1- concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2- arising from concern with one’s own welfare or advantage in disregard of others <a selfish act>
Dictionary.com’s definitions are:
1- devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.
2- characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself: selfish motives.
And TheFreeDictionary.com offers the following definitions:
1- Concerned chiefly or only with oneself: “Selfish men were . . . trying to make capital for themselves out of the sacred cause of human rights” Maria Weston Chapman.
2- Arising from, characterized by, or showing selfishness: a selfish whim.
In mentioning all these dictionary definitions I don’t intend to clarify the meaning of the word, but to point out the ambiguity in the definitions. All the definitions seem to blend two ideas together:
1- One is selfish if he is concerned primarily with his own well-being
2- If he is selfish, the pursuit of his well-being is at the expense, or with disregard for, the well-being of others
But the two ideas aren’t inherently tied together. And this is where the confusion about selfishness originates. We have been fed the idea that if we pursue our own well-being, then we do so at other people’s expense and, therefore, we must be primarily concerned with other people’s well-being, if we wish to be moral.
The problem with selfishness isn’t the primary concern with our own well-being. That’s never a problem. To identify the root problem with selfishness, it’s important to distinguish between Bad Selfishness and Good Selfishness. As you are about to find out, Bad Selfishness has never and will never serve one’s own well-being, which goes to show that concern for one’s well-being isn’t the root cause of the problems commonly associated with selfishness.
Imagine a person with the following characteristics and behaviors:
- Not interested in what others have to say, or how they feel
- Inconsiderate in what he says and speaks his mind, no matter how hurtful his words are
- Is willing to make a sale at the expense of honesty, either by overlooking the faults in his products or exaggerating the benefits they offer
- Is willing to take credit for work his colleagues or employees have done
- Doesn’t care about his partner’s happiness, but only seeks what makes him happy
- Doesn’t care about social problems or political causes
While all these characteristics are traditionally associated with selfishness, the question we need to ask is this:
Do these characteristics and behaviors advance this person’s well-being?
The short answer is: no. The longer answer is: it may do so in the short-term, but definitely not the long-term.
A person who doesn’t express interest in those around him will find it difficult to gain friends and build lasting relationships. People will avoid him if he is not considerate in how he behaves, and he will quickly lose people’s trust (and his sales) if he is dishonest.
Which leads us to ask a more important question:
How can these characteristics be associated with selfishness, when they do not advance the individual’s well-being?
If selfishness is primary concern for one’s own well-being, then these characteristics shouldn’t be categorized as selfish. It doesn’t matter how they affect other people, the individual himself is sabotaging his own well-being by behaving in such a way.
The problem doesn’t originate with pursuing one’s own well-being, since these characteristics clearly reveal that a “selfish” person isn’t achieving his well-being. The problem with Bad Selfishness is the disregard for the facts of reality and how well-being should be pursued.
Bad Selfishness looks for shortcuts to achieve happiness and success. It is a narrow view of life that blurs out some essential factors for happiness and long-term well-being, because such a person seeks instant gratification, without considering all the consequences of his behavior.
Bad Selfishness is the pursuit and gratification of a whim. It overlooks facts and principles of success. It is based on the outlooks of “I feel, therefore, I do” and “I want, therefore, I must have” without considering the roots of one’s feelings and the proper means of acquiring what one wants. Such a person experiences frustration, anger, resentment, jealousy, short-term gains and long-term losses because he is not respecting the laws of nature and human happiness.
Ignoring reality, both the external (i.e. the world in which we live and the people we come into contact with) and the internal (i.e. our nature as human beings and our individual personalities), never leads to well-being. A person who is truly selfish and who truly wishes to achieve his well-being will not act in ways that harm him, either in the short-term or the long-term. To be able to evaluate what is beneficial to us and what is harmful, we need to develop an understanding of reality.
Good Selfishness is based on the most fundamental principle of success and true happiness: Respect reality.
Good Selfishness never seeks shortcuts that have damaging consequences in the long-term. It looks at reality from the widest possible angle, to evaluate all consequences and determine the most appropriate outlook and behavior in any situation.
It is based on the outlook of: “I am, therefore, I think.”
I am a human being, therefore, I must think in order to find the best course of action to take, given my surroundings and my nature.
Good Selfishness doesn’t place the interests and well-being of others above one’s own, but recognizes that other people’s well-being contributes to one’s own. This is why Good Selfishness promotes respect, consideration and kindness.
The Golden Rule of Morality: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a selfish principle. It is based on the fact that your behaviors promote and justify to others the way in which to treat you. If you are kind to others, then you encourage kindness in them. If you are mean to others, then you give others permission (by your own conduct) that they treat you with meanness. Therefore, if you wish to advance your well-being, you should treat others the way you want to be treated. Others may not immediately (or ever) follow your example, but you do not give them justification to treat you in a way you do not like to be treated.
Good Selfishness doesn’t associate one’s own well-being with guilt, nor does it demand that other people’s well-being be pursued whenever one’s own well-being is pursued. You do not have to become healthy in order to serve others. Being healthy, being happy, being successful are proper for an individual, and he doesn’t need other people’s permission to achieve them.
The Golden Rule does not state: “Sacrifice yourself for the sake of others.” If it did, then the continuation of the rule would be: “so that they may sacrifice themselves for your sake.” Selflessness carries its own contradiction. If there is a demand that you sacrifice yourself for the sake of others, then you expect others to sacrifice themselves for your sake. But isn’t that selfish of you to expect?
It is selfish, but Bad Selfish. Good Selfishness – in line with the Golden Rule – doesn’t expect others to sacrifice themselves and their happiness for your sake, nor does it place the demand on you to sacrifice yourself for other people’s sake. You may choose to contribute to other people’s happiness, in the same way you would appreciate other people’s contributions to your own happiness. But it doesn’t place a demand on others to sacrifice their own happiness for you. You have a right to be happy and others have a right to be happy. We can work together to achieve happiness, without compromises or sacrifices or condemning one’s own pursuit of his happiness.
To Give Credit…
During my university years I valued selflessness above all other virtues, and considered selfishness to be the most despicable vice known to man. But I was constantly questioning my beliefs and trying to resolve any inconsistencies in my world-view. One of the things that made me uncomfortable about selflessness – which I initially thought was a failure on my part to resolve – was the inherent hypocrisy in the principle. Why is happiness appropriate for others, but not to me? Why should I make others happy and tend to their needs while I neglect my own happiness and needs? Why should I expect others to shoulder the obligation of making me happy, if I wanted them to be happy?
While this remained an issue for me to address, I was introduced to the writings of Ayn Rand, who considered selfishness a virtue. My knee-jerk reaction to her ideas and her writings was to consider her the anti-Christ, and the embodiment of all that is evil. She promoted selfishness and capitalism, which was enough in my book to consider her the devil. I continued to think that selflessness was a virtue and I simply wasn’t able to resolve the contradiction in it. But as I read more of Ayn Rand’s writings – while trying to keep an open mind and seeking to understand her views for what they are and not how they relate to my existing views – I came to realize the misconceptions I held about selfishness and why she considered it a virtue.
I can’t possibly cover Ayn Rand’s writings and philosophy in this blog post, but I highly recommend her books. In particular, you might want to grab Philosophy: Who Needs It and The Virtue of Selfishness. If you’re not convinced by what I have said, then these two books will contribute more material to the discussion.
What’s your take on selfishness? And how do you see it relating to personal growth and human happiness? Share your thoughts in the comments!