Revisiting Selfishness


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Revisiting Selfishness

Monday, May 09, 2011 – by Dr. Tibor Machan

Because I am always eager to do well for myself – have done this for as long as I can recall, starting with wanting to succeed in school, on the athletic field, in trying to be healthy and fit, and wanting to escape the brutal Soviets when I was only 14 – I always pay attention to people who denigrate selfishness. After all, I and most people I know well or even just a bit seem to me to be like me, are concerned to do well for themselves. None of them routinely wastes resources; none makes pointless sacrifices but tends, instead, to aim for good deals; and even those who are dedicated to helping their fellows pick and choose carefully – the reckless ones aren't receiving much aid, nor the vicious ones, only those who have shown some concern for themselves but have met with obstacles not easy to overcome. In other words, even in being generous and charitable, those who try to do well for themselves tend to receive more than those who are literally unselfish.

So then why are so many who speak up about how we ought to act make a special effort to denigrate self-interested conduct?

One could be cynical and give the answer that of course it is of possible benefit to people to urge others to be generous and charitable and not care for themselves but for others, instead, including those doing the urging. They are, after all, among these others whom they implore that they should look out for. So, then, is it a kind of perverse selfishness that may motivate people who preach unselfishness?

Or there is the less cynical view that many people have a very narrow idea of themselves and all they seem to want to do is fulfill some momentary urges, not really enhance their lives properly. This may well be the view of selfishness that many condemn but it's a very impoverished idea of the human self that's involved here. Like the self of a drug addict or gluttonous person. Such people think of themselves as no more than a bundle of raw, irrational desires, never mind what ultimately would contribute to their lives, what would indeed be to their proper self-interest.

Another idea is that the self for many people belongs in this earthly life and what they really want is happiness for eternity – everlasting salvation. But that is actually quite selfish since such folks give up something they see as not very important for something else that they consider all important, their eternal spiritual selves. And it is all a great bargain, if you think about it: you give up joys and pleasures for about 65 years of your earthly life so as to obtain bliss forever. Not a bad deal, me thinks.

Now of course all this championing of selflessness or unselfishness and dissing of selfishness cannot be right. Nearly everyone tries to take decent care of himself or herself first. Then if there is time and stuff left, helping others can also become important. But only if those others are deserving and don't waste the help, won't squander it. For most even here a bit of pitching in to try to set negligent folks on the straight path will be OK but not if it is futile. Other people, after all, are not unfamiliar to us and their struggles often generate sympathy, even empathy. Up to a point, after which they are digging their own holes of self-defeat. In other words, one can be generous and charitable to a fault! And one shouldn't be.

Another reason a proper measure of self-regard is to be applauded is that people tend to know much more about what will enhance their own lives, or they at least are in the best position to find out, than do their fellows. So helping people comes down too often to meddling in their affairs, even creating messes for them with all that butting in. Here is where quite apart from whether it is their proper job, politicians and bureaucrats make much more trouble than they and their cheerleaders admit. It is not easy to know what will make someone's life better, other than in some rare cases which amount to emergencies and very simple help. So urging people to be unselfish amounts, in many instances, to removing the best support they could get in their lives, namely, their own!

The drive to besmirch proper selfishness is a misanthropic one. It shows disdain for people, promotes their sense of ineptitude. So I recommend that everyone follow the motto I have made up as my bumper sticker: "Assert yourself, thoughtfully!"

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Part of the problem here is the possibly quite different views of what selfishness is among the populace. For example, what often pops into mind when the word "selfishness" is mentioned, for a significant number of people at least is the malevolent or cheating kind of selfishness.

The guy speeding like a maniac and cutting in and out of traffic putting others at risk so he can get to his destination is an example of this. The same person may rightfully condemn this type of conduct, but then applaud a self-improvement effort.

Also, I think we might find that the "selfishness" that some people object to but really shouldn't (dare I say the "good" kind, like self-improvement and achievment etc.) are not really objecting to the specific acts, but might actually be objecting to the complete dedication to this type of act to the complete exclusion of altruism.

I'm sure there's a big dose of envy in there sometimes too of course.


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This is a good one. Thanks for the post.

And as Bob added, it's all about the definition.

I've noticed that a lot of people can't respond to the idea of rational selfishness. They can only respond to the word. (The issue of knowing words but not ideas seems to be prevalent in religious people and hippies, at least in my experience with them.)

There's one cure for stupidity such as this: clear definitions.


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I'm sure there's a big dose of envy in there sometimes too of course.


One particular hater of selfishness and its achievements is the person who acts "selfishly" in trying to better his life but holds other people's achievements as his standards of value (i.e. he needs to be better than them). Since he can't be better than everybody at everything (and certainly feels some envy in the process), he eventually says that "selfishness" leads to sadness, and turns into a champion of "unselfishness," where that envy becomes a feeling of righteousness.

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