(philosophy) Selfishness as a Virtue

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Here's yet another essay for the briefcase you'll be taking with you on vacation...(get a tan one so's it blends in better with the sand)

from Yet Another Essay

What's So Bad About Being Selfish?

by Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D.

Most of us assume that selfishness is both wrong and unhealthy. But is this true?

Selfishness means acting in one's rational self-interest. Contrary to popular opinion, all healthy individuals are selfish. Choosing to pursue the career of your choice is selfish. Choosing to have childrenor not to have childrenis selfish. Insisting on freedom and individual rights, rather than living under a dictatorship, is selfish. Indeed, even ordinary behaviors such as breathing, eating and avoiding an oncoming car when crossing the street are selfish acts. Without selfishness, none o f us would survive the daymuch less a lifetime.

Selfishness does not mean self-destructive behavior. In other words, a car thief is not selfish. He has to run from the law constantly, something most car owners never have to do. Even if he escapes the law, he will not experience as much pleasure from possessing the car as would an honest person.

Lying to your spouse, or any loved one, is not selfish. The psychological stress of trying to "live the lie" of an extramarital affairor any major secretis enormous. A selfish person understands that honesty is the best policy and the least painful, in the long run.

The opposite of selfishness is self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice means giving up a greater value for a lesser value. Consider the example of a battered wife, who is married to an alcoholic husband who refuses to seek help. She stays with him for reasons o f "security" and "family stability." Yet in the process she sacrifices her self-esteem and physical safety (greater values) to the irrational whims of her husband (lesser values).

Consider the example of the hard-working student who allows a friend to copy his answers on an examination. The student is sacrificing both his integrity and his efforts (greater values) to the laziness and low self-esteem of his "friend" (le sser values).

Or, consider the envious individual who tries to get you to feel guilty for your hard-earned success. "You are lucky to have done so well," the envious person says. "Now you have a duty to share some of your success with others." Ce rtainly, a selfish person wants to share his success with those he genuinely cares abouthis family, friends, or children (greater values). But why should he make sacrifices to individuals he does not know or care about (lesser values)?

Selfish individuals give to charityif and when they choose. A selfish person is not "stingy." He simply values the use of his own judgment in making decisions about how to spend his money, and when to give it away.

Most of us assume that some selfishness is healthy, but "too much" selfishness will lead to loneliness and despair. This idea rests on an incorrect definition of selfishness. Selfishness means acting in one's rational self-interest. By " rational" I mean that one can logically prove that an action is in one's self-interestin the long run as well as the short run.

For instance, Mr. Jones might think that it is in his self-interest to cheat on his wife, in the short run. But if he considers the long-term, he will understand that he loses her either way by lying to her. If he really loves his wife, he will feel te rrible if he lies to her. If he no longer loves his wife, it is senseless to continue living with her and conducting an affair in secret. A selfish individual does not like to lie, because he sees that it does not bring him long-term happiness.

Most of us assume that we cannot be both selfish and kind to others. This is simply not true. If a mother loves her son, it makes her happy to give up some of her money to buy him a bicycle. It is not a sacrificeit is a supremely selfish act. Bot h mother and son benefit.

Similarly, the owner of a popular restaurant is not dutifully "serving the public." He provides good food and a nice atmosphere so that he can make a profit and beat the competition. Both owner and diners benefit.

A physician does not provide quality treatment for altruistic reasons. He provides it because he is financially and emotionally rewarded for being competent and caring. Otherwise, he quite appropriately loses his patients. Both patient and doctor benef it from selfishness.

In a rational society, selfishness is encouraged. A rational society is one where individuals are left free to pursue their self-interest. In the process, everyone benefits.

Rational selfishness means acting in your self-interestand accepting responsibility for determining what truly serves your long-term interest. It is a nice alternative to a life filled with duty, drudgery and disillusionment.

We live in a world which does not even recognize the option of rational selfishness. We are taught, from childhood, that we must be either self-sacrificing or thoughtlessly "selfish."

I maintain that this is a false alternative. Rational selfishness, if practiced consistently, is the means of living both a moral and psychologically healthy life. If you choose to recognize this alternative, such a life can be yours.

Copyright ) 1997, Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D. Reprinted from The Living Resources Newsletter.

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), June 28, 2000



You DO find the great essays. I agree completely with this author [which is why I thought it was GREAT].

As parents, I think we NEED to be selfish. I'm not saying we should ignore our children. I'm saying that our children need to understand that the world doesn't revolve around them. I'm ALSO saying that children pick up on clues that OUR needs aren't being met if we don't set aside time for ourselves, live life to OUR fullest, etc.

As caretakers for elderly parents [any clue here to my being part of the sandwiched generation?] we need to be selfish as well. The elderly are much like children. The more WE do for them, the more they EXPECT. If carried to extremes, we develop resentment, and certainly do NOTHING to encourage independence in our parents. Caretaker is a role that must be strictly defined by balancing what keeps the caretaker happy with the ACTUAL needs of the person receiving the care. Perceived needs may very well NOT be actual needs. There's a balance necessary to ensure that relationships don't revolve around co-dependency.

I could write a book about this one, Eve. I've oftentimes watched my children have fun when they should have been working and then come to ME expecting a bail-out. What do they learn if I come to their rescue? "Your procrastination [substitute illegal deeds, etc.] does not constitute an emergency situation on MY part." SACRIFICE serves NO ONE.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), June 28, 2000.

I hate it when I forget to close a tag. TODAY seems to be the day for that.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), June 28, 2000.

CloseClose How many italic tags did I open?

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), June 28, 2000.

Not my favorite essay, eve. But the author does discuss an important yet overlooked issue.

There's a term known in many spiritual practices: selfless service. Giving of oneself, sacrifice for the betterment of others through service to God. In my practice I call it selfish service. I have received puzzled looks many, many times from people when I mention this phrase. Few get it, but don't inquire as to my meaning. Par for the course.

I term it selfish service because I perform said tasks for the distinct reason doing so gets me off! (Spiritually-speaking of course). Is this rational? I don't really care. I follow my heart in this area, not my head. This is one area of life in which I don't walk around calculating pluses & minuses in my head. My heart commands, I respond.

Hey eve, thanks for filling my day with food for thought. You have NO IDEA how badly I needed this! Or mebbe you do?

-- Bingo1 (howe9@shentel.net), June 28, 2000.

Didn't Ayn Rand write a book called "The Virtue of Selfishness"? At first glance, the logic is compelling. If everyone lived their lives by putting their own interests first (ie, personal responsibility) then there would be much less need for social-service bureaucrats who make there living by "helping" us.

But, even in that ideal world, there would be many people who need temporary help which means that others will have to redefine "self-interest" to include charitable, altruistic acts. (Ayn Rand hated the word "altruistic"). I think "enlightened self-interest" is a better word than "selfishness"

I am on the Board of Directors of a Senior Service agency for our county. This is a private, non-profit corp. We provide services to people that genuinely need help; to people who have no families near-by or to people with families that do not or cannot adequately help their own parents. We charge for many of our services but we also are constantly scrounging for grant money and spend much effort in holding fund raising events. I think that what we do is good, damn good.

-- Lars (lars@indy.net), June 28, 2000.


-- al-d. (dogs@zianet.com), June 28, 2000.

Since children learn by example, showing them you respect your self teaches them not only to respect themself, but it is okay to respect themself.

-- Cherri (sams@brigadoon.com), June 28, 2000.

I learned several years ago in a class I was taking that we tend to confuse the term "selfish" with "self-centered".

It's not a "bad thing" to be selfish; one has to tend to one's own needs before one can presume to take care of another's effectively. In addition, when one takes care of one's self, it becomes easier to make decisions (and one finds that those decisions are the right ones). But when one is self-centered, one thinks only of one's self to the exclusion of all around him/her. It is at that point that one believes the world revolves around him/her. A consequence (among many) of being self-centered is that one tends to blame everyone around him/her for the bad things that happen in one's life. You can see the downward spiral that virtually always results from such actions.

I'm sure I messed up the wording, but I think you probably know what I mean.

Anyway, I had made the same mistake throughout my life.....I thought (was taught, more likely) that to be selfish was a bad thing. I would ignore my "self" at all costs. (There were a lot of reasons for this, but this is neither the time nor the place [g].) Once I learned the difference between "selfish" and "self-centered" and the true meanings of the two, a lot of things in my life fell into place.

Just my two "sense" worth. Thanks, eve; great stuff to think about.

-- Patricia (PatriciaS@lasvegas.com), June 28, 2000.


"Didn't Ayn Rand write a book called "The Virtue of Selfishness"?" I have every book and article [some obscure] that Ayn Rand wrote. I read them, circa, late high school and early college. I was impressed. Lately I went back and tried to reread a few. I now consider them trite and not worth the effort. I couldn't even read them for fun. Amazing what age and experience will do to you

-- DB (Debunker@nomore.xxx), June 28, 2000.

Thank, y'all, for your kind words and thought-provoking contributions.

Anita: What can I say? Excellent post. It seems like you'd already understood this issue.

Bingo: Yes -- your "selfish service" is in fact selfish simply because you get something out of it. And it's rational, because no one is sacrificed, and you're serving your short-term and long-term self-interest by contributing to your well-being in this way.

Lars: Yes -- Rand wrote that book, which is a modern-day classic. In the ideal, "selfish" world, where people will have more of their own funds to give (less taxes), as well as enhanced progress (business will be more free to produce, spreading the wealth), I believe there will be greater happiness, and therefore good will, and so there'd be a greater motivation and ability to give and help others -- voluntarily.

This desire exists or could exist now, but it's more latent and/or potential; it's just that individual resources are less, due to taxation and other controls and regulations. And because of this, people in general are more cynical; thus there's less of a desire (as well as ability) to give, compared to how things could be.

al-d: I hear ya. If Christianity helps you to truly love yourself -- go for it!

Cherri: Good one; you said a lot in one sentence.

Patricia: Nice post. But the way you use "self-centered" I would substitute "selfless" to the extent the self-centered person is neglecting the ones he/she's responsible for or loves. Doing this would be to the person's short and long-term detriment, through increased stress and guilt feelings, due to the understanding that he/she's being irresponsible. And, later in life, the loved one could become alienated, causing even more harm to the "selfless" one. Know what I mean?

DB: Could you elaborate?

-- eve (eve_rebekah@yahoo.com), June 29, 2000.


I understand what you are saying. You described my experience exactly. No explanation needed with me.

Best wishes,,,,


-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), June 29, 2000.

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