Thursday, February 18, 2010

What is Selfishness?

Before I get into what selfishness is I want to briefly answer - why is it important to know what is selfishness and what is not?
The reason is that selfishness is a fundamental principle - whom are you live for - for yourself or for others, and what does it even mean to live for yourself? The answer to these questions can determine the course of your life, the kind of actions you take and the emotional reward you ultimately receive from your life.
Secondly, selfishness is an ethical issue. If one misidentifies what selfishness is, one can experience unearned guilt or live a life which is not as good as one could have.

The common notion of selfishness is that of a person who lacks any concern for the values of others, someone who does not value other people, does not value fairness, justice, or does not see the need to return a value for a value. It is someone who always wants to get "favors" but at the same time cannot see why anyone would bother them asking for something in return. They can think of no good reason why they should not be served by others, for no benefit to those others whatsoever. Someone who exploits others at the blink of an eye and can care for nothing but their own ends.
This view of 'selfishnes' is lamped together with any kind of behavior that puts one's own pleasure before the pleasure of others, creating a devastating "package deal".

The person who kills and steals and the person who produces and earns are considered as having the same moral quality, since they both do it to promote their own ends.

Is it any wonder, then, that people condemn selfishness - and is it any wonder that so many people feel guilty for any kind of happiness or enjoyment they pursue for themselves, not for others?

The fault here is in the basic understanding of what selfishness is, and in replacing "lack of value for human life" with "selfishness".

One of Ayn Rand's greatest achievements was her identification of the true meaning of "selfishness". It redeemed morality, it created the basis on which people could be happy. It identified a concept which allows men to experience a moral sense of life, to be the hero of their own movie and at the same time pursue their own life and happiness. It allowed men to stand proud beside their achievements instead of apologizing for them - it allowed men to have self-esteem and to regard themselves as worthy of pleasure.

So let us start with basic questions and get deeper into the concept of "selfishness" to get a clear understanding of what it IS.

A selfish man is one who acts for his own sake - one whose actions are directed to benefit oneself. I would quickly summarize it by: "I am doing this for me".
This, however, is not as simple as it sounds. What constitutes doing something "for yourself"? Is it gratification of emotions, regardless of their source? Is it pursuit of some ends, regardless of their nature? Is a man driven by chronic anxiety, trying to destroy other people's happiness a "selfish bastard"?
The answer is not as simple as it first appears to be. To understand what it means to "do something for yourself" we need to know what constitutes an objective benefit to someone.
If one is to be the beneficiary of one's own actions, one must first know what constitutes "benefit".
If one has no idea what is good for oneself, then one's actions cannot logically be selfish, since "I am doing this for me" is empty of meaning if one has no idea if that action is good for one or not.

Many regard selfishness as acting for the gratification of one's emotions. There is some truth to that, but only given the right context.

The only meaning life has, the only thing that makes life worthwhile, that rewards us for living - is pleasurable emotions, like love, happiness, pride and so on. The selfish man indeed then goes after these positive emotions and the gratification of other emotions. Putting anything else above the achievement of one's happiness is not selfish - because by the nature of our body and mind, the only benefit we have for anything in life is positive emotions.
This is the key to what "selfishness" is. The ultimate benefit, by our nature, is pleasurable emotions. Pursuing the only thing which is, by our nature, rewarding, is therefore the essence of selfishness.

This however, does not mean that "anything goes", that whatever emotions one happens to gratify are a selfish action. If a man feels chronic anxiety and jealousy and acts to gratify his need for destruction he is most definitely not selfish because he does not put his happiness as his highest goal. He rather lets whatever petty emotions and destructive premises he has take over his life, motivation and actions. He gives up on happiness entirely. He gives up self esteem. He gives up thinking and trying to decide what would be the best course of action. He replaces all of this with the ease of drifting on whatever emotions happen to come his way and the satisfaction and relief of jealousy and self-doubt.

Selfishness, is actually demanding. Because happiness is demanding.

Consider another example: someone who has adopted the idea of altruism as an ideal and feels a sense of satisfaction every time they sacrifice something for the sake of someone else. For example, they work for months saving up to buy something they want very much, and end up giving it to the son of their friends who happen to come over for a visit, because he really wants it. They feel pain for the loss of the item, but a feeling of satisfaction from "doing the right thing". Is that a selfish action, since they acted to gain satisfaction?
No, because to be selfish means to actually ACT on the principle of doing that which is the best for one's life. The emotion is nothing but an expression of a subconsciously accepted altruism. If one acts to satisfy it one surrenders fully to altruism, and most definitely does NOT act selfishly. Selfishness is not satisfaction of emotions regardless of their cause - selfishness is satisfying one's emotions which are validated to be "on the right track".

So now how does one measure what "the right track" is? Is it just a matter of arbitrary opinion of what one "should do"? No. Recall that in essence selfishness is acting to achieve pleasurable emotions - the best possible to you. Not everything will achieve a feeling of happiness, not everything achieves self esteem, which is a requirement of happiness.

It follows then that a selfish man follows, to the best of his knowledge, the principles which would lead to his happiness and that he does not surrender to any "temptation" that could endanger his happiness.

Let us look at a few examples.

Suppose one is blamed that one is bad for wanting to keep something one values all to oneself. One is told that one should share. One may, out of good faith in people, think that one may indeed be doing something wrong and one is facing a danger of losing friends or the appreciation of the people who bring up the accusation. Here one faces a decision: Will one bypass one's judgment and follow that of others - should one give up that value based on the judgment of others that it is the right thing to do, or should one act based on one's own conclusions? These two are not equal, not both are selfish.
If one decides to take others on their word, one gives up one's judgment and replaces it with others'. Not only that, but one actually gives up one's material goods. the dominant feeling one can expect from such a choice is a sense of loss of control. If it is not one's mind leading one's decisions - whose mind is it? Can one feel secure sitting in a car driven by someone else?
The second choice may be painful because it involves the loss of some people's approval - but one is making a selfish choice here, because acting based on one's own conclusions, not those of others, is a requirement of life and because one chooses to keep material values one has earned. In time one may discover what mistake those people made in demanding a sacrifice and cease to feel a sense of loss over their withdrawn approval.
One's own approval of oneself must always be a primary and come before others' approval if one is to be happy. Whenever one acts on this principle, one is acting selfishly because one is putting one's happiness and mental health above all else.

Or how about a case in which no other people are involved - just one man and his mind. One can be selfish or non-selfish even living completely alone. Suppose one day one experiences an emotion one considers to be a sign of someone lame of bad. It could be a feeling of helplessness, frustration, jealousy, fear and so on. One faces a choice here: To recognize the existence of the emotion, or to try to pretend as if the emotion never existed. No other people are involved in such a decision, yet only one path is selfish.
Why? Because only one path puts one's happiness above all else.
If one tries to pretend that one did not feel what one felt, one seals in the judgment of being bad, or not as good as one had expected. The judgment may be entirely unjustified or based on wrong premises, but if one never looks into it one can never rectify the situation.
Choosing to run away from the situation may alleviate one's immediate fear, but it is not a selfish choice since it does not put one's happiness above all else. In fact running away is a choice that seals in self-doubt.

This is the reason I call my blog "psychology of selfishness"; the central theme of the blog is how to live in a selfish way: in a way that puts your own happiness above all else.

Here is another common choice we face in life: To think or not to think? In any given situation one has the choice to use one's mind to seek the truth or to use one's mind in a different way. For example, on a desert island one can choose to put effort into thinking how to improve one's life, comfort and chances of survival and rescue or one can choose to let self pity take over, hide behind a rock and wait for death.
In modern society one can choose to discover the truth in every subject or to try to escape any recognition of failure. To close one's eyes and try to pretend that bad things are not happening. The selfish choice here, again, is one that puts one's happiness and one's life above all else - the choice to think. Because only by thinking and having knowledge, correct knowledge, can one act in an efficient way that actually promotes one's goals and life. Choosing not to think may provide a temporary escape but the price is a sense of loss of control, lack of self esteem and ultimately losing material property as well (or never gaining it).

The selfish is acting to achieve that which is good for you. We may make mistakes identifying it in specific situations, but so long as one holds the right principles and acts by them, one is selfish.

Take the case of Gail Wynand from Ayn Rand's book "The fountainhead". Gail was wrong on choosing the principle by which he lived. Gail thought he was acting in his self-interest by living the way he did, but despite his thought he lived an unselfish life and he was not happy.
Growing up, Gail was a poor boy who worked at "dirty", low-level jobs receiving orders from people which were morally and intellectually inferior to him. Gail grew up to discover that many honest people do not survive in the world. He was furious that evil wins, and decided to let that become the ruling idea in his life. He was so focused on the injustice that he let go of every personal desire to focus only on one: Never to receive another order from a low life. Never to have less power than the others. He became the owner of a tabloid whose content he despised but which brought him a lot of money and power. His life's creation was one which he despised and he worked to give others what they please, but never what Gail Wynand pleased.
Gail's mistake was not an error in an application of a principle, but error in the entire principle. The choice he made as a teenager was to base his life's goal not in his happiness, but in preventing evil from having financial superiority over him. It is an honest mistake, and one can easily understand how an honest man might feel so angry at the world - but when he made that anger into the ruling factor of his life he made his relation to other men the ruling idea and motivation of his life. He was no longer living for himself and indeed he spent his entire career writing things that pleased others.
This example shows that it is not enough to think that one is acting in one's best interest. To be selfish one must actually adopt and live by principles that place one's happiness above all else.

The conventional view of selfishness is wrong. Those people who have no grasp of the value of other people have a psychological problem. The "give me give me give me" mentality and "how rude, you expect something back?" is not the psychology of a selfish person but rather of an unhappy individual who receives no authentic enjoyment from the things he or she have. Those who are capable of understanding the values of others (that something can be precious to someone else) are those who experience such value themselves toward the things they love.
By equating this mentality with any desire to enjoy that which one has earned, one is sentencing oneself to a lifetime of guilt.
By saying that "everyone is selfish" because they act to gratify their emotions, one ends up ignoring the fact that happiness has specific requirements and demands.

"Selfishness" means to act by the principle by which your actions are directed to benefit you, to make you happy. It means that the principles by which you lead your life place nothing above your happiness.

Being selfish is both demanding, moral and good for you.

Recommended reading (on which my writing is based on, or describes): "The virtue of Selfishness" by Ayn Rand (specifically the article "Isn't everyone selfish" from that book) and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
Related article: Selfishness in relationships from my blog.

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  1. Ifat,

    I spent some time trying to parse your piece on selfishness. I would like to say that this is something worth working out in detail and I applaud you for your effort. Here is my analysis of your work.

    After your introduction, you go about providing an alternative to the conventional definition of the term "selfish". "A selfish man is one who acts for his own sake - one whose actions are directed to benefit oneself. I would quickly summarize it by: 'I am doing this for me'." You quickly expand that to "I am doing this for me and it is good." Which leaves two very complex questions open:
    -- why must a person act for his own sake? (how do I know it)
    -- how does one know what is good? (how do I know it)

    This is the crucial area where your piece seems to flounder. You go on and provide a lot of examples of identifying essential errors of "not selfishness", but you don't manage to make the examples work toward answering those crucial questions (why selfishness and what is good?). It ends up taking the punch out of your writing.

    I think a good approach would perhaps be to take both of these up one at a time in separate postings. Good luck and good premises!


    1. I find when the article speaks of finding the absolute truth, a set of morals and values, integrity not to be compromised, to enjoy what your life brings forth and want to share it with others at the same time explains the answer to your question... Collin

  2. Thanks for your feedback Francis and your honesty - Your feedback is very valuable to me.

    You raise good points, I believe I could improve the article by adding more theory to bind the examples together.
    I also plan to do some editing in the coming future for this piece.

    I believe I have explained why a person should act for his own sake (though briefly)- it was a one liner, saying that positive emotions are the sole reward for living - it is a metaphysically given fact - this is the way our consciousness is built and we have no control over it.
    (This is something that I could add - I will think about it)

    We may want, for example, that slapping ourselves would feel like a caress but it is not possible to achieve, and likewise it is not possible to experience anxiety as pleasurable.

    Now you could ask "why should I go after pleasure, why not go after pain?"
    But such a question would defy something fundamental about our nature; the emotions which are rewarding, or pleasurable is not something open to our choice. The fact that we experience certain emotions as rewarding, as pleasurable is not open to our choice. In other words pleasurable emotions are an end in themselves - there is no way to explain it, it is something every human experiences and can either acknowledge or not acknowledge.

    Furthermore, enjoyment, self-esteem are fuel for life, a requirement without which no one can exist. Living in constant pain is impossible.
    One could ask "Why should I live?" but again, the answer lies in the fundamental fact that without life there is nothing for you, nothing positive to experience. The value of life and of happiness is therefore self-evident. (Not philosophically, but in terms of every person's experience).

    "How do I know what is good" - that is a big question in itself, this is why we have ethics as a science. Knowing what is good for oneself is not easy, but so long as one uses reason - in other words think things out, and one has one's happiness as a goal one is on the right track.

    The examples I gave demonstrate it, but without stating what I just wrote. I was focusing on showing the part of putting happiness above all else as the essence of selfishness, but indeed, the thinking process is crucial as well.

    I will see as I do the editing. Thanks again for the excellent feedback.

  3. Hi Ifat,

    It's nice to come across an Objectivist blogger promoting the importance of rational selfishness. It's unbelievable how so many writers condemn selfishness in order to benefit their readers, only to cause them more problems than they help solve.

    I wrote a blog post on why selfishness is a good thing:

    But I struggled a great deal to come up with that article, especially since we're faced with so many misunderstandings and objections.

    I believe it's important to deal with this issue piece by piece, taking into account thoughtful contributions to this subject, like Francis's questions, but in separate posts.

    All the best!

  4. Small update: I have done some editing to emphasize some parts which could use clearing up. I am satisfied with the way it is now, so I let this be the final version.

    If anyone has further questions, please feel free to ask.

  5. I have written a persuasive speech on why not to be selfish. it would be great if it was looked at and critiqued. Thanks!

  6. I normally don't allow links, but this one is on topic, so I let the comment be published.

    My answer is that there is a difference between people who, for whatever reason, have failed to grasp the value of other people to them, and selfish people. Just because someone does not see the value other people are to them, does not make them selfish. If selfish is wanting the best for oneself then the best means psychological health, which means recognizing the value other people are to us.
    Veruca Salt, the snobby rich girl on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, does not recognize the value of other people to her (probably because her parents never demanded any respect or posed any boundaries, to draw a conclusion from real life examples) - this alone does not make her selfish, though it appears that she is "only thinking of herself". If so, how would you categorize the person who seeks their best interest and through which is having a fun, fulfilling relationships with other people? Selfless?

    so to repeat the essence of my answer: Lack of recognition of other people's value is not what selfishness is, even though it is the common view. Selfishness means pursuing one's self interest (which, in a healthy individual, includes relationship with other people).

  7. I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  8. Hi!

    This is an interesting article, because I was pondering over some of my actions lately. I have a gift that I wanted to give to a friend, but I kept asking myself, "Am I doing this to keep the friendship bond strong, or is this for the genuine sake of my friend's happiness?" Sometiems I feel irrationally guilty because of this question.

    I used to have this idea which I like to call "Sustainable Altruism". It's not a new idea, I'm sure someone else named it something else. But basically, you want to be selfless without hurting yourself, but you want to live your own life to the fullest without hurting others. That way, whatever resources (wealth, time, energy or emotions) that was given out would be more or less equal to what we receive in return. It's a tendency with every human being, because it benefits both parties... more or less.

    It's also called "sustainable" because if we don't go around sacrificing everything, we'll still have enough resources to keep ourselves in shape for as long as we live.

    Hmm... So is the topic leaning towards economics now?

  9. Hi,

    I'm not sure why you feel guilty over giving a gift. I see nothing wrong with giving a gift to keep a friendship in good shape, so long as this is someone you genuinely value as a friend. If you are just keeping your friendship going because you don't want to hurt that person's feelings, even though you don't want them as a friend then it's a sacrifice.
    I don't think you *always* have to be in the mood to give in order to do it and have a rational reason to do so. Some days you have a bad mood for some reason and you don't feel like making anyone happy. But if a friend has an important, rare occasion, I think it can be rational to put in the effort and show up or buy a gift, because a momentary mood comes and goes but that important occasion is rare.

    Regarding "sustainable altruism"; It seems pointless. Why not just invest in what is a value and not invest in what is not a value? But's it's an interesting way to phrase it. I think it probably represents the philosophy of most people on the subject.

    All the best,


  10. Hello Ifat,
    It was a fantastic article. i am having some doubts regarding different notions of selfishness. For example, people are having individual selfishness, like behaving selfishly to others because of some reasons and those are having social selfishness, ie, not being selfish to people having social relationships. Is there any other notions of selfishness exists among humans?

  11. Unfortunately it is gobbledegook to me.

  12. Is a selfish act - "a means to an end"? Such as "happiness"...and other virtues that are demanding....or a "an end in itself"?