What is Selfishness?
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.
If you enjoy the blog and gain value from it please consider making a donation to keep it running and updating (link is located at the sidebar). Thank you for your continued interest!
The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims or the needs of irrational brutes, who have never outgrown the primordial practice of human sacrifices, have never discovered an industrial society and can conceive of no self-interest but that of grabbing the loot of the moment.
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
“The Objectivist Ethics,”
The Virtue of Selfishness, 31
The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
The Virtue of Selfishness, vii
There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level (see “The Objectivist Ethics”).
If it is true that what I mean by “selfishness” is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice.
The Virtue of Selfishness, ix
To redeem both man and morality, it is the concept of “selfishness” that one has to redeem.
The first step is to assert man’s right to a moral existence—that is: to recognize his need of a moral code to guide the course and the fulfillment of his own life . . . .
The reasons why man needs a moral code will tell you that the purpose of morality is to define man’s proper values and interests, that concern with his own interests is the essence of a moral existence, and that man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions.
Since all values have to be gained and/or kept by men’s actions, any breach between actor and beneficiary necessitates an injustice: the sacrifice of some men to others, of the actors to the nonactors, of the moral to the immoral. Nothing could ever justify such a breach, and no one ever has.
The choice of the beneficiary of moral values is merely a preliminary or introductory issue in the field of morality. It is not a substitute for morality nor a criterion of moral value, as altruism has made it. Neither is it a moral primary: it has to be derived from and validated by the fundamental premises of a moral system.
The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a license “to do as he pleases” and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a “selfish” brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.
This is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims . . . .
A similar type of error is committed by the man who declares that since man must be guided by his own independent judgment, any action he chooses to take is moral if he chooses it. One’s own independent judgment is the means by which one must choose one’s actions, but it is not a moral criterion nor a moral validation: only reference to a demonstrable principle can validate one’s choices.
Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles. This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness.
Since selfishness is “concern with one’s own interests,” the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense. It is not a concept that one can surrender to man’s enemies, nor to the unthinking misconceptions, distortions, prejudices and fears of the ignorant and the irrational. The attack on “selfishness” is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other.
The Virtue of Selfishness, ix
Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None—except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality. I deal with men as my nature and theirs demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice. It is only with their mind that I can deal and only for my own self-interest, when they see that my interest coincides with theirs. When they don’t, I enter no relationship; I let dissenters go their way and I do not swerve from mine. I win by means of nothing but logic and I surrender to nothing but logic. I do not surrender my reason or deal with men who surrender theirs.
For the New Intellectual, 133
Men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.
Here the basic reversal is most deadly. The issue has been perverted and man has been left no alternative—and no freedom. As poles of good and evil, he was offered two conceptions: egoism and altruism. Egoism was held to mean the sacrifice of others to self. Altruism—the sacrifice of self to others. This tied man irrevocably to other men and left him nothing but a choice of pain: his own pain borne for the sake of others or pain inflicted upon others for the sake of self. When it was added that man must find joy in self-immolation, the trap was closed. Man was forced to accept masochism as his ideal—under the threat that sadism was his only alternative. This was the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on mankind.
This was the device by which dependence and suffering were perpetuated as fundamentals of life.
The choice is not self-sacrifice or domination. The choice is independence or dependence. The code of the creator or the code of the second-hander. This is the basic issue. It rests upon the alternative of life or death. The code of the creator is built on the needs of the reasoning mind which allows man to survive. The code of the second-hander is built on the needs of a mind incapable of survival. All that which proceeds from man’s independent ego is good. All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil.
The egoist in the absolute sense is not the man who sacrifices others. He is the man who stands above the need of using others in any manner. He does not function through them. He is not concerned with them in any primary matter. Not in his aim, not in his motive, not in his thinking, not in his desires, not in the source of his energy. He does not exist for any other man—and he asks no other man to exist for him. This is the only form of brotherhood and mutual respect possible between men.
“The Soul of a Collectivist,”
For the New Intellectual, 81
The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.
“The Ethics of Emergencies,”
The Virtue of Selfishness, 49
Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut. In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.
“The Objectivist Ethics,”
The Virtue of Selfishness, 31
The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself. His moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others. His moral obligation is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men. This includes the whole sphere of his creative faculty, his thinking, his work. But it does not include the sphere of the gangster, the altruist and the dictator.
A man thinks and works alone. A man cannot rob, exploit or rule—alone. Robbery, exploitation and ruling presuppose victims. They imply dependence. They are the province of the second-hander.
Rulers of men are not egoists. They create nothing. They exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit. The form of dependence does not matter.
“The Soul of an Individualist,”
For the New Intellectual, 82
Copyright © 1986 by Harry Binswanger. Introduction copyright © 1986 by Leonard Peikoff. All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.
Excerpts from The Ominous Parallels, by Leonard Peikoff. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted with permission of Stein and Day Publishers. Excerpts from The Romantic Manifesto, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1971, by The Objectivist. Reprinted with permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Excerpts from Atlas Shrugged, copyright © 1957 by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, copyright © 1943 by Ayn Rand, and For the New Intellectual, copyright © 1961 by Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from Philosophy: Who Needs It, by Ayn Rand. Copyright © 1982 by Leonard Peikoff, Executor, Estate of Ayn Rand. Reprinted by permission of the Estate of Ayn Rand. Excerpts from “The Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture series. Copyright © 1976 by Leonard Peikoff. Reprinted by permission. Excerpts from Alvin Toffler’s interview with Ayn Rand, which first appeared in Playboy magazine. Copyright © 1964. Reprinted by permission of Alvin Toffler. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc.