Being selfish

Why humans are selfish (why selfish is the wrong word) and why it’s not necessarily a bad thing. (or not, what do I really know?)

A few weeks ago I accidentally got into an argument with a coworker, my belief and understanding of a persons nature to circle towards the selfish landed me in a little bit of an awkward situation. Fortunately it led me to look into this in much more depth. Fundamentally my understanding of the discussion was on a completely different page to them.

Humans are selfish just as dogs are vicious. Which isn’t the case? A species appropriation of canines is that they can rip you limb from limb. But they choose not. Is this because they’re trained not to, or that it does nothing for their survival if they did so? Ironically that’s a selfish decision maybe. This is too much of a tangent.

Humans are selfish. Not greedy, not merciless but centred on the self. This is a pure evolutionary mechanism that has altered as our race has expanded and solidified its place in the ecosystem. This is a prime evolutionary standpoint. Survival of the fittest, Charles Darwin has have a point right? Now switch to an anthropological; even psychological view of the matter, that humans could not have survived in nature without the charity and social reciprocity of a group. Does this undermine the ruthless viewpoint of geneticists and evolutionary minds? Maybe they are too closely knitted together to really tell.

The word (is the bird?)

The popular usage of the word “selfish” is different from the meaning one should ascribe to it. Many people use the adjective “selfish” to describe regard for one’s own welfare to the disregard of the well-being of others. Moreover, many people would be willing to characterise any instance of desire-satisfaction in these circumstances as “selfish,” no matter what its content. Thus, many people arrive at the following composite image: Selfish people are brutish people who are oblivious to the negative consequences of their actions for their friends and loved ones and who abuse the patience, trust, and goodwill of all comers to satisfy their petty whims.  Whilst some may fit that brutish connotation of the word, but labelling them as such blurs the meaning that ‘selfish’ can hold.

“Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live.” Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) (author – the importance of being ernest and more)


“A woman has got to be able to say, and not feel guilty, ‘Who am I, and what do I want out of life?’ She mustn’t feel selfish and neurotic if she wants goals of her own, outside of husband and children.’’ Betty Friedan (massive feminist from the US)

Many see the word as a 2 dimensional thing: something that is only the opposite of generous and nothing more. Whilst on the face of it I guess that could be true, I think there’s a deeper significance if someone is termed as selfish.

Ayn Rand was a Russian born American writer. She used her writing to promote her philosophical and political ideas (sneaky) Rand advocated reason as the only means of acquiring knowledge, and rejected faith and religion. She supported rational and ethical egoism, and rejected altruism. In politics, she condemned the initiation of force as immoral, and opposed collectivism and statism (communism, absolute monarchy etc)  as well as anarchism, and instead supported laissez-faire capitalism, which she defined as the system based on recognising individual rights. (Which sounds like one of those ‘good on paper’ movements)  She called her philosophy “Objectivism”, describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’’ (sometime in 1992) maybe don’t take this lady too seriously though – she is famous for saying – you only need three As when it comes to the history of philosophy ; Aristotle,  Aquinas, and Ayn Rand (…) but this idea of a reasonable selfishness is what I needed to substantiate. (and why Ayn was necessary)

The word for “selfish” in Greek is  “philautos”,  which is more often translated “self lover” or ‘lover of self’. Aristotle thought that a great man is selfish, and that such a trait is a virtue. This is significant. He’s worth listening too – he taught Alexander the great, and was a student of Plato. Big minds.

So this blueprint of the word selfish is more like a rational self-interest. This idea that selfishness is not whim based, not crude; but open to the ideas that humans are a social being, with needs on the physical and social stage. It’s more a case of maximising value: of interaction with others, self-support and the minimising of damage or loss.  Thus; selfish humans are essential.

“To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.” Gustave Flaubert (1821 – 1880) (that old famous dead French author – Madame Bovary)

So maybe we all need to be just as selfish, and just amp up the stupidity?


I shall leave it there for now, but definitely a subject to be revisited.


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