Are you selfish or selfless?

The more I think about the nature of selfishness, the more transparent it becomes that all moral and noble acts are selfish. It’s so obvious, (but then everything is in hindsight) I can’t believe I didn’t come to this conclusion myself long before reading Ayn Rand. But the reason I didn’t, and many people haven’t, is due to the corruption of the language and concepts involved.

Obviously selfishness is assumed to be evil and bad in almost all cultures today, and altruism and selflessness deemed to be good. It’s interesting that this is the moral code of religion which atheists have blindly adopted too, but that’s another discussion. Selfishness is taken to mean acting without any regard for others, sacrificing them to oneself, whilst selflessness is taken to be acting for the good of others without regard for oneself. However, Ayn Rand identified a huge flaw with this thinking, namely a false dichotomy; we are left with two polar options that exclude another type of interaction between humans: behaviour that requires no sacrifice of anyone to anyone else!

“How can this be?”, some might ask. “Surely, ultimately, we are acting either for ourselves or others?” This is actually true. All choices and actions we take, however large or small, are in pursuit of values. The question is, are those values our own or others’? Values are things which living beings strive to gain or keep to further their lives. Notice that: their lives. We pursue food, to further our lives. We pursue careers, music, art, entertainment, love – because they further and enhance our lives. All our values are directed at one thing: our lives. If this weren’t true, we would actually strive to acquire values that were of no benefit to our lives, or even detrimental to them. But if this were so, they wouldn’t be “values” since they wouldn’t be valuable. A value is only a value if it’s a positive enhancement. And of course the thing we must all strive to enhance, either consciously or otherwise, is our own lives.

“But I strive to enhance the lives of others!”, some might object. That’s true and I’ll get onto that. But first reconsider the above paragraph: it is only your continued life that allows you to take any action, pursue any value. If you’re dead or incapacitated, you can’t act for the enhancement of anyone. It is therefore life which makes value possible. Your own life gives rise to your values. Before we pursue anything, we must first pursue our own lives.

“Well, that’s obvious enough. What’s your point?” The pursuit of our own values (and therefore life) is a selfish act. We must evaluate things in our life, judge them as worthy, evaluate them as positive or negative, and pursue or avoid them. Each of us has to do this. No one can think for us, and we cannot think for another. We must act in our self-interest, because the alternative is misery and (ultimately) death. This may sound dramatic or radical, but it’s undeniably so: eventually you are either pursuing life, or its opposite.

“But if each of us pursues our own lives, what becomes of relationships?” Actually, it is only self-interested behaviour that allows for the beauty of human relationships; family, friendship and lovers. Consider: every person you hold dear is a value in your life. As such, they enhance and further it. It is positively selfish to have friends and lovers. If it weren’t, the people in our lives would actually be those we didn’t care for at all! But the best part is that just as the people in our lives are our selfish concern, so we are theirs in their life! What sort of friendship would it be if our “friends” were not values to us, but we maintained contact out of duty or guilt or fear? Would you want someone as a friend under these terms? Would someone want a lover based on force or blackmail? What sort of meaningful relationship could exist if the person we wanted didn’t really want us? And who would want another person who wanted us but whom we felt nothing for?

Obviously, self-interest is at the heart of not only every rational action of individuals, but it is the foundation of all honest human relationships. In voluntary relationships, both parties give, both receive, but no one loses out! This is the essence of the idea of not giving more than you should, nor withholding more than you should. A relationship where one gives and gives but doesn’t receive requires the sacrifice of yourself to another. A relationship where one takes and takes and never gives requires the sacrifice of another to yourself. No one wants a relationship like that. But this is the very definition of selflessness!: sacrifice, altruism, self-denial. Yet no proper human relationship could or does work this way.

The notion of selflessness has corrupted and bastardised the true virtue of selfishness, to the point where good noble actions towards other people have been couched in altruistic terms – as if it were not possible to be selfish and also be good towards other people. But as we’ve seen, not only is it possible, it is only selfishness that allows true benevolence to others.

“But what about strangers, whom aren’t a value in our lives? Surely that means they mean nothing to us and we shouldn’t regard them?” It is true that strangers are of significantly less value to us than people we know. But there are very practical and moral reasons to be kind to others, based on self-interest of course. Consider the simple act of holding a door open for another. This may appear to be putting yourself, rendering a service expecting nothing in return. But not so! If I hold a door open, I lose nothing except seconds of time. In exchange I get a thank you or smile from another thinking person, a person like me, one of my own kind – which makes me feel good. I have helped someone at no cost to myself, another bonus. I have directly contributed to a feeling of good-will between individuals, and since society is nothing more than a collection of individuals, I have contributed positively to the society I live in. This might encourage other people to act the same, and obviously living in a society of good-willed people is a selfish concern of mine – it is much preferable than living in a society of cutthroat thoughtless thugs. I also go up in that person’s estimation; they think higher of me and I want people to think highly of me, because it might open up opportunities for me down the line.

In fact to deny this is patently stupid: who would assert that consistently acting negatively to others is actually in one’s self-interest? Consider the person who consistently acts with disregard for other people. That person consistently loses the estimation and praise of others (a selfish and often necessary requirement), and their personal and professional relationships. What would we think of the self-esteem of such a person? If they do not bother (or care) to act in their own self-interest, they cannot have a very high opinion of themselves to consider themselves worthy of their own benefit. If they cannot care to pursue their lives, they certainly cannot care about others’. And no one would want that person as a friend. And why? Because friendship only works between selfish individuals. The selfless person is thoughtless and self-destructive, since they care less about their own life. Now think how ridiculous it is to assert, for example, that a thrill-seeking drug abuser is acting selfishly: to act for your own destruction without regard for one’s life or the thoughts of others is actually the most selfless thing one could do! Only a virtuous selfish individual abstains from short-term pleasures due to rational long-term goals. Such is the ultimate act of a healthy ego.

To briefly return to the issue of our values versus those of others – there is no competition here. If someone is a value in your life, their values become your values – and the pursuit of those is still selfish. To deny this would be to claim, for instance, that whilst you care about your child you don’t care if they do well in school or not. Or, that whilst you love your partner, it is irrelevant to you whether they exercise regularly or drink themselves into an early grave.

Being selfish in relationships forces us (in a casual sense) to cultivate positive qualities which make us more valuable to those we care about. Notice how we gain by becoming a better person and the other person gains to? And neither loses out. In fact, because we are a value in the lives of others, and the values of others are values to us, we become our own values! Likewise, the other person is not only a value to us but also to themselves through us. What perfect harmony! How does this manifest itself? Well there are countless ways but some obvious ones could be wanting to keep ourselves healthy (and more attractive), or better educated (and a better communicator), or braver, bolder, more confident. In short, whatever benefits us benefits the other, and whatever benefits them enhances us. But none of this would be possible on a foundation of sacrifice and self-denial.

There are extreme examples of selfishness, such as in emergencies, that are beyond the scope of this article. But to address them very briefly: it’s possible that another person is such an immense value in our lives that life without them would be unbearable. It such situations, we would be prepared to undergo anything to help them, perhaps even at the cost of our own lives. But this too, is selfish. The person who denies this essentially says that dying to save a lover is no different than dying to save an enemy. What’s the difference? The difference is selfishness. We don’t care about the enemy. We care about our lover. Our value, in our life.

So are you selfish or selfless? I’m selfish. In fact I strive to be a little more selfish every day. And I’m proud of it.

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8 Responses to “Are you selfish or selfless?”

  1. Sacrificing Others, Sacrificing Self, and Ayn Rand’s Third Way – Non-Sacrifice « Rogue Operator Says:

    […] yourself a favor and read the entire post, especially if you are not of the Objectivist persuasion.  You will find that it just makes […]

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  4. Jerry Johnson Says:

    “If you’re dead or incapacitated, you can’t act for the enhancement of anyone. It is therefore life which makes value possible. Your own life gives rise to your values.”

    I just want to note that this line of reasoning is not the philosophic justification for the premise that “life makes values possible.” This version is utilitarian and limited to the realm of actions.

    According to Rand, it is the hierarchical location of the concept “value” vis-a-vis “life” that is more interesting. Life–as a concept–brings about the corollary of non-life or death. Hence, this introduces dependent concepts like “alternatives” and “choices”. However, alternatives and choices are of no relevance to those entities who do not possess the faculty of volition. Hence, values to animals and plants are largely automatic.

    However, since humans have the faculty of volition–and have to choose to exercise this faculty in a rational manner in the face of alternatives in order to sustain their own lives over the long term–they are confronted with values and dis-values.

    From this point, we can identify moral, prudent, or right choices from immoral, imprudent, or wrong choices, with life as the standard of value.

    Note that as Peikoff said, all values are a species of facts. These are facts that pertain to the relationship between a conceptual consciousness and reality.

  5. akin Says:

    Excellent post, could you please tell me what book(s) by Ayn Rand you got these concepts (selfishness v selflessness) from?

    Thanks.

  6. evanescent Says:

    Akin, I suggest you read “The Virtue of Selfishness”, although almost Rand’s non-fiction works deal with this issue as it is central to her concept of ethics.

  7. Paul Says:

    Selfless acts are done and do involve either figurative death to self or litteral death. Greater love has no man than this that he lay down his life for his friend. It happens everyday, we call them heros.

  8. evanescent Says:

    Which is exactly the sacrificial altruistic self-destructive “morality” that I thoroughly debunked in the article. Giving your life to save someone may or may not be the sign of a hero – but just dying for another doesn’t automatically make you one. I wouldn’t ask a total stranger to die for me, and since I’m not a hypocrite, I wouldn’t die for them.


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