On Selfishness

Many years ago now I had an epiphany: all of us are selfish, there is no such thing as selflessness, and, moreover, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this. In fact, I think if you look around at the world we inhabit, we may be tempted instead to say that there is something wrong with the demonization of selfishness.

Let me try to explain.

When I was in my mid twenties I went through what could be called a spiritual crisis. I had identified myself as a Christian, although I had serious misgivings about the interpretations of Christianity that I had been brought up into.

One thing plagued me: how can the Church teach that selfishness is wrong when the very motivation to become a Christian is always couched in terms of what it can do for you? Isn’t the desire to end your suffering selfishness? What about the desire for eternal life? For joy in life?

Now, as I discussed this with others, the constant refrain was “but it cannot be selfishness, because you’re not trying to take from someone else; a Christian life is a life of service.”

Now, I don’t currently identify myself as a Christian these days–I haven’t since this spiritual crises, in fact. But even non-Christians, atheists, in fact, argue against selfishness on the grounds that it is not good to hurt others.

But the assumptions here are multifold. First, we assume that selfishness involves hurting others, or at least not taking others into account when taking actions. But I want to ask: but why is this wrong? And the answer I get back usually comes down to “because it’s not good for you.” The Christian would have to argue something along the lines of either “it’s against god’s will” or “because a Christian has in his or her nature through Christ the desire to love and serve others.”

Now, supposing this all to be true–and it may not be, but let’s roll with it. Aren’t we still relying upon selfishness, in the end? You must make reference to something I want in order to argue that I SHOULD do something; there’s no getting around it. Contradicting god’s will results in punishment–or hell. Going against my new Christ nature, my desire to serve others, will result in unfulfillment.

Let’s suppose this wasn’t the case. Can you think of a reason that I should do something that does not claim some benefit for me, either short or long term?

And if it doesn’t, why should I engage in it?

The truth is that “good” must mean “good for you” in some sense. We wouldn’t call it good if it’s ultimate result were bad for you ultimately.

Most of us agree that helping others has positive benefits, even if that benefit be the feeling of joy I get when I do so. Can you imagine if helping others made you feel depressed and empty inside? Then clearly, it wouldn’t be worth it to do it!

A related assumption here is that selfishness pertains to materialistic ends. I think that’s extremely shortsighted, and I think it fails to take into account the multiple dimensions of being human.

I won’t be discussing what has ultimate value here, because I think it’s far too complex to write at the moment. But I will say that value lies on a hierarchy; I may value happiness more than money for example. In fact, the motivation to accumulate money itself is for the ultimate end of happiness. So if you can get happiness in a different way–say, from helping others–you are acting as selfishly as anyone else.

I can’t tell you what to value; value is totally subjective. But I can tell you that you will desire what you value, or what you perceive yourself to value. And selfishness is all about acting on your desires.

One more objection here: “but what if in the pursuit of attaining your ends, you hurt another person? Clearly you shouldn’t do this, correct?”

But again, your “shouldn’t do” must be connected to a reason rooted in MY self-interest. If you don’t believe me, feel free to share your reasons here in the comments!

I believe that each individual has an intrinsic interest in keeping our world healthy and in improving humanity. And I think being open about this selfishness is the greatest motivator for actually doing something about it.

Rather than tell someone they are committing some ephemeral moral wrong, we’d be better off linking service to others and to the earth with selfishness.

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