Column on Revisiting Selfishness

Revisiting Selfishness

Tibor R. Machan

Because I am always eager to do well for myself–have done this for as long as I can recall, starting with wanting to succeed in school, on the athletic field, in trying to be healthy and fit, and wanting to escape the brutal Soviets when I was only 14–I always pay attention to people who denigrate selfishness. After all, I and most people I know well or even just a bit seem to me to be like me, are concerned to do well for themselves. None of them routinely wastes resources; none makes pointless sacrifices but tends, instead, to aim for good deals; and even those who are dedicated to helping their fellows pick and choose carefully–the reckless ones aren’t receiving much aid, nor the vicious ones, only those who have shown some concern for themselves but have met with obstacles not easy to overcome. In other words, even in being generous and charitable, those who try to do well for themselves tend to receive more than those who are literally unselfish.

So then why are so many who speak up about how we ought to act make a special effort to denigrate self-interested conduct?

One could be cynical and give the answer that of course it is of possible benefit to people to urge others to be generous and charitable and not care for themselves but for others, instead, including those doing the urging. They are, after all, among these others whom they implore that they should look out for. So, then, is it a kind of perverse selfishness that may motivate people who preach unselfishness?

Or there is the less cynical view that many people have a very narrow idea of themselves and all they seem to want to do is fulfill some momentary urges, not really enhance their lives properly. This may well be the view of selfishness that many condemn but it’s a very impoverished idea of the human self that’s involved here. Like the self of a drug addict or gluttonous person. Such people think of themselves as no more than a bundle of raw, irrational desires, never mind what ultimately would contribute to their lives, what would indeed be to their proper self-interest.

Another idea is that the self for many people belongs in this earthly life and what they really want is happiness for eternity–everlasting salvation. But that is actually quite selfish since such folks give up something they see as not very important for something else that they consider all important, their eternal spiritual selves. And it is all a great bargain, if you think about it: you give up joys and pleasures for about 65 years of your earthly life so as to obtain bliss forever. Not a bad deal, me thinks.

Now of course all this championing of selflessness or unselfishness and dissing of selfishness cannot be right. Nearly everyone tries to take decent care of himself or herself first. Then if there is time and stuff left, helping others can also become important. But only if those others are deserving and don’t waste the help, wont squander it. For most even here a bit of pitching in to try to set negligent folks on the straight path will be OK but not if it is futile. Other people, after all, are not unfamiliar to us and their struggles often generate sympathy, even empathy. Up to a point, after which they are digging their own holes of self-defeat. In other words, one can be generous and charitable to a fault! And one shouldn’t be.

Another reason a proper measure of self-regard is to be applauded is that people tend to know much more about what will enhance their own lives, or they at least are in the best position to find out, than do their fellows. So helping people comes down too often to meddling in their affairs, even creating messes for them with all that butting in. Here is where quite apart from whether it is their proper job, politicians and bureaucrats make much more trouble than they and their cheerleaders admit. It is not easy to know what will make someone’s life better, other than in some rare cases which amount to emergencies and very simple help. So urging people to be unselfish amounts, in many instances, to removing the best support they could get in their lives, namely, their own!

The drive to besmirch proper selfishness is a misanthropic one. It shows disdain for people, promotes their sense of ineptitude. So I recommend that everyone follow the motto I have made up as my bumper sticker: “Assert yourself, thoughtfully!”

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4 Responses to Column on Revisiting Selfishness

  1. commonviews1 says:

    just a general comment, I happily saw your interview on C-span and I`m encouraged about farther looking into your quotes and opinions. I`m at the time in my life were political policies and consequences of elections are the utmost importance. your leadership will help with understanding the relevance of this political war we are presently in.

  2. Ryan says:

    Do you believe that some individuals conflate ‘self – interest’ with the ‘selfishness’, in some instances, Dr.?

    ‘Selfishness’, purely from a phraseological perspective; may carry an intrinsic negative connotation.

    I believe ‘self – interest’ has a more widely receptive audience, as it were, in our society. It evokes the concept of self – determination, usually considered a positive principle in our culture.

    I sometimes wonder if this is the difficulty Ms. Rand experienced in her insistence on the utilization of ‘selfishness’. I understand she was attempting to be intellectually provocative in ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’. Mission accomplished.

    Alas, I sometimes ponder if the the semantics of the matter profoundly influences this particular argument more so than in normally the case.

    • szatyor2693 says:

      When one understands the human self correctly, selfishness turns out to be benign. The trouble is with the influence of Hobbes and Freud about what is the human self.

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