Did you ever stop to think about the meaning of the word “selfish”? We’re all taught from childhood that selfishness is the epitome of evil. But is that true? Or does selfishness—rational selfishness—actually represent something good?
In weighing this concept, here are three questions to ask yourself:
1. What Does “Selfish” Really Mean?
The typical answer is that it stands for the kind of amoral, predatory behavior of Bernie Madoff and Attila the Hun. Selfishness is supposedly personified by someone who victimizes others, or someone who lies, cheats, and kills in order to gratify his own whims.
But let’s pause for a moment to challenge that view.
After all, selfishness means a concern with your own interests. To be selfish is to care about your own life and well-being. If so, what if you support your life and advance your interests without victimizing others? A mailroom clerk who works diligently for his paycheck, a college student who resolutely spends time studying rather than partying, an industrious entrepreneur who grows rich by developing an iPad and an iPhone, an artist dedicated to creating a work that fully meets his independent standards—these are all examples of genuine, rational selfishness.
Such people do not benefit at the expense of others. They seek their self-interest not by looting, but by earning what they get. They are self-responsible, self-supporting, self-respecting individuals who succeed by their own efforts. They don’t sacrifice themselves to others, nor others to themselves. Shouldn’t this type of behavior represent the true meaning of selfishness? And shouldn’t we want to emulate it?
2. What Does the Alternative of Altruism, or Self-Sacrifice, Really Mean?
Well, it’s commonly interpreted as a call to respect the rights of others and to deal with people cooperatively rather than exploitatively. But consider what the code of altruism actually demands.
It tells you to subordinate yourself to others. It declares that your own desires should be less important to you than someone else’s. Thus, no matter how diligently you may have worked to earn your money, whenever you spend it on yourself rather than on the fulfillment of someone else’s needs, you are acting immorally. To comply with the tenets of altruism, you must be willing to sacrifice yourself and serve the needs of others.
But if you ask the simple question, “Why?” then there is no logical answer. It’s perfectly appropriate to give charity out of genuine benevolence to innocent victims of misfortune. But why should someone’s need create a moral claim against you? Why should you have a duty to live as a servant to others?
3. Can Moral Principles Be Reconciled With Rational Selfishness?
Certainly. Take honesty, for instance. Honesty is the principle that you should seek your values within the real world, not attempt to enter a counterfeit domain outside it. It’s the principle that you should live with and by the facts, because trying to achieve your goals by faking reality is self-defeating in the long term. Honesty is not a command to sacrifice yourself, but the opposite: a prescription for attaining your self-interest. It is the recognition that if you place yourself in conflict with reality, by living in a world of lies, you are engaging in a war you must ultimately lose.
The same is true for principles such as justice or integrity. They are our indispensable tools for acknowledging facts of reality, which means: for successfully achieving our goals.
So, the next time you pursue some ambition, and refuse to sacrifice it, be proud to say you are acting selfishly.
Peter Schwartz is the author of In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Altruism Is Unjust and Destructive, and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA.