Exactly as the title says. Tell me why being selfish is wrong.

I'm not of the opinion that a rational, considered self-interest is wrong. I think it's usually the best way to go. In fact, I would say it's kind of like our default setting, but I've seen quite a few people post recently about how being selfless is good. I disagree.

Why do you think that selflessness is good? Why do you think that selfishness is bad? Do you think it's the other way around? Or maybe neither is good nor bad?

Tags: Selfish, bad, good, morality, selfless

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Just to be clear though I was wrong in saying that Selfish has a negative connotation. I should have said that it is commonly thought to have a bad connotation. As where you would like to use it more commonly in the other context It helps to use more specific term(s).

 Connotation points out limitations is all. One thing is for sure "warm" is limited to that. 

"it's warm out here"

"what do you mean by warm?"

I don't think being selfish is wrong. I just think acting selfless is commendable where selfishness is as you said just the base, default, primitive response.

The Earth existed for hundreds of billions of years with the ethics of animals. I would consider them as mostly selfish/self interested (with lots of exceptions--ants and bees come to mind). In those billions of years they eventually dominated the planet and if it were not for an ultimately catastrophic event, they would still be here and none of us would exist.

In a fraction of that time, mankind developed a culture which would include a broader sense of self, more than just family and village, one of the amazing developments of humankind was the state. To include the state as part of your self interest, there is often a cost to the individual--a need for some level of selflessness. In fact, if you pay your taxes, you are participating in selflessness, providing sustenance for people you will never meet, building roads you will never drive on, providing defense to you in ways you have no control over (to many peoples chagrin).

So, in my estimation, selflessness at levels that our society has adopted have proven their usefulness to the future of our species. So I'm going to put that in the good file, because in my selfish life, I benefit from all of the advancements that were driven to a great extent by the selflessness of our ancestors, paying their taxes, fighting and even dying in wars they may not believe in, giving of themselves to the benefit of others. 

Selfishness did eventually rule the earth, but since the dinosaurs never came up with the internet or a cool website like TA where we could discuss this stuff, I would say selfishness is not as good as selflessness.

p.s. Ants and bees have also conquered the earth, and have many aspects of selflessness.

"To include the state as part of your self interest, there is often a cost to the individual--a need for some level of selflessness."

There might be a cost, but there is also a benefit. If there was no benefit I would consider it selfless, but as it is, the relative security and stability offered by a functioning government is a fairly hefty benefit. It might seem selfless, but there is (or at least can be) a fair amount of self-interest.

"fighting and even dying in wars they may not believe in, giving of themselves to the benefit of others."

There are a lot of reasons to fight in a war. Few of them are completely selfless. Some of them aren't even noble. You'll have to trust me when I say that there is no one in the military (I only know because I'm in it) who would willingly give up all the benefits that come with it. While patriotism does play a part in volunteering to some degree, the immediate material benefits also play a part to, what has been my experience, a much larger degree. There are a lot of people who have joined and tried to join in the last three years just to have a steady job. They still go over and fight and die just like anyone else, but they are professional Soldiers. It's a career. There is also the fact that anyone who might join to "fight for freedom" as it were has an equal share in that freedom the same as any other citizen. Vets don't come back and hand over all their rights for the rest of their life.

As for this website... do you really think it's a charity and the people who run it don't make a dime, yet still pour their time into it? Selflessness did not create this website (or the internet for that matter), it was a vested self-interest.

And even volunteers and donors who give up time and/or money to a cause, do it for a cause they find important.  To build a world more resembling the one the want to be in.  In other words as often as not, they are doing it in their own long term self interest.

I think Melvinotis is thinking of selfishness in the "shortsighted" sense of the term.

Oh as long as I am here let me respond to another of his/her points:

In fact, if you pay your taxes, you are participating in selflessness, providing sustenance for people you will never meet, building roads you will never drive on, providing defense to you in ways you have no control over (to many peoples chagrin).

Or it could be that people who would rather not are afraid of the consequences of not doing so.  It's not a selfless act if, ultimately, it is compelled--it is also not a selfish act.  In fact you can't put any moral evaluation on it at all, as the person doing the act has no real choice.  In many cases, in fact, you can't even refuse to pay the tax and then suffer the (deliberately outsized, the better to ensure compliance) consequences, as the money is withheld from your paycheck before you see it, or added on to the cost of your purchase as a condition of the sale.

"The Earth existed for hundreds of billions of years with the ethics of animals. I would consider them as mostly selfish/self interested (with lots of exceptions--ants and bees come to mind). In those billions of years they eventually dominated the planet and if it were not for an ultimately catastrophic event, they would still be here and none of us would exist."

'..hundreds of billions of years...'

'6000 years' is a little short, but '..hundreds of billions..' is a lot longer. Viable multi-celled creatures much less than '..hundreds of billions of years..'. Only a minor quible...

I figure he probably meant "hundreds of millions" (which would have been spot on for multicellular life) and typoed.

b - n - m

Going backwards, I stand corrected on hundreds of millions rather than hundreds of billions, I wasn't trying to make the case for single cell organisms. Unfortunately it wasn't a typo, I was unclear on the concept. I saw a cool chart today that cleared all that up.

What I was trying to say about dinosaurs was that their sense of the world went to the end of their noses, or their local territory at least as far as we can tell. (To our knowledge, there was no "Hitlersaur" or "Stalinosaur" out taking the lives of any other beings other than for their own limited interests of food or defence or even comfort.)

So my comment is upon the scope of their understanding of the world. Ours is different, and quite a bit broader. As a result, we have an option of bringing our scope back to ourselves (selfishness) but we have the added option of concern for others (selflessness).

That we use the increased concept of scope at all gives us strength in numbers that does not exist in the animal kingdom. I am sure it is rarely used as the only reason to do a particular task, but it certainly is used as one of the factors in almost all of our actions. A soldier might be in it for the job, but patriotism (selflessness) will still likely be a factor, because the potential costs are so high.

TA reference was that in many millions of years, dinosaurs did not come up with the internet.

And even volunteers and donors who give up time and/or money to a cause, do it for a cause they find important.  To build a world more resembling the one the want to be in.  In other words as often as not, they are doing it in their own long term self interest.

I think Melvinotis is thinking of selfishness in the "shortsighted" sense of the term.


Ok, but if we muddy the waters of long term selflessness vs. short term selflessness, isn't that a totally different argument, rendering the current question moot? If everything we do is self interested, regardless of cost, then there is not a chance for actions to be good or bad if I follow you correctly.

I think there is a semantics issue. 'Self-interest' is a useful abridged definition for 'selfish', but it is an imperfect synonym. The term 'selfish' typically refers to self-interested acts or motives at the expense or to exclusion of the interests of others.

The OED states:

selfish: deficient in consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure; actuated by self-interest

self-interest: 1 one's personal interest or advantage. 2 concern for one's interest or advantage

selfless: disregarding oneself or one's own interests; unselfish

Under these definitions, 'selfish' and 'self-interest' can be used interchangeably to some extent, but I do not think it is advisable in this context. Imagine there is a cake cut into six equal pieces and there are six people who all equally desire cake. As one of those people, it is in my own interest to take a piece of cake. If each person takes just one piece, each acts in balanced self-interest. If I take three pieces of cake for myself, this is also in my own interest; however, my actions result in a detriment to the interest of others. It is this scenario for which the term 'selfish' is generally reserved. If I take no piece of cake so that others can have more, there may be a touch of self-interest if the sacrifice makes me feel good, but cake-wise I've acted to my own detriment. It is this scenario for which we generally reserve the term selfless.

In this cake context, I would say that the selfish and selfless courses of action are both unnecessary and, frankly, stupid. We have to provide for ourselves, yet we have to accept that others must do the same. In this instance balance is readily attainable so why not attain it?

If we take this cake scenario into the real world, all sorts of complications would arise. Not everyone will have equal need or desire for cake, not everyone will have made the same investment in acquiring the cake, there may be six pre-cut pieces but five people or perhaps seven (and so on and so forth). Realistically, perfect equality and balance will not be achieved and I don't think anyone should be a fierce slave to it. That said, my fundamental considerations are based in the original scenario. My core values are to attain some level of balance between my own interests and those of others. Often enough, those two interests end up being the same anyway.

At a fundamental level, I don't think that it needs to be more complicated than this. Selfishness and selflessness are reserved for the extremes where the result of my actions is almost inconsequential, or where the consequences are so dire than I cannot afford to consider balance. In the latter case I expect considerable consequences either way and accept that.

While my position is not particularly profound or insightful, I do think this is one of those cases where people overcomplicate the issue.

"Under these definitions, 'selfish' and 'self-interest' can be used interchangeably to some extent, but I do not think it is advisable in this context. Imagine there is a cake cut into six equal pieces and there are six people who all equally desire cake. As one of those people, it is in my own interest to take a piece of cake. If each person takes just one piece, each acts in balanced self-interest. If I take three pieces of cake for myself, this is also in my own interest; however, my actions result in a detriment to the interest of others. It is this scenario for which the term 'selfish' is generally reserved. If I take no piece of cake so that others can have more, there may be a touch of self-interest if the sacrifice makes me feel good, but cake-wise I've acted to my own detriment. It is this scenario for which we generally reserve the term selfless."

I have two issues with the analogy.

The first being that 6 strangers do not magically stumble across some random cake. If this was an actual situation, then that cake belongs to some one either through making the cake or through purchase. It is up to that person to decide how to (or if at all) to share that cake. If that person wants to keep half of the cake that belongs to them for themselves, then so be it. It's not my cake to determine what the rules are. So in this instance, who own the cake matters.

Second, 6 strangers do not magically stumble across some random cake. When it comes to matters of sharing, the people involved generally know each other and have a personal relationship with one another. If you don't treat those in your life with a certain respect (like taking more than an equal share before others had a chance to claim theirs), then you aren't acting in your own interest. You would be acting counter to it.

In essence, I agree with your post, if not on the exactness of the semantics. I see selfishness as a one idea having two parts: rational and irrational. Both are selfish, but one's better for the acting individual  than the other. Even the definitions that you have given equate self-interest with selfishness. That's the point I'm trying to make. There is a type selfishness that no rational person can say is bad or somehow immoral, but that doesn't mean that it isn't selfishness.

"The first being that 6 strangers do not magically stumble across some random cake."

Such was never stated, and such complications and variables were acknowledged in the post. This is not a disagreement with your considerations, but the purpose of the hypothetical scenario was to illustrate basic principle. The fact that it doesn't represent all variables may make it seem unrealistic; however, this is not entirely true. In real life, our perspective is too limited to appreciate every variable so we have to act without taking everything into consideration. This is where principles are especially valuable. Sure, given different context and variables, my principles will manifest into different actions, but the root of those actions still remains fairly constant.

"Even the definitions that you have given equate self-interest with selfishness."

They don't equate, but they do overlap. Elements exist in one definition which do not exist in the other. My position is not that your usage is incorrect, but rather that the distinction is worth preserving in the context of this thread. In my opinion, the type of selfishness to which people typically object resides in that distinction.

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