Since publishing Being Selfish I’ve to come to appreciate how dramatically the book’s title riles people up. Apparently, the mere mention of the word “selfish” can ignite a host of sundry emotions from the politely offended to the overtly judgmental.
Why is this so? And why is that many who are quick to judge me as wayward, do so without even reading the book, and are quick to laud the superiority of their own selflessness?
As far as I can tell, at the origin of every action is a self. Each of us has a core sense of “I” and can recognize its intention to experience a unique life. No two humans are identical and no two lives are the same. If we tell the truth, we all feel this sense of uniqueness or specialness, and unless we’re traumatized by an unhealthy familial upbringing, we all feel we deserve a good life—we sense we were born for one.
So why does it irk us when we see others going for their version of a good life (and call them selfish)? And why do we hold ourselves back from going for ours, (and call ourselves selfless)?
The word “selfish” has come to imply egotism, greed, or extreme self absorption; a focus on getting what one wants solely for oneself and often at the expense of others. This definition of selfishness applies equally to material objects as it would to a drive for personal development or self knowledge. Less extreme forms of selfishness might include taking time alone away from one’s family, leaving a job to pursue a dream, or saying no to a particular social custom.
But what if someone’s quest for wealth is predicated on his desire to take care of his village? Or what if someone’s hunt for self knowledge is driven by high levels of anxiety? When we know an individual’s internal motivation does it influence our judgement about whether an action is selfish or not? In other words, does it matter what the person’s objective is, or does the act itself determine selfishness?
And what about selflessness? How do we determine if an action is selfless or not? Does saving someone’s life or donating money to starving children in Africa automatically rank as a selfless act? Does it stand to reason that any act not deemed selfish must by definition be selfless? Or, does someone’s desire to feed starving children in order to receive accolades or prestige change our view?
Can you see our conundrum?
It appears that how we value selfishness and selflessness is a wholly subjective affair. Therefore, the next reasonable step is to look at our own subjectivity.