Why Selfishness is OK

A debate as old as philosophy itself has long predominated the minds of both academics and ordinary citizens. In specific, whether we are able of genuine altruism or not; whether we are all selfish or not. Many have some say or opinion on the matter, a testament to the weight of the subject.

And as old as the debate itself, the opinion that humans are of a genuine ability to be altruistic permeates the topic. Said view usually finds itself pitted against one which believes all acts are selfish. More formally put, two views which compose the majority of clashes on the subject matter are altruism and egoism. 

The altruists believe entirely that some actions can be done not for the sake of themselves but instead for the sake of others. In comparison, the egoists believe that all actions are done not for the sake of others but instead for the sake of themselves. 

As a result, we clearly have two world-views that have little, if any, compatibility. So who has the better view, the altruists or egoists?

At first, I find many people develop, or have been told by society, a narrative about altruism and egoism that makes them deem altruism the victor. But I believe the narrative to not only be false, but to also be the wrong choice. I believe being selfish is not only ok, but inescapable. 

To understand, however, why I hold such views, we are best to understand the narrative commonly given about altruism and egoism.

The Narrative of Altruism Versus Egoism

In society, it is common to suppose altruism is virtuous or preferable. There are many reasons as to why altruism is deemed so, but one notable factor comes from governments. What sensible government would ever encourage their citizenry to betray one another or to never look out or take care of one another? A government can only be as strong as the unity and cooperation between their people, after all. And so, governments understand very much so the importance of preaching altruism. To place altruism in institutions of education and learning, so as to condition the minds of the youth, is by now commonplace. To preach the importance of charity and community effort, at the sacrifice of the individual, is so ingrained into society that it has become second nature for many; only because, in part, governments have encouraged so thoroughly the idea of altruism. 

Altruism is seen as admirable, morally righteous, and useful. Those who are altruistic are of high morality, they are seen as those who make sacrifices for others; they prioritize the needs of others at the expense of their own needs; they make infinitely many more contributions to society than they themselves take from society. Altruism is what the mob wants, it is what society wants, and it is what individuals cannot understand.

And because being altruistic is seen as such an intrinsic good, to be anything other than an altruist can result in social shaming. And the fear of ostracization can compound further the widespread adoption of altruism; no one wants to be isolated, no one wants to lose their social status by holding unfavourable opinions. 

So, many people are sufficiently persuaded to be altruists; they prefer not only to be adorned and held morally superior, but also to avoid the ostracization and scorn which comes coupled to being an outright egoist. 

In part, that scorn and ostracization for egoism comes from a serious misunderstanding about egoism. People see egoists as anti-social, greedy, not empathetic, and freeloading, to name a few traits.

Egoists are viewed as anti-social because they hold themselves and only themselves in the highest regard: egoists are selfish. And so, rather than help others attain their wants and needs, the egoist cares only about their own wants and needs, even to the point where they use others to achieve their ends.

Egoists are greedy and freeloading because their selfishness drives them to only take rather than give; egoists drain resources from society at a rate far greater than any potential replenishment. Much like a mosquito, egoists are annoyances and unhelpful for the maintenance of society. 

That is, approximately so, how society views the debate between egoism and altruism. Altruism courageously gallops around atop their stupendously tall horse, while egoists sway from the coat-tails of empathetic individuals. To be an egoist is to be evil and non-preferable, to be an altruist is virtuous and preferable.

Why Altruism is Incoherent

Altruism is incoherent. We have no way to make sense of altruism, so much so that I cannot identify altruism with anything other than selfishness. When I consider what altruism is in reference to, I reliably arrive at egoism. But why?

The meaning of selfish is, and therefore the meaning of egoism is, “concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” Which is a seemingly distinct definition from altruism, that being: “disinterested and selfless concern for the wellbeing of others”. We appear to have a clear distinction between selfishness and altruism. Though the reason why altruism is incoherent, and the reason why we are all selfish, comes from the fact that those definitions are only seemingly different rather than being actually different.

To see, think skeptically about why someone acts in some manner or another, ask what answer would be given upon questioning their motivation. Upon doing so, like a loose leaf, barely attached to a tree, their altruism shall flutter away amid skeptical winds and swirl hopelessly back to the earth from which it came. Altruism recedes back down to the foundation, for altruism stems from selfish roots. 

To be altruistic is to express some want or desire; to be altruistic is to do that which concerns the altruist; to be altruistic is to be concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

A self-proclaimed altruist helps others because they want to; if they choose to take a bullet for another, then that is because they wanted to be someone who had taken a wound intended for another; if they gave to others their hard earned money, then that is because they wanted to be someone who shares their wealth with others. An altruist wants to help others because they are pleasure seeking; to derive pleasure from something is precisely what they are after.

Altruism and Egoism Revisited

It is as though society held our heads in place and forced us to look at what they deemed proper. To take primary concern in the needs of others is, we are told, the virtuous thing to do. Yet we now know, those who pursue altruism pursue nothing more than the pleasure derived from being an appeaser or conformist.

With our enlightened understanding of selfishness, we now see those who claim to be altruists for what they really are. The scam that is the mainstream narrative on these matters of altruism and egoism has been spotted, and the scammers are the altruists. Their true colours have been shown. 

Altruists are hedonic pleasure seekers, they are in pursuit of all the social admiration which can be grabbed; they are after acceptance and welcome from all who they help; they are narcissistic and self-centred, concerned primarily with no one other than themselves; and they are deceitful in temperament, for unlike the egoist, they deny and masquerade their selfishness as something other than what it is. An altruist is neither virtuous nor selfless; an altruist is someone who supposes their selfish behaviour to be superior to the selfish behaviour of others; an altruist is someone who cannot be trusted, for they are either unaware or deceitful.

Egoists are, comparably, much more honest about the affairs of others and themselves. Egoists accept that everyone behaves in accordance to their own wants and desires, unlike the altruist. Egoists accept that all their actions and beliefs serve their own wants and desires, and they are most willingly to inform others of that fact. Egoists make no attempt to hide their selfishness, they make no attempt to deceive others, and they make no attempt to lay claim to moral superiority. 

We would all be less confused, more honest, and able to negotiate much better if we all became comfortable with our selfish natures. We would all benefit from being open about our own egoism. 

It is ok to be an egoist; it is ok to be selfish. To recognize our own inherent selfishness is a good thing.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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