The Ethics Of… Looking after Number 1

‘Selfish’ is an ugly label to wear, and one that most of us avoid like the plague. I conjures up the image of a greedy miser, a Scrooge who hoards everything for themselves and gives nothing back. Or maybe a manipulative, emotionally abusive partner who sees nothing wrong with hurting others, draining their money and energy with zero concern for the harm they cause, so long as they get what they want. All in all, something no one wants to be.

Selfish is bad

So what if I told you that you, personally, are selfish? Like, really, really selfish, to the point where literally everything you do is 100%, absolutely, utterly about your personal gain?

I’m guessing angry denial would be the first reaction from most, and fair enough too, right? I don’t know most of you, so how could I possibly judge you so harshly? And if I do know you then that only makes it worse because I should know better! Not to toot our collective horns, but it’s a fair bet that if you’re reading a blog about ethics – a blog which consistently demands we all hold ourselves to the highest possible standards– then you’re probably not the sort of person that steals from orphans, right?

But nonetheless, that is exactly what I’m claiming and it’s not just restricted to you: literally everything a person does is entirely motivated by selfishness.

That’s a hell of a statement, hey? And one hell of a cynical view to take about human nature – cynical to the point of being obviously, provably incorrect. What about all the incredible acts of altruism made every day by people to help others? What about the many billions of dollars donated to charitable causes around the world? The hours of volunteer labour donated to causes, purely at the expense of those volunteers? What about all the small sacrifices made daily by parents, families, friends and colleagues to help and protect those they love and care about, or even complete strangers? And what about the giant sacrifices of those that gave their lives, their health, their happiness and their safety in the service of our nation and its people?

How could I ever in a million years describe these acts as ‘selfish’ when they clearly demonstrate the willingness of so many people to sacrifice their own wants and needs for the benefit of others? Isn’t that the precise definition of selfless?

Well, it all comes back to what exactly we mean by ‘selfish’.

Here’s a question for you: think back to the last time you did something selfless. Maybe it was some volunteering, maybe you made a charitable donation, or maybe you just held open the door for someone in the hall. Now tell me; why did you do that selfless thing? Why did you choose to sacrifice your own interests for the benefit of someone else?

There are a million answers I’m sure; to make the world a better place, to help the ones I love, to prevent worse things happening down the track, or maybe, just maybe, because it was the Right Thing To Do. It was just. The benefits outweighed the costs and there was no superior alternative.

And these reasons are indeed noble, but they also don’t answer the question: why did you do them? What about these actions inspired you to undertake them? Why did the inherent nobility of the action, of the sacrifice involved, lead to you deciding to do it?

What was in it for you?

Did it make you feel good? Did it make you feel noble? Did it enhance your reputation in the eyes of others, or give you a story to modestly tell at your next dinner party? Or did it give you valuable experience that you could add to your resume?

This likely sounds like I’m just manipulating the question to suit my answer, but consider this: what if you were asked to do something selfless that only made you feel bad? That had absolutely no upside for you at all?

What if you were asked to give a donation to a political party you disagreed with, or maybe the KKK? What if you were asked to volunteer your time sorting out the filing for a group of grumpy old bastards who alternated between cursing at you and sexually harassing you, in full knowledge that the entire building (files included) was going to be demolished next week?

Or on a very realistic level, what if you held the door open for someone, and instead of thanking you, they simply ignored you? Or worse, got angry at you for implying they couldn’t do it themselves? Would you still be so willing to sacrifice your time, money and energy then? I sure as hell wouldn’t.

Remember how I said it all comes back to what we mean by ‘selfish’ before? Well this is what I was referring to; happiness, satisfaction or even just the knowledge of duty done are all in your personal interests, and yours alone. They benefit no one else. And without these extremely fundamental benefits, why on earth would anyone ever make a more material sacrifice?

Hell, doing so would likely be considered extremely unhealthy! Can you think of an example of a situation where a person pours in everything they have and receives literally nothing in return? How about an abusive relationship? One party slaving with every part of their being to please the other, who offers them nothing back whatsoever. This is unhealthy, extremely so, and there are few of us who wouldn’t try to help that person escape that relationship.

But even under such extreme circumstances as this, the abused partner still gets something out of it – specifically, the illusion that the other person loves them, or the satisfaction of pleasing them. If they didn’t get this incredibly tiny reward for their efforts then why on earth would they stay? Why on earth wouldn’t they try with all their might to escape, even if it cost them injury? Surely the hope of a better life would be better than a situation where they experienced literally no benefit – remembering here that a feeling of safety and security are also benefits, and major reasons a person might not attempt to escape. Sure these benefits are illusionary, but that doesn’t change the fact that the victim genuinely experiences them, and as such, even in these extreme circumstances where perception has no association whatsoever with reality, everyone acts in their self interest.

Or at least what they perceive as their self interest.

This is a critical point, because it marks the distinction between my broad-scale definition of selfishness and our traditionally ‘greedy bastard/manipulative arsehole’ definition. Yes, literally everything you do is motivated entirely by your own benefit (taking an appropriately complete view of benefit) – but this does not automatically mean you exploit or hurt or steal from others for your benefit.

But why not? If, as I’ve argued, all human behaviour boils down to selfishness in the end, why shouldn’t we just embrace that and ‘look out for number 1’? Pretty much for the same reason that we don’t automatically resort to violence to get what we want, even though it is well known for its effectiveness – selfishness at the expense of others may well be highly beneficial for us in the short term, but in the long term this definitely is not going to be the case.

Get a reputation as the guy that never buys a round, or the girl that always happens to forget her wallet when it comes to paying the bill and it’s not going to be long before you’re not getting invited out to lunch any more. Sure, we all know off an abusive prick (of either gender) who somehow never seems short of partners to hurt for their jollies, but while this sort of bullshit might indeed make them feel big at home, it also isolates them from pretty much the entire community – and as the fight against domestic violence rolls on, life is only going to get harder for said abusive pricks.

From a social point of view, despite what some would like us to believe, cooperation is the norm rather than the exception. Sure our economy might well be based on competition, but since competing is easier when you outnumber your competitors, this doesn’t count for much. Add in cooperative (or dare I say, socialist?) institutions like government, social security, communities, friends and indeed, family, and the idea that individualistic competition rules modern society is looking pretty hollow.

So what is the difference between the two then? What distinguishes ‘good’ selfishness from ‘bad’ selfishness? Well, accuracy – specifically an accurate understanding or perception of what is actually in our interest.

Both an abusive partner and their victim believe that their actions are in their benefits (or can’t accept any differently), but is this true? Of course not – the arrangement is hugely damaging to both of them, especially compared to the alternatives. Similarly, someone who has a habit of ‘forgetting’ their wallet when it comes to paying for lunch believes this cheap behaviour is in their interests – it saves them fat stacks, yo. But look at the bigger picture and this is going to end badly for them; even if they genuinely enjoy having no friends, the supply of free lunches is going to dry up pretty damn fast.

Contrast this to self interest that is well informed: a good, healthy loving relationship is indeed in the personal your personal interests – but it is also in the interests of your partner. Sure, your involvement, including your sacrifices, might be entirely based on the benefits they eventually give you, but so what? You win, they win, it costs you both a little effort – where’s the downside?

Ultimately selfish is not really the dirty word we often make it out to be, and understanding this can help us avoid a lot of trouble in life; feel like you’re giving everything for nothing, but don’t want to leave the situation because it would be ‘selfish’? Well there ain’t nothing wrong with that brother! Find a situation that benefits everyone involved and life will be better for everyone. As long as we work to ensure that our self-interest is both accurate and considerate of the needs of other, then everybody wins.




4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Looking after Number 1

  1. Well said. I think the word selfish does often get a negative connotation. If you do an act that benefits you and someone else, I would say that is more akin to a symbiotic relationship. If you do something that benefits you and harms somebody else that would be parasitic, and it is this sort of parasitic definition that often goes along with the word selfish. Ultimately I feel like this topic is served well by looking at it from an evolutionary standpoint because ultimately survival is key. Keeping ourselves alive, at least to the point where we can reproduce, is really all we are trying to do. There are numerous solutions to this and some of those have only short-lived benefits, but in many ways nature doesn’t care too much if you’re an asshole just as long as you find a way to pass on your genes. Being manipulative, greedy, hording resources can get you what you want at least in the short term, and having an eye for those who are naïve or who have low self-esteem usually works. Look at the way the rich are also to protect themselves, influence government to create laws that help protect themselves, and surround themselves with loyal people who will take just a small amount of that wealth (because it’s more money than they might have otherwise). But such strategies will eventually fail, because either someone will take you down from within, or the sheer numbers of people that you anger through your selfishness will make you a target. Because there is also safety in numbers, and that’s the sort of game you play with the selfishness that you describe. By helping others you help yourself and create stronger bonds that are longer lasting. Well, perhaps in theory. It just seems there is only so far you can go as a despot, but if you are truly kind and compassionate this seems to have more long lasting benefits.

    As I read this I was also thinking how in psychology it’s pretty common that if you don’t love yourself and have positive self-esteem it’s very difficult to get others to love you. The most mentally and emotionally healthy people are usually ones that think good things about themselves. Of course without a dose of humility these people can often become the arseholes too!

    I was wondering though what your thoughts were on people who sacrifice their lives for others? A teacher who stands in front of children when there is a gunman around? A soldier who is willing to die for the country? Of course you could argue that “being a hero” might be a selfish act, but they are potentially bringing great harm to themselves. Are they unconsciously playing the odds that they won’t be killed and will instead be lauded for being brave and courageous winning more respect for their heroism? Are they actually mentally unwell to do such a thing? While I think it could be easily argued that a soldier isn’t necessarily dying for our freedom, the soldier often thinks he/she is. Is the fact that we can value an ideal so greatly that we are willing to bring harm to ourselves a selfless act?

  2. Pingback: Childhood Carnage: The Ethics Of… Santa | The Ethics Of

  3. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Ignoring the Homeless | The Ethics Of

  4. Pingback: The Ethics Of… Super Soldier drugs | The Ethics Of

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s