When you hear the word “selfishness” what comes to mind? Things like: only thinking of yourself, lying, cheating, stealing, or doing whatever you feel like? Do you think anything positive? For most, the answer is a resounding “No.” But, are lying, cheating, etc. really selfish, i.e., in your rational and long-term self-interest? If not, what does being selfish actually require?
The word “selfish” simply means concerned with one’s own interests. Being concerned with one’s interests does not mean hurting others. The idea that being selfish is wrong, bad, and immoral, comes from religion, which commands that you sacrifice for others in order to be a moral person (the secular version is modern-day Liberalism). But why is sacrificing for others moral, while doing for yourself immoral? What is the rational justification for this? The short answer is: there is none.
Novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand was revolutionary in the way she defined and defended selfishness. She stressed that selfishness means living your life for your own sake, pursuing your rational values, and doing this over the full course of your life. She clarified that acting in your self-interest does not mean walking over others, lying, cheating, or stealing to get what you want. She also stressed that being selfish is not doing what you feel or acting on whims, but using your mind to rationally choose and pursue healthy, life-affirming values.
Being truly selfish, i.e., pursuing your values and achieving your happiness, and sustaining this for 80-years requires an incredible amount of continuous, rational thought and effort. Being selfish is actually really hard work; however, the rewards are tremendous.
Is it really in a person’s self-interest to rob a bank, snort cocaine, sleep around, or defraud people out of their money? Are these activities going to allow a person to sustain his life over the long-term AND allow him to achieve happiness and self-esteem? If not, why would you call these actions selfish? Self-destructive would be more accurate.
Achieving happiness requires pursuing the values that you personally find exciting and rewarding, whether a career, romantic relationship, hobbies, or friends. This takes thought (to choose which values you want and plan how you’re going to get them) and effort (to take the necessary actions to achieve and hold onto these values.) This cannot be accomplished by whim or by taking advantage of others.
The religious requirement of self-sacrifice to God or Allah (or the Liberal’s requirement of self-sacrifice to society) does not lead to happiness; it only leads to misery, because it requires giving up your values, the things that make life worth living. If practiced consistently, it leads to a quick death. No one can live by this code consistently—not for long anyway.
Let’s be clear, self-sacrifice doesn’t mean compromise. It means giving up a higher value for a lesser or non-value. Giving your money to a charity instead of using it to pay for your child’s surgery is a sacrifice. Pursuing a career you have no interest in to please your parents is a sacrifice. Volunteering at the shelter when you’d rather be at the beach is a sacrifice.
Compromise means coming to a mutually agreeable arrangement that BOTH parties are happy with. If your wife wants to go on vacation in Aspen and you want the Caribbean, a compromise would be, this time you go to Aspen and next time you go to the Caribbean (or vice versa). If both you and your sister want to have Thanksgiving at your respective houses, a compromise would be, this year you do it at your place and next year you do it at hers. The principle here is that nobody sacrifices and BOTH parties’ values are honored.
Many people feel guilty for pursuing and enjoying the values that they really want, because at some level, they feel they’re betraying the (false) moral code of self-sacrifice (or its friendlier sounding version, “altruism”). They feel they’re not being a good, moral person, so they can’t fully enjoy or pursue what they truly want 100% of the time. In response, they try to appease the wrong moral code (altruism) by doing a little sacrificing here and there, which makes them feel a little better and justified in indulging in a little selfishness.
To truly be happy and psychologically healthy, one must choose, pursue, achieve and enjoy values that are personally selfish, and respect other’s right to do the same, while throwing off unearned guilt and the moral code that creates it.