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Good, Neutral, and Bad Selfishness

Despite the negative connotation of "selfish," selfishness is not always bad.


When someone says, "You are being selfish," there is no doubt that you have just been criticized. The message from your critic is clear: You are paying too much attention to your own wants, needs, and well-being, and not enough attention to others. Selfish behavior is often described as immoral. A good person thinks of others first. This idea is instantiated in the oft-quoted "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35) and "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," (JFK's 1/20/1961 inaugural address).

According to some experts, selfish behavior is not only immoral, but it is also bad for your own psychological well-being. Renowned positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky has written an essay claiming that research supports the Chinese proverb that ends, "If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else."

Nonetheless, if you read enough self-help literature, you can't help but notice a different view about thinking of yourself first that seems to contradict the bad press about selfishness. The label self-care refers to prioritizing your own physical health and psychological well-being by engaging in good eating habits, exercise, sleep, relaxation, and enjoyable activities every day. Proponents of self-care like to point out that unless we take care of ourselves first, we will not be well enough to help and take care of others. As flight attendants tell passengers, "If you are traveling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your own mask first, and then assist the other person."

So, is selfishness (thinking of yourself first) good or bad? When I am asked questions like this, my first response is to ask "Good for what (or whom)?" So the deeper question, as I see it, is "Who benefits from selfishness?" (Hence the name of this blog, Cui Bono: To whose benefit?)

The simple (and wrong) answer to this question is that when I behave selfishly it is always good for me but bad for others. True, there are many cases where people benefit (at least temporarily) at the expense of others. The most obvious cases are criminal acts such as assault, theft, and fraud. Harry Browne refers to the use or threat of violence to take from others what they do not want to voluntarily give up a one-sided transaction. Steven Covey calls this a win-lose transaction where one person gains while another loses. There are also noncriminal win-lose transactions, the most common one being emotional manipulation. If I pressure you to do something you do not want to do by making you feel guilty if you don't, or by yelling or withdrawing or being unpleasant in some other way, I got what I wanted at your expense.

The reason that one-sided or win-lose transactions are not always good for me is that there are negative consequences for me that outweigh the temporary gains. Obviously, criminal acts can result in fines or incarceration. But even mere emotional manipulation can have disastrous long-term consequences. If you exploit people they become less likely to cooperate with you voluntarily. They may even seek revenge against you or ask powerful relatives or friends to seek revenge against you.

More importantly, someone who engages in emotional manipulation to get what he or she wants develops a reputation as someone not worth dealing with, someone to shun and avoid. Reputation is no trivial thing, because happiness is very unlikely to be achieved alone, in isolation from the rest of society. To be happy, we need a network of people in our lives who like, love, and respect us, and to build such a network, we need to play fair.

I therefore call engaging in one-sided transactions "bad selfishness" because ultimately this behavior is bad for both the selfish person and the people victimized and exploited by the selfish person.

Then there is what I like to call "neutral selfishness." Neutral selfishness includes looking after your own well-being in ways that do not directly and substantially involve other people. If I take five minutes to brush my teeth to avoid the ill effects of tooth and gum disease, this is a form of neutral selfishness. In looking after my dental hygiene, I am neither taking away from someone's well-being nor adding to it. The same would be true if I take 10 minutes every morning to meditate.

I know there are people who might nitpick about whether there are really any neutral selfish behaviors. Some will say that I could have used the five minutes I spent brushing my teeth or 10 minutes I spent meditating to assist people at a homeless shelter. There are always people in need, so any behavior designed for my own benefit takes time away from what I could be doing to benefit others. But, as the self-care movement has pointed out, how much help can I be to others if I don't look after my own physical and psychological health first? Taking care of myself puts me in a better position to do things that benefit others. Therefore, I continue to believe that some selfish behaviors are nearly neutral; they do not immediately help or harm others. They may represent time taken away from directly helping others, but they also put me in better condition to help others.

In addition to bad selfishness and neutral selfishness, there is also what I call "good selfishness," which benefits both ourselves and other people. Harry Browne refers to good selfishness as a two-sided transaction, an exchange where two people willingly part with something in order to gain something they value. Because both people are winning something they want, Covey calls this a win-win transaction.

The clearest example of a two-sided transaction is a simple swap. If I trade my copy of The Beatles Love Me Do / P.S. I Love You single for your copy of The Beatles' first stereo pressing of Please Please Me because each of us values the other's record more than the one we own, we both feel like we are gaining in the swap. Of course, in modern economies we do not directly swap goods and services for all of our exchanges; money serves as an intermediary for two-sided transactions.

But two-sided transactions involve far more than economic exchanges of goods and services. Any time we do something with someone else because we enjoy the activity more than doing it alone, we have a two-sided transaction. If you go to a movie with a friend, you "exchange" knowing glances, laughter, and conversation, all of which enhance the experience for both of you. The same can be said for attending concerts, watching sporting events, and sitting on the beach. Some activities, such as putting on a theatrical production, playing basketball, engaging in sexual intercourse, and taking a course in positive psychology, actually require the participation of more than one person. As long as all partners in these activities are willing participants who are getting something of value that is worth what they are investing in the activity, these are all examples of two-sided transactions. All are forms of good selfishness—interactions that are good for both people.

A moment's reflection on the three kinds of selfishness tells us that if you want to maximize your happiness (and who doesn't?), you'll want to avoid bad selfishness (because it is likely to decrease your happiness in the long run) and willingly choose neutral and good selfishness.

As obvious as this might seem, why do so we so often hear that you have only two choices: to be selfish (which is bad) or to be selfless and serve others first (which is good)?

I have both an optimistic and not-so-optimistic answer to that question. The optimistic answer is that critics of selfishness are talking only about bad selfishness, and when they urge us to "do for others" they really mean to do for others in ways that are beneficial and rewarding to us (which would make the doing a two-sided transaction). So, I think these people have good intentions, but they confuse the issue by pitting selfishness against selflessness.

But I've also seen a darker answer that explicitly condemns self-interest in favor of advancing the interests of other people. While researching my blog post on seva (selfless service; part I, part II), I found that while some ashrams make every attempt to find meaningful work that fits a new member's skills and interests, other ashrams intentionally assign unpleasant, mind-numbing, back-breaking drudgery. A rationale for the latter is that practicing unpleasant tasks will liberate a person from ego-attachments. Perhaps this is true, but what if it is not? What if this is just a way to trick others into doing difficult work that you would otherwise have to do yourself?

In my first post on seva, I described other dark examples where talk of the virtues of sacrifice and service is a trick to exploit and manipulate others: "I'm thinking of preachers who fleece their flocks, becoming ultra-rich by preaching the virtue of charitable giving. I'm thinking of war-lords who gain power by exaggerating external threats and convincing patriotic young people to sacrifice their lives in unnecessary wars. And I am thinking of any kind of 'mandatory service' program, because, in the words of James Joyner, 'the idea of mandatory voluntarism is as creepy is it is oxymoronic'." The irony in all of these examples is that the people who are telling us that selfishness is bad are actually engaging in bad selfishness themselves.

Those who would manipulate us into doing their dirty work give us a false choice between bad selfishness (gaining at the expense of others) and selfless sacrifice (doing good for others at a cost to you). Given only those choices, it's no wonder that our moral sensibilities vote for the latter. A slightly different version of this false choice pops up when people say that good relationships are based on compromises, where my partner and I take turns sacrificing for each other. ("I'll agree to be miserable going shopping with you if you agree to be miserable watching the football game with me.")

Fortunately, there is a better, third choice: Why not practice good selfishness, which benefits both ourselves and others?

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