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Selfishness: 10 Myths You May Be Relieved To Debunk

Useful for dealing with folks who define selfish as "not giving me what I want."

Myth 1: As with pregnancy one either is or isn’t selfish: With our broadest brush we paint someone as a “selfish person.” We try for a finer, “curse-the-sin-not-the-sinner” brushstroke in saying it’s not the person but his behavior that’s selfish.

Still, in either case we treat selfishness as a black and white quality: Either you’re selfish or you aren’t—which is strange given the “-ish” which implies gradations—50 shades of selfish, like grayish—50 shades of gray. With self-ishness, it’s always a question of degree (we’ll put that hyphen in there to distinguish shaded from black and white selfishness.)

Myth 2: Self-ishness is rare: Self-ishness is the hallmark not just of human life but all life. All organisms are self-ish, working to regenerate themselves faster than they would otherwise degenerate. Their life force—literally the force of the work they do to keep themselves alive is all that stands between them and decomposition. A creature's dedicated work reveals what the creature cares about most, and creatures are most dedicated to repairing, rebuilding, maintaining and reproducing themselves, a self-ish pursuit.

Self-ishness is what life does that non-living systems don’t do. Rocks and whirlpools for example, are truly selfless. They don’t do any of that self-regenerative work. Indeed, whirlpools hasten their own demise, racing water down the drain as efficiently as possible until the water’s gone and the whirlpool with it.

However, humans are distinctively self-ish, in that we use language to reinforce our self-ishness. This cartoon illustrates beautifully the difference between human and other organisms’ self-ishness:

Myth 3: Calling someone selfish is simply calling a spade a spade: Selfishness generally means pathological self-ishness, an unhealthy excess. But how do we decide what’s an unhealthy excess? Where do you draw the line between healthy and unhealthy self-ishness?

Gandhi said, there’s “…enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Fine, so what is greed? Taking more than you need. And how much do you need? It’s not so clear.

Is saving a million dollars today for a rainy day tomorrow healthy or greedy? It depends on the rainy day and how much you’ll money you’ll need in order to survive it. And since that rainy day is in the future you can’t tell.

We know the extremes: Hitler was selfish; Mother Teresa was unselfish (though not as unselfish as a whirlpool). But extremes do not make a definition which at best helps one distinguish in the gray area between healthy and unhealthy. No, deciding who is selfish is not as easy as calling a spade a spade.

Myth 4: Selfishness is being calculating, which is a bad thing: “He’s a selfish, calculating jerk,” we might say, as though calculating is a bad thing. But we have mixed feelings about calculation, or cost-benefit analysis. We call it being rational, a good thing, making rational calculations, employing evaluative ratios, this compared to that. But we talk about rationalization as a bad thing. We say, “cold and calculating” as though calculation ices out sympathy. And yet sympathy itself is a product of a kind of emotional calculation, sacrificing for others because it’s worth it.

In general we associate cost-benefit analysis with a simple money-grubbing, “what’s in it for me right now?” calculation. But within the social sciences cost benefit analysis has been more inclusive than that for decades. We all pursue many benefits spread out over time and space. We want what pleases now, tomorrow, in our old age and in generations to come. We want what satisfies just us, but also what satisfies our spouse, our family, our community, the larger society. We want what pleases us sensually but also what pleases our pride, our laziness, our sense of honor, our acquisitiveness. We pursue many currencies some tangible, some intangible. Our conscious and unconscious calculations adjust to trade-offs across an open-ended range of costs and benefits. Mother Teresa did cost-benefit analysis. So did Jesus.

Every alternative to cost-benefit analysis people suggest is just another variation on cost-benefit analysis. People who say, “It’s better not to be calculating” are themselves making a calculation.

Our ambivalence about cost-benefit analysis and our wary assumption that it’s always narrowly selfishly bad, is a major impediment to our understanding what the social sciences are revealing about us.

Myth 5: There’s never a reason to be self-ish: Aristotle nailed this one, arguing in his Nicomachean ethics that total selflessness is as unethical as total selfishness. If there were no reason to do anything self-ish we should all just kill ourselves on day one in order to make generous room for others.

Some people argue that we shouldn’t be selfish since, after all we all want the same things. This is nonsense on stilts. The fact that we all want to survive means that there will be competition between self-ish creatures for limited resources. Guys competing to marry the same women aren’t going to say, “Look we shouldn’t fight since we both want the same thing.” We can never convince people to be less self-ish by pretending the world is other than it is.

Myth 6: We can tell who’s selfish by how they treat us: In practice, the most common definition of selfishness is “they didn’t give me what I want,” but that just pits one person’s self-ishness against another’s. The other person might think you’re selfish to want what they didn’t give. Either and both of you can’t possibly track all of the factors that could influence your demand and his failure to supply. When one of us says, “I really want,” we have no objective way to measure the strength of that “really.” If one of us says, “I really can’t give it,” again the “really” isn’t objectively measurable. A world in which selfishness is measured merely by how people treat us is a world overpopulated in accusations of selfishness, one pitted against the other.

Myth 7: We’re as good at spotting selfishness in ourselves as in others: Empathy is optional; sentience isn’t. You will feel your pain because it’s coursing through your own nervous system. You may or may not feel someone else’s pain and even if you do, it will feel less sharp, more abstract. If you doubt it, try this little experiment: Trade rule-whacks with a friend. See which stings you more, when he whacks you or when you whack him?

In general we feel our disappointments more vividly than we feel other people’s. Defining selfishness as “He didn’t give me what I want” we are therefore much more likely to count their rule-whacks against us that ours against them. And so we’re much more likely to think they’re more selfish than that we are. And we’re also more likely to notice our selective generosity—to family, friends and tribe, than our selfishness to outsiders. A multi-billionaire accused of being selfish can always say “Nonsense, I’m very generous to my cronies.”

Myth 8: It’s OK to be selfish since everyone is: We’re all self-ish, so yes, we should start with the assumption that self-ishness is a natural and healthy part of life. Still, we know thatselfishness, at the extreme, is a real problem, perhaps the greatest problem humanity faces, the life-sucking greed-engines created by psychopathic dictators, for example. So somehow between natural self-ishness and the evils of extreme selfishness we need to draw a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

Myth 9: With research we should be able to establish a formula for determining when self-ishness has crossed the line from healthy to unhealthy: It’s not that we couldn’t come up with such formulas. We can and we do, for example statutes taxing the rich to keep their self-ishness from crossing into unhealthiness. The trouble is that no formula is perfect, and all formulas are context dependent. Among the thoroughly destitute in Africa’s slums, having a three bedroom McMansion might seem selfish, but in suburban America it’s acceptable. Government pensions that seemed fair in a time of economic growth will seem selfish in times of economic contraction. To accuse someone of selfishness is in large part to make a prediction, a claim that “you’re not going to need all that.” Predictions are about a future unknowable in the present, and so no formula will determine once and for all the difference between healthy and unhealthy self-ishness.

Myth 10: We should give up looking for such a formulas: A word like selfishness is a stick we browbeat people with, shaming them into better behavior. It’s a pretty big stick—no one likes to be brow beaten with it.

We have carrot words too. For example, “generous” is a pretty big carrot. You can really motivate people with it. Our big carrot and stick words are the praise and shame words we use to move people where we think they to go.

We all have such words at our disposal. Some think we shouldn’t—we should eliminate such judgment.

We show no signs of being able to eliminate these big carrot and stick words. Try pushing them out of your mind they always come back in the back door whether you notice them or not. Banning judgment makes judgment a big stick word to browbeat people with. Saying no to negativity turns negativity a big stick word. Saying that it’s more spiritual not to judge, turns “spiritual” into a big carrot word.

Rather, here’s a better approach: The bigger your carrot or stick the more care you should take in how and where you point that damned thing. In other words, the more it matters how you define it, how for example you distinguish between healthy and unhealthy selfishness.

Defining our big carrot and stick words doesn’t appear to be our natural impulse. Take that big carrot word spiritual. I know people who anoint what they like by calling it spiritual, and if you ask them to define "spiritual" they not only can't, they're not really interested in trying. Some even think it's unspiritual to try to define spiritual.

We should all be a little anxious about whether we’ve crossed from healthy to unhealthy self-ishness, and whether we’re accusing people of being selfish based on careful thought or mere personal disappointment. We should all strain to come up with a consistent objective working definition of selfishness, a formula for determining whether someone has crossed the line, even though we’ll never agree on such a formula.

May the evaluative force of our big carrots and sticks be matched by commensurate curiosity about their definitions. Far too often our curiosity is on vacation, while our rhetoric is working overtime.

Walk skeptically and inquiringly when you carry a big carrot or stick. The bigger the carrot or stick the more care you should take in where point that thing. That would be the spiritual, unselfish thing to do.