Selfishness

Virtue of Selfishness

What does Ayn Rand mean when she describes selfishness as a virtue?

Answer by J. Raibley

Ayn Rand rejects altruism, the view that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. She argues that the ultimate moral value, for each human individual, is his or her own well-being. Since selfishness (as she understands it) is serious, rational, principled concern with one’s own well-being, it turns out to be a prerequisite for the attainment of the ultimate moral value. For this reason, Rand believes that selfishness is a virtue.

This is something I have pondered deeply over the past few years. I have believed that the hats I wore were the roles required of me by my life – husband, father, son, brother etc. And I also believed that in wearing them I was putting other people before myself constantly. Of course there is satisfaction in being good in those roles but when you are living them it is difficult if not impossible to be able to step back and actually consider what motivates you in those roles.

I have been criticized for not being the person I thought I had been in each and every role that I have had. Perhaps with some justification, perhaps not. At the end of the day those who you are required to relate to in those roles are the ones who make a judgment about whether you have been successful or not.

I do believe that I did my best. I also believe that at times that best was probably pretty ordinary. The midlife journey has allowed me to evaluate and accept that there were times when I failed and that is my cross to bear, no one elses.

There were times when my selfishness intervened in the lives of other people – when I wasn’t there for people when I was needed, when I ran from conflict or failed to give in fully to the needs of others. I don’t yet fully understand whether that makes me a lesser person or maybe just normal. There were times, are times now, and probably will be times in the future when selfishness will be important to me. But does that necessarily mean that it is detrimental to the welfare of everyone else? I don’t believe it does, because the act of giving oneself for the benefit of oneself, whilst selfish in one context, has the end result of being good for other people too.

Pursuing interests may well be selfish but if that makes a person feel good about themselves surely that has more potential to be positive for other people than negative. If a person is satisfied with life because they feel good about themselves or the things they do, are they not more likely to be a better person to be with?

Rick Gaber wrote that we need to distinguish good selfishness from bad selfishness –

You’ve heard of the “bait-and-switch” con? Well, guess what? This is the “scare-and-switch” con: “Selfish” has two entirely different meanings. One is: “taking advantage of people against their will.” The other is: “taking care of yourself and your family first and foremost and to whatever degree YOU deem appropriate.” Obviously, the latter is a virtue, and the former is a vice. But if you fail to distinguish between the meanings you’re prey to being suckered by con artists of either the deliberate variety* or of the more common unwitting, unthinking “disease carrier” kind.

If we accept the notion that selfishness can be a virtue we should not be concerned when people choose to do things that make them feel good, provided of course that there is no harm done to anyone else in the process.

There is a book by Rachael Heller called “Healthy Selfishness – Getting the Life you deserve without the guilt” in which she says –

“To be Healthfully Selfish to is know your limits and to accept and respect them; to rest when you are tired, provide yourself with nourishing, appealing food when you are hungry, to go to the bathroom you feel the urge, to get emotional and physical nurturing without feeling that you must earn it and, in all things to accept (and even appreciate!) that you are not perfect.

“Healthy Selfishness brings with it a zest for living that is astounding, a joy that comes from truly experiencing – deep within yourself – your accomplishments, and a pride in your ability to determine how you will be treated by those around you – no matter how important they are in your life.”

I have not yet gotten to the stage where I am totally guilt free in doing things that others may look upon as selfish. It is not an easy concept to learn and very easy to get caught up in lessons of the past, where others expectations of what role you are supposed to play intervene and impose guilt upon you.

It is no coincidence that the onset of a midlife episode often comes with a person having major issues with self esteem and self purpose. It should not therefore come as a surprise that the word self features so highly when people begin that voyage of self discovery that is midlife. And it should therefore not come as a surprise that in overcoming issues of self esteem and in determining a self purpose that selfishness is needed.

I truly feel that I will be a better person if I can learn that lesson, where I can be more content with who I truly am, and not having to second guess what other people expect of me. The trick is to let other people see that in being selfish and doing things for me that any relationships I have with others will also be healthier. At least I hope that is the case.

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18 Comments

  1. "Wolfgang" said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:19 am

    Excellent post, Loz. Those last three paragraphs really nailed it for me. I am going to do some reflecting on this post.

    By the way, I nominated you for another award on my most recent post. Congrats and thank you!

  2. Finn said,

    July 24, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    Everything in moderation, I say. Selfishness gets a bad rap. It’s absolutely necessary for survival, but taken to the extreme it’s bad.

    Anyone who expects you to put yourself last all time is someone who doesn’t care about you.

  3. Jeff said,

    July 24, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    Selfishness is a very complicated concept. I think labels are sometimes misapplied. From where I stand, and I know that it is in the minority, putting others before yourself is always better than vice-versa. However, sometimes putting others before the self is treating the self first in order to be what others need.

    For example, a child might say, “Mother, stay home from work today and fix me something to eat. I am hungry.” The mother will work first in order to have the money to keep the child fed.

    This also works for insuring that the self has enough rest, peace, and security. A lacking self is in no shape to help others. Of course, caution is advised because this concept is probably one of the most easy to abuse.

  4. Random Magus said,

    July 24, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Only when we are happy and content with ourselves can we in turn make anyone else.
    So whether you call it selfishness or self-interest our first prerogative should be what makes us content.
    Of course if hurting others or slashing then makes us happy than that’s another story!

  5. Dave said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:03 pm

    I believe that selfishness is a fundamentally necessary component of our existence. Without it, we cannot define ourselves, and there would be nothing unique in our world. There would be no me, and no you.

    Think back to that age old wisdom, “in order to love others, we must first learn to love ourselves.” Not only does this seem to be a universal condition, but we could easily replace the word “love” with any number of other acts/emotions of a giving & receiving nature.

    As with all things, balance is essential. All things in moderation. Certainly we must set aside our own needs on many occasions, but we should never feel bad about the occasional indulgence.

    I think that given your acknowledgment of your roles and duties, and an admitted awareness that you have your failings, but yet, also tried to be the best that you could, is all anyone should expect of you. None of us are perfect, and thank goodness for that.

    To be a good father, and a good husband is quite possibly the most important accomplishment any of us guys can achieve. All other roles pale in contrast!

  6. Loz said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    Thanks Wolfgang for the comments and the award. The other thing I left out was self respect, which also needs a bit of selfishness.

  7. Loz said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:52 pm

    Finn – you’re right but we often spend too much time worrying that other people see things as selfish when in fact they are just things that make us feel better about ourselves

  8. Loz said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:54 pm

    The balance is extremely important Jeff and in no way am I saying that we do not take into consideration the feelings or needs of others

  9. Loz said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:54 pm

    Amber – you’ve hit the nail on the head 🙂

  10. Loz said,

    July 24, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    Dave – you’re right too. When we can be satisfied that the roles are played to the best of our ability self esteem and self respect follow naturally

  11. Pen and the Sword said,

    July 25, 2007 at 4:36 am

    It’s kind of like damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But really, to me.. being selfish is someone who doesn’t care about anyone other than oneself.

    So in my opinion, you sir are not selfish at all.

    :o)

  12. Loz said,

    July 25, 2007 at 4:42 am

    Under that definition Pen I am certainly not totally selfish.

  13. meleah rebeccah said,

    July 25, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    WOW.. you never disappoint when I make my way over here.

    I am really selfish, and it’s NOT something I enjoy about myself. I wonder if it’s because I am (at times) the perpetual teenager.

    I know sometimes its good to be selfish, I mean you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else…

    and I agree 100% with Random.

    This post will have me thinking all night now… THANK YOU.

  14. Micki said,

    July 26, 2007 at 2:08 am

    Loz – it is truly wonderful to see you come to these realizations. Repairing, rebuilding not only yourself, but your relationships on better terms.

  15. Loz said,

    July 27, 2007 at 12:34 am

    You’re welcome Mel

    Micki – I haven’t been good with relationships and maybe have learnt too late

  16. Micki said,

    July 27, 2007 at 12:58 am

    You already know that I disagree that it’s too late. Not every relationship can be repaired. In those cases, you have to move on and forgive yourself.

  17. Loz said,

    July 27, 2007 at 1:01 am

    Thankyou Micki – that sort of advice is why I blog 🙂

  18. sylvie d said,

    July 27, 2007 at 8:24 am

    Hi Loz,

    A quick hello to let you know that Fuelmyblog has had some surgery done and lots of changes have happened.
    Your current voting widget is not valid, to fix this all you need to do is login to your account with Fuel and follow the link for widgets. All the widgets displayed on that page have the code matching your blog and are ready to copy and paste.

    Happy blogging!


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