Have you ever felt guilty for acting selfishly? Do you feel that being selfish is a trait that can and should be eliminated from your personality?
What if I said that being selfish isn’t a choice, but a fundamental part of human nature?
Humans cannot help but be selfish. I understand this seems like a hard thing to swallow, and so let me tackle the first contention most readers are already thinking of: So-called “selfless” acts.
Let’s consider two people in love. Love is commonly associated with self-sacrifice – a husband who thinks nothing of putting in blood, sweat and tears into preparing an extravagant and romantic surprise for his wife on their wedding anniversary, for example. But let’s delve a little deeper into what goes on in his mind. What exactly motivates him to do such a supposedly selfless act?
Conventional thinking would dictate that the husband acts out of a selfless love for his wife, which explains why he is willing to sacrifice his own time, effort and money into doing something which, on the surface of it, benefits only his wife. But is the wife truly the only benefactor of such an act? I daresay that the husband benefits as well: he gains the good feelings of making his partner happy, as well as the prideful feeling of knowing that he is a good husband, able to satisfy his wife’s desires.
So the relevant question here is: Did the husband act because of a selfless love for his wife, or did he act so that he could gain these good and prideful feelings? I expect most of you would respond that the husband acted because he wanted to make his wife happy. I don’t disagree at all with this statement. But consider this: Did he want to make his wife happy, because of a selfless love for his wife, or because he knows that he would gain these good and prideful feelings as a result of making his wife happy?
This is a difficult question to answer because in this case, the benefit to both the wife and himself is inextricably intertwined – it is not easy to separate the two to determine which was the bigger motivator that ultimately led him to prepare the surprise. Let’s look at another scenario, this time where the benefit to the other party is clearer, and the benefit to the self less clear.
Imagine you are walking down a street, and you encounter an old beggar who has only one arm. You decide to donate money to the beggar. Now, in this case, the benefit to the beggar is fairly obvious, right? However, it’s also clear that you can’t expect that old beggar to somehow return you the favour down the road – most likely he will always remain a beggar, living on handouts on a day-to-day basis. What is the benefit of helping the beggar then? On the face of it, this seems like a selfless act of generosity, yes?
Again, no, it’s not. As hard as it is to believe, such a donation is still a selfish act. You may be expecting me to say that similar to the husband and wife scenario, you donated so that you might feel good about yourself having done an act of charity. You would be right – but you would only be half right. Let me bring up another issue in order to explain the other half:
Why do countries have laws that punish people for breaking them? Why do we not instead have laws that reward people for keeping them? The answer is a psychological concept called Loss Aversion, which states that people strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. In other words, the disincentive of committing a crime is far greater in our minds than any incentive we might gain for not committing a crime – governments know this, and so they don’t use carrots to incentivise people to keep the law – they use sticks to disincentivise people from breaking it.
You may be wondering what this has to do with a donation to a beggar, and the answer is this: Just as you would rather be law-abiding and avoid a jail sentence, you would also rather give a donation to the beggar, than to walk on by and feel guilty for not helping him. So, there isn’t only one benefit to you to be gained by donating, but two: First, you get to avoid the guilt felt by turning a blind eye to the needy, and second, you gain the feel-good sensation of having done a charitable act and being able to tell yourself that you are a good person.
I believe I have sufficiently proven through these two examples that even in supposedly selfless acts, there is an element of selfishness. Most of us would not deem such behaviour as selfishness, but I deign to disagree: People only do what they want to do. And they do it because they derive a benefit from doing so. It’s just that this benefit may not come in a tangible manner (e.g. warm fuzzy ‘feelgood’ feelings, avoiding feelings of guilt), which makes it easy to overlook when compared to the benefit gained by other parties as a result of the act. However, the truth is that what goes on inside our heads is far more important than what goes on outside our heads. Our mindset is everything – if we believe that doing a certain activity gives us a certain benefit, we will do it. Whether the activity really benefits us in a tangible manner or not does not factor into our decision-making process.
In fact, the above scenarios already contain the only two reasons why we do things:
- To feel good
- To avoid feeling bad
It’s really that simple. And this can be applied in any scenario – even those where you felt you had no choice in the matter. If you really reflect upon those situations, you would realize that you made the choice you made not because of any outside pressure, but because you wanted to avoid certain negative outcomes you thought would happen if you didn’t make that choice. Take a look at that last sentence again. You wanted. You thought. You chose. It’s still a selfish decision, made in your own interests.
Some of you that have read this far may be thinking – well, if this is what being selfish is, what’s wrong with that? To which I wholeheartedly agree: What’s wrong with being selfish?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So why do most people (if not all) see selfishness as evil and selflessness as something to aim for?
The answer is refreshingly simple: We have the conventional understanding that being selfish means that you benefit at the expense of others. But as I’ve shown above, we are selfish all the time, even when we make decisions that benefit not just ourselves, but others as well.
I agree that the kind of selfishness where only one party gains at another’s expense is behaviour that should be discouraged. However, we should not kid ourselves that selflessness is an attainable trait, or indeed something to strive for in the first place. Rather, we should encourage selfishness where both parties, or multiple parties benefit. And in fact, this is already happening in our society and all around the world. In fact, my two earlier examples of how romantic relationships and donations to the needy work are excellent examples of “good” selfishness.
Need another example? Just take a look at people doing business. You can’t go into business and expect to benefit only yourself, can you? No – you have to sell a product or service, which benefits your customers. You have to buy materials from suppliers at a price that they are happy to sell it for – a price that benefits them. This doesn’t mean that you don’t benefit – all of these business relationships thrive on mutual benefit, and they are all being made by selfish people who are looking out expressly for their own interests!
In conclusion, can we really say that being selfish is a negative part of human nature? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe that selfishness is necessary for us to function as human beings in a society. What do you think?
There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.– William Shakespeare