Selfishness means acting in one’s rational self-interest. Contrary to popular opinion, all healthy individuals are selfish. Choosing to pursue the career of your choice is selfish. Choosing to have children—or not to have children—is selfish. Insisting on freedom and individual rights, rather than living under a dictatorship, is selfish. Indeed, even ordinary behaviors such as breathing, eating and avoiding an oncoming car when crossing the street are selfish acts. Without selfishness, none o f us would survive the day—much less a lifetime.
Selfishness does not mean self-destructive behavior. In other words, a car thief is not selfish. He has to run from the law constantly, something most car owners never have to do. Even if he escapes the law, he will not experience as much pleasure from possessing the car as would an honest person.
Lying to your spouse, or any loved one, is not selfish. The psychological stress of trying to “live the lie” of an extramarital affair—or any major secret—is enormous. A selfish person understands that honesty is the best policy and the least painful, in the long run.
The opposite of selfishness is self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice means giving up a greater value for a lesser value. Consider the example of a battered wife, who is married to an alcoholic husband who refuses to seek help. She stays with him for reasons o f “security” and “family stability.” Yet in the process she sacrifices her self-esteem and physical safety (greater values) to the irrational whims of her husband (lesser values).
Consider the example of the hard-working student who allows a friend to copy his answers on an examination. The student is sacrificing both his integrity and his efforts (greater values) to the laziness and low self-esteem of his “friend” (le sser values).
Or, consider the envious individual who tries to get you to feel guilty for your hard-earned success. “You are lucky to have done so well,” the envious person says. “Now you have a duty to share some of your success with others.” Ce rtainly, a selfish person wants to share his success with those he genuinely cares about—his family, friends, or children (greater values). But why should he make sacrifices to individuals he does not know or care about (lesser values)?
Selfish individuals give to charity—if and when they choose. A selfish person is not “stingy.” He simply values the use of his own judgment in making decisions about how to spend his money, and when to give it away.
Most of us assume that some selfishness is healthy, but “too much” selfishness will lead to loneliness and despair. This idea rests on an incorrect definition of selfishness. Selfishness means acting in one’s rational self-interest. By ” rational” I mean that one can logically prove that an action is in one’s self-interest—in the long run as well as the short run.
For instance, Mr. Jones might think that it is in his self-interest to cheat on his wife, in the short run. But if he considers the long-term, he will understand that he loses her either way by lying to her. If he really loves his wife, he will feel te rrible if he lies to her. If he no longer loves his wife, it is senseless to continue living with her and conducting an affair in secret. A selfish individual does not like to lie, because he sees that it does not bring him long-term happiness.
Most of us assume that we cannot be both selfish and kind to others. This is simply not true. If a mother loves her son, it makes her happy to give up some of her money to buy him a bicycle. It is not a sacrifice—it is a supremely selfish act. Bot h mother and son benefit.
Similarly, the owner of a popular restaurant is not dutifully “serving the public.” He provides good food and a nice atmosphere so that he can make a profit and beat the competition. Both owner and diners benefit.
A physician does not provide quality treatment for altruistic reasons. He provides it because he is financially and emotionally rewarded for being competent and caring. Otherwise, he quite appropriately loses his patients. Both patient and doctor benef it from selfishness.
Rational selfishness means acting in your self-interest—and accepting responsibility for determining what truly serves your long-term interest. It is a nice alternative to a life filled with duty, drudgery and disillusionment.
I maintain that this is a false alternative. Rational selfishness, if practiced consistently, is the means of living both a moral and psychologically healthy life. If you choose to recognize this alternative, such a life can be yours.