A Study of Selfishness


Selfishness is a curious topic. To devote actions to furthering Self, rather than Other of course, is not a rare thing in our world. It never really has been. All actions can be argued to be selfish actually. With this consideration in mind, how then can an action, decision, or mindset be “selfless”? I propose there are two branches of an over-arching selfishness that all actions, decisions, and mindsets possess: selfless selfishness and selfish selfishness.

The Idea

Seem redundant? Let’s dive further. An individual’s actions may appear selfless, but could definitely be intended on some level to benefit Self more than Other. For example, a wealthy philanthropist, let’s call her Jane, donates a large sum of money to a children’s shelter. Depending on the Jane’s motives, she may seek to immediately benefit either herself or the children’s shelter first. In all actions, there are direct effects and indirect effects. Think of the indirect effects as “splash zone” effects, or side-effects. It always boils down to motives: Others benefit more, or Self does.

Selfless Selfishness

If the Jane’s motives are to really help the children’s shelter, and she just happens to feel great about her actions, then the donation is one of selflessness, or selfless selfishness. In judging a real situation, where the subjects are real people, deciding whether something is selfless or selfish can be much more difficult. Sometimes, even Jane the philanthropist may not really understand her motives, let alone an outside observer.

Selfish Selfishness

Now, if Jane only donated the money to get kudos from others in an effort to raise up her social prestige, then the action is selfish. If Jane was told, “If you would only think about donating money to us, we would think you were just the keenest gal!” (Hope you dig the retro jargon). Jane would then only have to think about donating the money, or even just say she thought about it, and she would be praised. That is unrealistic though, and Jane must really give the money for acolades and pats-on-the-back.

The Difference

Hopefully the difference is clear by now. Who does the individual seek to do good to more immediately? If Self is lifted up in the action, and Other gets some good out of it, the action is selfish selfishness. If Other is lifted up in the action, and Self gets some good from it, the action is selfless selfishness.

What’s the point?

“Okay, interesting point, Adam, but what is the point? If it is difficult to use in real life situations, how is this useful?”
Well, its primary use, as I see it, is to analyze your own actions. Ask yourself, “who am I really doing this for?”. Are you helping your neighbor with yard work because you like the praise and admiration, or are you helping because that neighbor needs help? Sure you may feel good for doing good, but who are you really doing it for?

As mentionedy earlier, this can be a tough question to answer. Some may be acting selfishly and think it really is for others. Some may even be selflessly giving of themselves and have a negative attitude of themself. What is Jane the philanthropist is going through some self-driven form of penance and she keeps beating herself up about whatever brought her to her penetant state of mind? It can get cluttered and complicated, so just keep it simple. Try hard to serve others more than yourself, and in the words of the wise Socrates, “know thyself” (be mindful of your motives).

Happy thinking, fellow Thinkers!