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The concept of selfishness has such a wide variety of meanings and contradictory nuances that it is almost impossible to disentangle them all. Selfishness has been lauded as a virtue and castigated as a vice. Some have even attributed selfishness to objects that have no ‘self’: most notably to genes and memes. So let’s start with a definition:
Selfishness: the pursuit of one’s own happiness.
This is a very simple definition, but I think it helps us disentangle some of the contradictions bound up in the concept of selfishness. Pascal, in a famous passage from his Penseés says,
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
Selfishness, by this definition is both universal and indispensable. In fact, despite Christian diatribes against selfishness, the Bible says almost nothing against it. Quite the contrary. The Bible assumes that people are selfish and addresses them accordingly with appeals to their happiness and self interest. You won’t find God encouraging self sacrifice for it’s own sake. If there is no vice in selfishness, there is certainly no virtue in unselfishness. There is nothing to be gained by harsh treatment of oneself. When Peter, apparently seeking commendation, tells Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” Jesus replies,
“I tell you the truth, no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”
The implication is clear. “You got a bargain, Peter. Whatever you gave up, you get back in spades, and to top it all off, you get eternal life.” In giving everything up to follow Jesus, Peter had only acted with intelligent self interest. Even Jesus pursued his own happiness, for the writer of Hebrews tells us that “for the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame.”
If selfishness is universal and indispensable, why is it considered such a vice? Why do we teach children not to be selfish? Why do we revile the titans of industry who put their own interests ahead of their companies’?
That last question contains a clue. Hardly anyone objects to corporate executives reaping rewards for their diligent efforts as long as those rewards do not come at the expense of their employees or their customers or of taxpayers. When your pursuit of happiness infringes on mine, then I’m perfectly willing to denounce your selfishness. The idea is that in pursuing our own happiness we ought to take care not to obstruct others’ pursuit of their happiness. Selfishness becomes most selfish not when it is concerned with self but when it is unconcerned with others. This leads to a second definition.
Selfishness: indifference to others.
It’s not necessary to reconcile these two definitions; words can have more than one meaning. We just need to be clear what meaning we are using. The first definition leads us to a universal, essential characteristic of humans. But indifference to others need not be universal nor essential. In fact, taken to an extreme, indifference to others thwarts our pursuit of happiness.
Of course, some level of indifference is essential to our health and happiness. If I were really concerned about the plight of everyone in need, whether AIDS victims in Africa, child prostitutes in Southeast Asia, or poor people driven from their homes right here in America, I would be paralyzed by the magnitude of raw need. I can only be really concerned about those who come within my purview, those who are my neighbors.
This neighborly concern is not in conflict with my self interest. By showing kindness to my neighbors, I am making my neighborhood more civil, more charitable. If I have mercy on them, someone may have mercy on me when I am in need. Real kindness, however, does not spring from such enlightened self interest. It springs from genuine affection for others.
When Jesus wanted to illustrate neighborly love, he told the story of the good Samaritan. In the story, the religious “good guys” concerned with their position and reputation, do not see a fellow sufferer. They see an annoyance. The Samaritan, however, has compassion on him. When he sees the man bloodied and hurt, he hurts too. He is motivated not by self interest but by spontaneous affection for another human being. He suffers with him, envisioning himself in the same predicament. This upwelling of compassion compels him to tend the man’s wounds, take him to Urgent Care, and pay for his treatment.
Does the Samaritan act unselfishly? Yes and no. Certainly he was not indifferent to the wounded man. Love, by its very nature, is other centered. Love takes pleasure in serving the one loved. The Samaritan was not annoyed at having to stop. He was not grudging in his efforts to help. He gave freely and unconstrainedly. It was his pleasure to serve. In serving, he pursued his own happiness and no doubt found greater fulfillment than the priest and Levite who had each passed by the man and left him to die.