What is selfishness?
What is selfishness, really?
'Greed and selfishness' are concepts much maligned in our society. So first lets define them properly with reference to the 1913 edition of Websters (a very thorough dictionary)
Greed: An eager desire or longing
Selfish: 1 Caring supremely or unduly for one's self,
2 Believing or teaching that the chief motives of human action are derived from love of self
Do those terms still sound so bad? Well the meanings have been changed by the way people have used it over time and greed is now taken to mean 'reprehensible acquisitiveness' (mirriam-webster) whilst the second meaning of selfish, given above, has been dropped from most dictionairies.
So I am going to explain how we can think of these terms, under the general heading "self interest", by illustrating it with a story (paraphrased from its source).
A successful business woman gave up her career to care for her seriously ill husband. An aquaintance commented 'oh how unselfish you are to make such a sacrifice'. Naturally and quite rightly the woman was furious with such an insult and answered "I love my husband, this is the most selfish thing I have ever done!".
Do you understand the meaning of that? She valued her husband higher than her career and therefore *she* chose the higher value. For her, being selfless and
making sacrifices would have meant giving up her husband for the career. Its the same whenever anyone chooses one value over another - regardless of
whats being chosen the person is chosing for and by themselves - essentially being 'selfish'. Look over the choices you make. Perhaps you volunteer some
charity work? Because *you* choose to do it over the alternatives, you want to, you value it - you, you, you, self, self, self. Do you see what I am getting
at? Most people just blank this out because they refuse to see it - but all people are selfish in this context and to call it evil is horribly wrong. A selfless or
unselfish person would let their child die in order to mow the lawn, even though *they* value the child higher, or they would marry a person they hated
rather than one they loved, or they would waste money on something they didn't like rather than trade it for something they wanted. Unselfish people are, in this sense, mad.
Renaming 'selfishness' as 'self interest' is playing with semantics and while that's important in itself the really important thing is to recognise that people to act from, and in accordance with, their own personal values and perceptions. The decisions they make reflect these values and perceptions.
When you understand this you are able to gain a clearer insight into people's behaviour including your own. Ironically, understanding that people act with regard to their own values, toward that which they consider to be good for themselves enables you have far more empathy with others than if you approached them with the assumption that they were being altruistic and selfless. It also allows you to spot confidence tricksters that much more readily! "beware Greeks bearing gifts" is an old phrase which warns that people don't act out of altruism, and to beware those who wish you to believe that they do.
Next time a politician, friend, colleague or associate tries to make out that he is doing something only for your benefit, or only has your good in his mind, then ask yourself what he has to gain by doing so. Remember that the key words in the sentence "I want to help you" is "I want". This is not to say that you should be paranoid about everyone. When someone says 'I want to take you to the cinema' they may want your company and friendship. It is the motivation that is important, make that your focus.