On Being Selfish

Have you ever been called "selfish," or felt that you were selfish? If your answer is no, then I question your humanity. But exactly what is selfishness? Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary has three definitions:

1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself: seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others

2: arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others; a selfish act

3: being an actively replicating repetitive sequence of nucleic acid that serves no known function; selfish DNA; being genetic material solely concerned with its own replication

I know people who are described by each of these definitions, but most of them are conservative Republicans.

If you don't think most of humanity is selfish, try going shopping early on Black Friday when it is not unusual for people to be trampled by the rush to get one of a few low-priced computers, TV's or other items. Or try yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater. And driving anywhere these days one sees a horrific display of selfishness. Drivers are aggressively competing to get ahead of each other, and apparently consider each success as a triumph.

I've concluded that selfishness is, like most things, a context-related behavior. The same people who appear to be trying to run me off the road in order to get ahead of me, might act quite differently if they were to accidentally bump into me in church and knock me on my ass. The charity of corporations, as well as that of individuals, is usually predicated on the context of one's profitability. The fewer assets one has, the easier and more likely one is to be selfish.

What about love? Is that selfish or selflessness? If I fall in love with someone and propose marriage, isn't that an act of selfishness because I want that person in my life? Novelist Nathaniel Hawthorn said, "Selfishness is one of the qualities apt to inspire love." And certainly the biological propensity of all species to reproduce is inherently selfish, as defined in definition #3 above.

Selfishness is also one of those traits that we can more easily recognize in others than in ourselves, and thus we don't take as kindly to the wants of others as we do to our own wants. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it another way: "Those who live to the future must always appear selfish to those who live to the present." This fits nicely with my philosophy of living for the moment rather than in the future or the past. But perhaps my own selfishness makes me jump on rationale like Emerson's in order to lessen the appearance that I might be selfish.

It is well known, or should be, that people who are unhappy with themselves make poor relationship partners. Andrew Wilcox (whoever he is) wrote: "You love the world best by loving yourself best. You bring the world the most joy by bringing yourself the most joy. You can help no one until you are completely helped. Lead yourself to bliss and the world will follow you there." I'm not sure I fully subscribe to this, but it sounds good in principle, as long as it is not done in isolation. I occasionally love myself in isolation. Thank God the world doesn't follow me there.

I don't think it is selfish to live as you wish to live, as long as you don't impose that on others. Live and let live, as the old saying goes. If your selfishness does not harm or negatively influence others, then why not? But there is that issue of jealousy. If your selfishness brings you more toys than I have, and thus makes me jealous, is that a negative influence?

The very act of my writing this could be deemed a selfish act, because I gain satisfaction by doing so. Or it could be considered a selfless act, because I wish to share it, or perhaps I seek the admiration of others (selfish), or perhaps I am just procrastinating (avoidance) when I should be doing actual work.

Don't you just love philosophy?