debunking the myth of selfishness

You’ve heard it before:  A kind or beneficent act is, at root, a selfish one, because it makes the benefactor feel good.  That there is no such thing as benevolence or altruism, because ultimately all acts are in one’s self-interest.  To help an old lady cross the street makes you feel good, ergo, it is an act really done to serve yourself.

The problem is that the word “selfish” or the term “self-interest” are the same language symbols used to describe someone who hordes all the cake, or doesn’t pay attention to their kids or spouse.  You may have a friend you consider “selfish,” who buys tons of clothes and treats themselves to the spa every week.  You may consider a corporation selfish, acting to serve its shareholders and not the public good.  Selfish becomes synonymous with greed, neglect, and a whole host of other terms which signify bad or immoral behaviour.

Yet, the “self” in selfishness is an illusion.  You were not born to your “self,” you were created by two parents.  You are not autogenerating; you require food, sunlight, air, and people in order to live, and to live healthy.  You consult with friends, you see your doctor, you listen to the news and read literature and watch television.  You are a compendium of what you’ve absorbed your whole life, from your early developmental years to the last thing you ate or read online.  Even your gifts and your talents are not yours to lay claim to, anymore than you can take credit for having brown eyes, being female, having two arms.  You are a co-creator of your being; your “self” is an inextricable part of a larger whole.

All acts are indeed “selfish.”  At base, you seek to preserve yourself.  You eat food and drink water and live under a roof to protect you.  You have friends and keep ties with family because you need people to support you, challenge you, and help you grow.  The influences in your life are more than just influence; they co-create you.  There is even some discussion in the neuroscience community whether it is even possible to have a truly self-generated thought, or to really be in control of your own fate.  Suffice it to say, what you do is in the multi interest of you and the people who surround you.  The father who still controls you or the partner you may want to please, the friends you may be competing with, or, yes, that little old lady you truly just want to make sure gets across the road without upending any mack trucks.

It is all both selfish and multiish.  The difference is simply whether what is working with you and through you is healthy or not, beneficent or not.  The person who has five apples may keep all five apples to him or her self.  The person who gives four apples away to four individuals is perhaps more healthy than the former.  But what if that person who keeps all five apples really needs them?  What if there is something psychologically or physiologically driving them?  They may need to work through it.  The neglectful parent may need help to get out the stain caused by their own neglectful parents.  The person who seems self-indulgent in all creature comforts may be compensating for something.  It is rare to see someone acting in a selfish way which only seems to benefit them as behavior which is coming from a healthy place.

However, to pursue your passion to the utmost, when it at times gets you branded “selfish” – is this such a bad thing?  In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the author shows us through painstaking illustration that a person truly indulgent in their dreams, their passions, their gifts, ultimately serves the world anyway.  She shows, too, that the person who tries to do what others seem to want and to fit in and be lauded by the community can go far astray, and end up confused and betrayed.  This model – pursuing one’s highest potential as top priority as doing the most for the collective – only works, really, when that individual is coming from a healthy place.  Obviously a self-interested serial killer working out some issues is not going to be beneficial to the collective. 

What Rand misses in her wonderful epic novel and thinly concealed dissertation on her “Objectivism” philosophy is that the self, again, is not something truly autogenerative.  It is not autonomous.  Even Howard Stark, the hero of the story, is co-created by his upbringing, his school experience, and his deep psychological needs.  There is indeed something individual in him – his innate ability to design radical and beautiful structures – but this, too, is not exactly from the “self,” but given to him from the world, from the universe he was born out of.  Not born into, but born out of.  So as the ocean waves, humanity peoples.

We are trained to recognize distinction and individuation.  We are still, in many ways, animals with a herd mentality.  We are mammals – put us on a park bench and our eyes will flick around, catching movement.  We search for predators, and we evaluate friendlies.  Much of our thinking, according to many mental health professionals and spiritual advisors, is still rooted in the basic patterns we evolved for survival.  Negative thinking – the skepticism of other people and events, doubt of our own abilities – comes from much more primitive times when this kind of thinking was necessary for survival.

As a herd-type, we recognize distinction.  Distinction could mean trouble in the early days – an errant member of the herd could attract attention from predators.  Or, such a member could be entertaining, and could lead the way to greener pastures.  We have an emphasis on precociousness built in to our culture; we love young phenoms, be they in tennis, rock and roll, or politics.  The youth break patterns of conformity that can lead us to newer and more exciting things.  We celebrate the individual at every turn, awarding them especially for what they do that seems to come from the highest degree of selfishness or narcissism.  Soaking up the adulation of a million fans.  Beating out a sports competitor because they believe they are better – the best.  Getting into an old man’s game and beating the odds by being the youngest politician, when many may feel they lack the experience and wisdom.  Who the heck do these people think they are?  How selfish can they get?

Yet, behind each of them is a person, or people, who have pushed them into position, or at least nurtured and shaped the direction of their lives to help fructify their work.  Each tennis or golf phenomenon has a story about how an adult in their lives took them under their wing.  Stanley Kubrick’s and Tiger Wood’s fathers.  Rafael Nadal’s uncle.  A team of businessmen conjuring the careers of Brittany or Justin.  The phenoms are merely players in their own lives.  They are less selfish than they are multiish, the product of a market which demands them, advocates which lead them, and support which directs and fuels them.  They are radical examples, but each of us, really, have the same ingredients in our lives.  We each have someone championing us, we each have an area we think needs filling – or others think needs filling – and we step in.  We each are motivated by physical, psychological, and spiritual factors.

The word “selfish” is just not big enough to contain all of this, and so it gets a bad rap.  The word becomes associated with the connotations of greed, sloth, pride – all the seven deadly sins.  Then a few people who have a clever moment say, “Hey, even when you do good you are being selfish!”  Well, bully for you, to point that out for us.  Thing is, you’re only seeing about one sliver of the whole picture.  You’re forgetting that the self is a phantom, at best.  That what is happening in any instance is coming from some place good, or some place not so good, and channeling through the individual in the thousands streams of what makes them “them.”  Pouring in, from all directions.  Beaming into that person who, in turn, beams it back out again.



  1. I like it. But I think it’s more interesting to talk about why some people realize they can feel good helping others and other people truly are “selfish” in the negative sense of the word (i.e., they don’t even see that the old lady needs help across the street, or if they do, they’re too “busy” to bother to help.


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