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MilkyWay's avatar

Can selfishness be justified?

Asked by MilkyWay (13723points) January 21st, 2012

What exactly is “selfishness”?
Can it be justified when a person is being selfish?
If a mother walked out of an abusive relationship, and left her children behind, is she being selfish? Is she wrong?
Or does it depend upon the circumstances whether we determine if a person is being selfish or not? And doesn’t every one need to be selfish sometime in their lives, in order to survive?

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28 Answers

digitalimpression's avatar

It definitely depends on the circumstances.

If I won 48 million dollars and didn’t share a dime with my friends it would be selfish.
If I won 48 million dollars and gave every single dime of it away it would be foolish (at least with my current budget). We would really need a situation to analyze.

marinelife's avatar

Yes, it depends on the circumstances. Sometimes you need to take care of yourself.

In the example you gave, though, I don’t think the mother is justified. She needs to get her children away from the abuser.

SavoirFaire's avatar

Selfishness is not the same thing as self-interest. Self-interest is concern for oneself. Selfishness is lack of concern for others. We’re all self-interested at some time or another—maybe even most of the time—and that’s okay. As @digitalimpression points out, we’d be downright foolish not to be sometimes. We’re probably all selfish at some time or another as well, though, and that’s more problematic. While there may be nothing wrong with pursuing our own happiness, there are limits to how we can treat others while doing so.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Well, if the mother gets killed she isn’t much use to the kids. But I’m going to fight with everything I’ve got if I’m in her place.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Gadzoooks, when it comes to this ultra PC world everyone wants to short circuit the way things go, and muddle the waters. To a point everyone has to be a bit selfish. As it is said already, there is a fine line between self-interest, and selfishness. When you care nothing of the other person, “It is not enough that I win, but everyone else must lose”, then it is selfish. If I were to do a deal where I would gain $50,000 but some others who did not do much would gain $12,000 and I didn’t care, I was looking after my own self-interest. If I tried to do the deal in a manner that no one else could gain a dime, then I am selfish in that I don’t want anyone to profit but me. A woman leaving her kids behind because her physical health is in danger would not be selfish in my opinion of the kids where not in danger and have a warm dry place to sleep at night and food to eat. To take them from a stable home to bounce around couch to couch or living out of a car when they were not in danger would be more selfish to me. If she felt she had to leave, they say those who fight and run away, live to fight another day. While she readies for battle at least the children or in a stable environment.

saint's avatar

Self interest and selfishness are the same thing. The problem is improper use of the word selfish by the people who covet what you posess.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@saint Everyone in history except Ayn Rand disagrees with you.

KoleraHeliko's avatar

I cannot conceive of an act performed by a sound mind which is not, on some level, selfish.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@KoleraHeliko Selfish, or self-interested?

CaptainHarley's avatar

We need a good definition of “selfishness.” My personal take on it is “when you place your own welfare and/or pleasure above that of others, you’re selfish.”

KoleraHeliko's avatar

@SavoirFaire Warm water is strikingly similar to tepid water.

ddude1116's avatar

If being selfless involves your own personal harm, in some way shape or form, then be selfish. Nobody should ask that much of anybody.

KoleraHeliko's avatar

@ddude1116 Harm to oneself may (and as I asserted earlier, should) still be selfish. Be it a cash payment, or a simple burst of neurochemicals (both being the same thing, by the way), no one does anything without a reward.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@KoleraHeliko But not the same. I’ve already given definitions above, which are quite standard. I request that you look at them.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@KoleraHeliko Ah, your last response shows that you are making exactly the mistake I suspected. You wish to redefine selfishness until everything counts, but that is to make your thesis meaningless.

ddude1116's avatar

@KoleraHeliko Well, if you’re purposefully harming yourself for your own personal benefit, then yeah, that’s selfish. But if you were asked to help somebody at your own sacrifice, whether it be money or blood, and you gain nothing in return from being selfless except for the gratitude of a friend, then fuck them! They don’t deserve your friendship, and you don’t need their gratitude.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@ddude1116 Self-interested, not selfish. See here.

Paradox25's avatar

I think that every person needs to be selfish and have a degree of self-interest at times. After all one can only help others when that person has some degree of happiness within from pleasing themselves at times. There are limits to what might be justified relating to selfishness I suppose but those are circumstantial, and not for me to judge. A person can only make others happy when they’re happy with themselves. I think that indifference is what one needs to avoid at all costs, not selfishness or self-interest (like described above).

ddude1116's avatar

@SavoirFaire The only difference between those words is negligible under these circumstances. “Self-interest” is a noun meaning one’s personal advantage, and “selfish” is an adjective, regarding one concerned with their own personal advantage. The former is the pursuit of those the latter describes. So saying one is self-interested and not selfish is like saying somebody’s prejudiced and not racist.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@ddude1116 Two points: first, one can be prejudiced and not racist (e.g., by being sexist); second, selfish has its own noun form: selfishness. Selfishness is not merely concern with personal advantage. It is the pursuit of personal advantage without regard to how it may be at the expense of others.

Nullo's avatar

Yes, and rather easily: the modern world is largely built on selfishness.

mattbrowne's avatar

Good ideas have to be selfish in order to survive. We need to fight for good ideas and against bad ideas.

Overall the modern world is largely built on cooperation and thriving communities, not selfishness. It’s human nature. In science it’s called group selection. It relies on love, kindness, caring and generosity.

EverRose11's avatar

I am a generous person but I have learned esp. during this last year that even people you thought you knew will take advantage of my generosity and walk all over me so .Since we are in the star of a New Year I have not become a little more selfish, I have just become a little more selective in how I help, for how long and who. However in my everyday life I run into down rite selfish people who absolutely justifies with great reasons as to why it is better to be selfish, I walk away confused, for yes I am about to be homeless due to the amount of people and things I have done for others never getting paid back as I was led to believe. But unfortunately for me, I cannot find it in me to be outright selfish try as I may. So this New Year shall be most challenging for me .

ddude1116's avatar

@SavoirFaire Okay, you got me on the racism/prejudice thing, but “self-interested” and “selfish” are such close synonyms it’s utterly pointless to look for a difference other than one having a hyphen, and “self-interest” and “selfishness” are as well.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Had I followed the dictate of “If being selfless involves your own personal harm, in some way shape or form, then be selfish. Nobody should ask that much of anybody,” at least 14 men who are alive ( at least as far as I know they are ) would be dead; there would be no children from them, and no grandchildren from their children. I was not asked to do this, I volunteered ( although in fairness, they were going to draft my azz anyway )! Heh!

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Nullo The modern world is not built on selfishness. At most, it is built on self-interest. If nothing else, the good parts of the modern world do not seem to have been built on selfishness.

@ddude1116 It is not pointless. It is the crux of an ethical debate that goes back to the time before Plato. Nor is this debate merely an artifact of academic philosophy. It is present in everyday life quite independently of theoretical concerns, such as in the mistaken view that all acts are either selfish or altruistic. Failure to understand the difference can be found lurking behind many political debates, and the mistake infects the left and the right in equal measure.

Perhaps a simple example would help. Consider two people, Sam and Phil, who come across a ten dollar bill lying on a sidewalk. The bill is not owned by anyone, so it is up for grabs to whoever gets to it first. Sam and Phil are equidistant from the money. Here are some possible options:

1. Sam decides to let Phil have the money and does not race to get it.
2. Sam decides to race Phil to the money in the hopes of acquiring it for himself.
3. Sam decides to shoot Phil in the kneecap to eliminate competition for the money.

The first option could be called altruistic, though the circumstances surrounding and reasons for Sam’s decision could make it otherwise (perhaps, for instance, Sam decides it is beneath his dignity to race for such a small amount; the situation might change were the sum of money at stake larger). The second option would be called self-interested, for Sam decides to make an attempt to improve his own situation rather than just letting Phil have the money. The third option would be called selfish, for Sam has disregarded the interests of Phil in order to improve his own situation. He has not respected that there are limits to what we may do in pursuing our self-interest, and thus he has acted selfishly. This is a qualitative difference that cannot be cashed out merely through talk about the presence or absence of a hyphen.

Nullo's avatar

@SavoirFaire Selfishness and self interest are close enough that it makes no difference.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Nullo I suggest reading parts of the thread other than those to which you are directly responding. I have already explained why the difference is important. Indeed, I did it in the post immediately above your latest reply. As such, your argument by assertion does not convince me.

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