Is Selfishness Always Bad?

The Virtue of Selfishness
The Virtue of Selfishness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My previous post “Is Suicide A Selfish Act” triggered a deeper question by a facebook friend of mine (Dale Cooper): “Is selfishness always bad?” To answer this question, I think we first can look at the definition of “selfishness”:

By Wikipedia: Selfishness is placing concern with oneself or one’s own interests above the well-being of others. (selfish is) devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.

It seems, according to these definitions, suicide is indeed a “selfish act”. So the real question is: is selfishness always bad? (Since I don’t mean to get into the discussion about fundamental questions of morality, “good” or “bad” in this post simply mean their general use based on common moral standard.)

My answer are both “yes” and “no”. I think we have to put selfishness in context. First of all, if a selfish act did not bring harm to others, I think it is not a bad thing at all. We all have right, and should, to treat ourselves kindly, do our best to live a happy life. Secondly, in case that a selfish act did cause others’ pain, we still need to examine the circumstance: if the act were motivated by greed, by “entertainment”, it is bad, if the act were caused by pain, by suffering, it is not. Of course, there are many more layers between these two conditions, but for me, this differentiation can temporarily serve as “benchmark”.

I think in our daily use of this term – “selfishness”, we usually mean the kind that brings harm to others, and is motivated by negative reasons, such as greed. That’s how this term usually bears a negative “countenance” in most people’s eyes. And because of this general use, we tend to ignore some exceptions, some more subtle layers in between, or some extreme conditions, such as suicide.

So here we go again: relativity. I believe most of time we cannot judge things by look at them alone. Because things do not stand alone, instead, they exist as parts of a whole. As parts, things tangle with each other, so we better look at them in context, in comparison, to see how they relate to other parts. So many time I found people (myself included) easily jump into judgement by certain notions, with simple “black and white” thinking style. Certainly “black and white” is a pattern easy to understand, an formula easy to follow, but unfortunately, reality is so much more complicated than just black and white.

Based on this understanding (relativity), I would even go farther, that not only “selfishness” is not always “bad”, but altruism is not always “good”. However, I better save this topic for some other time.

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