Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Standard of Selfishness

One of the common assumptions of modern society is that if we just act in our own self-interest, it will all come out right in the end. This is most clearly advocated in capitalism, which claims that if we just follow our greed, everything will work out for the best. (This should not be read as an endorsement of socialism, which has its own problems.) But this is often found in other areas. It often comes out in practice to doing whatever we want as long as it does not hurt the other person. What this amounts to is being selfish as long as it does not clearly conflict with someone else's selfish desires. This runs totally counter to the Christian idea that we should put the real welfare of the other person before our own (Luke 10:25-37; Philippians 2:3-11; Matthew 7:12). (It is important to understand that this measures the other's welfare by the fixed standard of what God commands and not what they happen to want.) Can this approach based on selfishness be sustained in practice?

The idea is that if we all just follow our own interests, it will all magically work in the end. This does not seem to me plausible.  There will always be a few people who are smarter or more fortunate or more capable or just more conscienceless, who will end up getting their way and tramping on others in the process. There will always be someone who finds a way to cheat. The idea that the bad intentions will all even out in the end seems questionable in the extreme. And do we really want to live in a society where everyone is out to get everyone else but is prevented from doing so by the others' diligence? As for avoiding hurting someone, what do we mean by "hurt." If we limit it to physical pain, we leave open many nasty things that can done to people that do not involve physical pain. But if we measure "hurt" by what people regard as harm to them, we are faced with the impossible situation of trying to cater to everyone who can convince themselves that they are "hurt" if we do not grant them their every whim. The result is not to give full scope to our selfishness, but to enslave everyone to the desires of the most sensitive and easily hurt among us. And since what they want will undoubtedly be inconsistent, we would never be able to fulfill it. May I suggest that the reason this even seems viable is that we still possess some remnants of conventional (generally Judeo-Christian) morality. We still hold that certain things are right and wrong in themselves, no matter what the individual thinks of them. But we use this concept of mutual selfishness to justify the particular cases where we want to able to cut corners and ignore this standard. But we need to realize the anarchy to which this kind of logic leads.


  1. I'm dealing with the selfishness of someone I thought was a friend, and believe me, it's not easy. It's hard for me to consider this person's interests and not think of just my own

  2. You have have my sympathy and my prayers. I have seen and been part of that type of situation and it is very difficult.

  3. Thanks for your prayers and sympathy. I really appreciate it.