21 August 2005


Can you ever accuse someone of being selfish without exposing yourself as—after all—selfish? Even if you’re not complaining of a selfishness that affects you directly (i.e., “Mary won’t give me a ride to the mall, ergo, Mary is selfish”) but purports to be about someone else (e.g., “Mary won’t give Helen a ride to the mall, ergo Mary is selfish”), isn’t it still really about you? Because why aren’t you giving Helen a ride to the mall? Does calling Mary selfish just help repress your own suspicion that it’s you who’s selfish? And if you do give Helen rides to the mall, then aren’t you just wishing Mary would take her so you don’t have to? What is that, if not selfish?

If you take Helen to the mall twice a week, it may not be unreasonable to wish that Mary would get off her lazy butt and help, but being not unreasonable doesn’t mean unselfish. The wish still comes from self-consideration.

The word selfish comes up when we see a need—in ourselves or others—go unfulfilled. It’s uncomfortable to see a need go unfulfilled. There’s a tear in the fabric of the world that needs mending. We want to see it mended. But in fact there are billions of tears, and few of us could bear going through life mending every one of them we encounter. We have our own weaving to do. So we blind ourselves to some of it, compartmentalize some of it, assign some of it to others (whether they know it or not), and attend some of it ourselves. We decide which needs we are going to attend to; likely we decide our own needs come first.

It’s a self-centered, even cruel process, but—like triage—pragmatic and necessary. I’m not saying (with Ayn Rand, for example) that selfishness is a virtue, or that altruism is a farce, but simply that all our choices—if we’re honest—are somehow informed by self-consideration. Part of what keeps the world turning is the fact that the nature of self-gratification is so various. We all want to be happy, but typically part of that is feeling important—valuable­—in some way. Because feelings of value are generally tied to the good opinion of others, we have plenty of motivation to not only do well, but do good. Helping others provides satisfactions that can be lasting and profound.

But we still choose how we get those satisfactions. Selfishly.

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