Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Selfishness

I may really be asking for it today. I’m a glutton for punishment. Whatever.

In yesterday’s AI, Elyse discussed the misconceptions people have about parenthood before they have children, and then what they find they were completely wrong about once that little bundle of joy arrives. The comments took a somewhat nasty turn for a little while but seem to have plateaued like they always do.

One of the comment themes was selfishness. Some people view having children as a selfish act. Some think expecting everyone to suit your needs in public is the selfish thing to do. There are a lot of things in the daily life of the average person which could be classified as selfish, but that tends to be up to the person doing the classifying.

For example, you may think I’m selfish for eating the last piece of cake in the fridge. I think I was avoiding being wasteful. And also I was hungry. Then, depending on how you present your feelings of my being selfish, I may think you are the one acting selfish, because what difference does it really make who ate the cake when I’m the one who baked it and it was just sitting there? [This is all hypothetical, mind you. My husband completely understands that a cake which is baked is a cake which is ate. By me in most cases.]

Where do you draw the line between reasonable and selfish? Have you been accused of selfishness over silly, unimportant or trivial things? Big, important things? Would you hate me if I ate the last piece of cake?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Chelsea

Chelsea is the proud mama of an amazing toddler-aged girl. She works in the retail industry while vehemently disliking mankind and, every once in a while, her bottled-up emotions explode into WordPress as a lengthy, ranty, almost violent blog. These will be your favorite Chelsea moments. Follow Chelsea on Twitter: chelseaepp.

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54 Comments

  1. Selfishness is something that, to me, has some fuzzy borders. Like you stated, it can often be about perception. There are times when being selfish is a good thing, like when someone who gives and sacrifices a lot finally does something for themselves. Usually though it’s not such a good thing, and I would define that as doing something that benefits yourself in complete disregard of the impact on others.

  2. Almost all actions that we take can be interpreted as “selfish.” So I draw the line at how my action impacts others. I don’t see how it matters how “selfish” an act is if no one
    Eating the last piece of cake?
    1. It’s your birthday, or everyone told you to “go ahead” even if they didn’t mean it. Enjoy!
    2. Did everyone that wanted some have a chance to get some? No harm no foul.
    3. Did everyone have a chance, but you waited a while before going back for the last piece? Not a big deal, they had their chance.
    4. Did you take the entire cake as “the last piece” and it was my frakkin’ birthday?? There may be indignation.

    It’s frequently more dependent on the specifics of the environment (and motivation) than the act itself.

    So if you have kids, sure it COULD be selfish, but not universally one way or the other. Unless you let them scream their heads off in a decent resturant where I’m trying to have a nice dinner.

    YMMV.

  3. I’ll gladly let you have the last piece of cake. Personally, I don’t like cake and don’t need those extra calories.

    As for being accused of selfishness – I never married and never had kids. I lived my life the way I wanted. I did what I wanted. I am the only member of my family in three or four generations to ever go to university. Most never graduated high school. As far as my family is concerned, I am the selfish one.

    I don’t participate in angel trees this time of year so I am considered selfish. I don’t buy girl scout cookies from co-workers and am considered selfish. I don’t buy useless merch co-workers are pushing for their kids school and am considered selfish.

    I do give to charities whose programs have either directly benefited myself, family, and/or friends, and whose philosophies match my own. In that, I have also been called selfish because I don’t give to everyone who holds their hand out.

  4. Addition:
    Being selfish is necessary to survive, but too selfish may make you an asshole.
    Being not selfish is important to playing nice with others, but too nice could make you a spineless doormat.
    Finding the happy medium between the two might keep you sane. The jury’s still out as far as I’m concerned.

  5. While I don’t remember any instances of being accused of selfishness, I’m sure I have been accused of being such both rightly and wrongly.
    We’re all going to act selfishly from time to time and we may as well acknowledge that and just try to be considerate and not be too selfish all the time.
    And I wouldn’t hate you (or anyone) for taking the last piece of cake – just like I’d expect you and everyone not to hate me for taking it!
    (You can hate me for other things if you like.)

  6. See, I have a big big problem when it comes to selfishness… as in, I tend (in private) to be very selfish and opinionated. But I don’t like to ACT that way, so as a way of avoiding it, I become so selfless as to annoy people with my apparent indecision.

    I will literally torture myself with not knowing (to use your example) whether or not it’s fair for me to eat the last piece of cake. Maybe I don’t really NEED it, maybe someone else will enjoy it more, maybe blah blah blah.

    So I’ll generally let the cake sit there until it’s wasted, at which point I get annoyed at other people for not being able to psychically guess that I left the damned cake there for them to eat (not to mention mad at myself for not eating it).

    And don’t even get me going about dealing with the world at large… I try to be so good about not getting in anyone’s way, about being fair and considerate and self-effacing and all of that… it gives me no shortage of annoyance when other people fail to do even half as much in return…

    But why WOULD they? They aren’t socially anxious loonies like I am, and they certainly don’t notice or need my consideration.

    To sum up: Pants. And I’m insane.

  7. @slightlymadscience: Almost all actions that we take can be interpreted as “selfish.” So I draw the line at how my action impacts others.

    I agree absolutely!

    If I eat the last piece of cake I get to eat yummy cake. If I give to charity I feel good about myself, and I might get reinforcement from peers. Both acts are motivated by my self-interest, and I will never presume otherwise. The first, however, can have negative consequences for others whereas the second might have positive consequences for others. Acts that are, for lack of a better word, altruistic make the world more harmonious so they are subjectively better. But since I have a keen self-interest in a more harmonious world, so isn’t this also selfish? I think you can gain a great understanding of human nature if you assume that at all times people are out to maximize their own happiness.

    With regards to the cake question. I will bring it to my wife, in bed, at night, with a nice mug of hot chocolate. She will eat and drink and be happy and thus more likely to have sex with me.

  8. People call the weirdest things selfish without any sort of self-reflection at all.

    For example, I have very long hair because I like it, think it’s pretty on me, and because I was subjected to extremely short forced haircuts as a child.
    People badger me all the time about donating it to locks of love, and I refuse. Why don’t they mind their own business, stop spending money getting theirs cut and styled, and grow it out?

  9. For me it boils down to what’s reasonable, important and who it impacts. I didn’t give up golf when my kids were young but I golfed a lot less. My wife and I negotiate chores and things like driving groups of 16 year olds to rehearsals and concerts because we would both rather be selfish and stay home or do something else. We don’t play the waiting or guilt game either, it’s straight to ‘rock, paper scissors’ as the final arbiter. With kids, spouses, partners and most things life involves trade offs.

    And my son already ate the piece of cake so my opinion is moot.

  10. There is nothing wrong with wanting to put priority on certain things (I do it when tackling projects, by ranking which is more important and needs to be done first) and sometimes have to strong-arm someone to go see a movie multiple times in IMAX just to appease my own selfish desire/fanboy love (ie. Dark Knight, sorry Carr2d2). However, where I feel selfishness goes too far is when you are willing to potentially fuck over a friend or loved one for some sort of personal gain without respecting the other person. It is totally reasonable to want to pursue goals/dreams, but to me it is never worth it if the potential costs are relationships. Then again, some people are put in super-difficult choices: do you pass up a chance of a life-time despite the other person not being totally on board? Heh, I’ve been there a few times and it’s never easy.

    Skepchick’s very own Wonder-Woman known as A helped me out over the past year. You see, I use to be totally self-less and poured all my heart and energy into friends and loved ones, leaving nothing for myself. While A didn’t solve my problem and get me to be a little more selfish and put more effort into what “I” want, I give her quite a bit of the credit. Quite simply, if it weren’t for her advice over the past year, I doubt I’d be the guy I am today. To that, A is Wonder-Woman :)

    On a lighter note, i could never hate you Chelsea, even if you ate the last scrumptious piece of cake. And no, i am not lying about the cake. Then again, there is practically nothing that could ever make me hate you. :)

  11. @Tim3P0: However, where I feel selfishness goes too far is when you are willing to potentially fuck over a friend or loved one for some sort of personal gain without respecting the other person.

    I think it is more possible to injure someone when you believe your motives are unselfish. “If my goal is to be helpful how can I possibly hurt anyone?!” I knew a person once with mental health and drug issues who was suffering from bouts of paranoia. His friends staged an “intervention”. The one thing you really don’t want to do to a person who is paranoid is conspire against them. It went… very badly. These people were convinced their actions were right because their motives were unselfish. I think had they realized that all motives are selfish they could have come up with a smarter course of action.

  12. I have trouble defining selfishness in any meaningful way. I mean, doesn’t every choice involve an attempt to feel better? Take buying chocolate. I bought a chocolate bar yesterday, because I like it and it tastes good, which is selfish. If I had decided not to buy the chocolate bar, it would have been because I don’t need the extra calories and want to improve my overall health, and therefore selfish. So either decision involves me being selfish, which, I think, means the word “selfish” is meaningless.

    And I think any reason you could come up with for buying or not buying the chocolate bar is also “selfish”.

  13. Personally, I’m of the philosophy that absolutely ANYTHING we do has an element of selfishness. Selfishness means, to me, the pursuit of resources to the detriment of others in your social or ecological group. “Doing good” is selfish because you feel good about it. You feel special, and somewhat holier than the average bear for doing it.

    I rescue dogs. I rescue dogs because it makes me feel good to rescue dogs. Some days I want a pre-order purebred puppy, which purists might argue is selfish. I’m still selfish because I have my monsters at all. They make me happy. The fact I am coexisting with other species and making them happy/safe is incidental.

    The only people I think have a case for truly being altruistic are live organ or bone marrow donors when they are donating to people they don’t know.

  14. @James Fox:

    YOU’RE NOT GETTING ANY!

    Er, anyway, good point, but even if it did involve other people, doesn’t that ultimately just get back to me? If, say, I chose not to buy it because I didn’t want my spouse to eat it for the sake of their health, that’s because I love them, and it makes me happy to see them be well, which means it’s still about my happiness.

  15. Maybe the point is lost on me. If there was one piece of cake left and I wanted it I would ask if anyone else wants it and if they say “No thanks” I would eat it. If they say “Yes please” I would cut it in half. You can do that with pieces of cake you know.

  16. Q: Where do you draw the line between reasonable and selfish?

    I wouldn’t draw a line between reasonable and selfish – the two categories overlap. Selfishness isn’t always a bad thing.

    I wouldn’t even want to draw a line in the sand where ‘reasonable’ selfishness ends and ‘unreasonable’ selfishness begins. It’s a grey area, and would flex a lot with the context.

    Q: Have you been accused of selfishness over silly, unimportant or trivial things? Big, important things?

    Can’t say I have. When people want to accuse me of something, they usually stick to either arrogance or laziness. ^_^

    Q: Would you hate me if I ate the last piece of cake?

    So long as it wasn’t also my only piece?

    Nope – though I’d wind you up about it for as long as I could make it stick.

  17. I believe I brought up the selfish theme in yesterday’s thread – unfortunately I wasn’t around to finish it out – being all selfish and shit with my time. But really, I still think my husband and I are selfish bitches for not having kids. At least that’s what my mother tells me… ;)

    Also, feel free to have the last piece of cake. Seriously.

  18. I don’t think I contributed to the other entry in question, but in my observations parenting can certainly be an incredible selfless enterprise. And if it’s done “right,” that’s how it should be, ideally. But it can also be way more selfish than cake-hogging. If your whole reason for having kids is because you need a status symbol, and someone to care for you when you’re older, then you’re selfish. If you have kids because you actually enjoy them and can care for them and afford them, that’s different. ::stepping down from soap box::

    I do stupid things that might be considered selfish, but it’s usually just because I didn’t think to offer half the cake. I’m thoughtless, not selfish. Or maybe I’m just greedy. Or maybe I just love cake.
    But get out of my way if there are potatoes. Those are mine, all mine, and I freely admit to being a selfish, greedy bastard when I spy the masher on the counter…

  19. I didn’t read the childfree/selfish discussion, but I know how it goes. Personally I think it’s a ridiculous argument that choosing not to have children is selfish, because the people one is supposedly harming by this selfishness DO NOT EXIST. (Meaning my hypothetical children; I am perpetually grateful that no one in my family cares whether I have kids or not, and no one in my husband’s family has expressed it if they do.) I’m ignoring the “carbon footprint” type of reasons and focusing on the ones usually called “selfish.”

    My desire to develop, enrich, and be totally absorbed by my relationship with my husband is seen as selfish by people who think I should be offering up all that love to a child. I see it as my just rewards from suffering through the hell that was dating for so many years. And by rewarding myself, I’m also rewarding my husband, as our marriage continues to grow.

    By definition I suppose it’s self-ish, but maybe we need a better word for things that benefit the self but do not harm others. I am not grasping at someone else’s property by deciding not to have a child, but some of my feelings about it, as I’ve mentioned, do resolve around self-centered desires. I think the problem may be that there is no term for these feelings that isn’t pejorative.

    Also, by all means have that cake. I feel good when giving someone else a gift or allowing them to “be selfish” (emphasis on the quotes; I see no problem in the first place with taking the last piece of cake) — something that in and of itself could be considered a selfish act.

    Now that I think about it, Phoebe on Friends went through this whole dilemma and it was actually pretty well illustrated in that episode.

  20. microbiologychick:
    I have very long hair because I like it, think it’s pretty on me, and because I was subjected to extremely short forced haircuts as a child.
    People badger me all the time about donating it to locks of love, and I refuse.

    Locks of Love doesn’t even give free wigs to kids; they price them on a sliding scale according to the family’s income. Also, they sell a lot of the donated hair to wig makers to raise money, rather than using it to make wigs themselves. It’s really kind of a shady charity. Here’s more info from The Better Business Bureau, and Wikipedia.

    So, the next time someone tells you to donate your hair, tell them that you’d do more good to donate your money/time/body parts elsewhere.

  21. @ZenMonkey: Actually the discussion yesterday was opposite of what you’re saying. It was the childless who claim that having children is selfish and that there is no way to do it without that being the case. I’m just a big, lumpy selfish person. Hope the baby doesn’t mind! Whether other people have children doesn’t matter to me. I totally get that it’s a case-by-case thing. Some people have a severe aversion to kids, some really enjoy their lifestyle without having to give up the stuff you give up when a kid enters the picture… It’s not a decision I think anyone should make for anyone else or that anyone should make for themselves without a lot of thought before hand.

  22. chelsea very true!!!
    We shouldn’t tell people how to enjoy this journey called life. it’s like all the people that claim being MARRIED is selfish. That is another arguement that is often brought up.

    You eat the cake, my hips don’t need the cake. PLEASE EAT THE CAKE

  23. @Sulis: Personally, I’m of the philosophy that absolutely ANYTHING we do has an element of selfishness. Selfishness means, to me, the pursuit of resources to the detriment of others in your social or ecological group.

    ———–

    These two sentences are contradictory.

  24. This is a funny coincidence. I really didn’t go looking for this; someone randomly followed me on Twitter and I checked out her feed which led me to her site:

    http://www.theselfhealingcoach.com/

    Note the headline: “Wanna Get Well? Stop Being So Selfish.” If you don’t want to go there, and I don’t blame you, it’s an excerpt from a CNN story, cited but not linked, in which a woman’s emotional reaction to her diagnosis with MS is labeled “selfish” and a “pity party” and she is then hounded to give gifts in order to feel better. A charming combination of guilt and a blame-the-victim mentality there, with no compassion or understanding of why the woman was feeling those emotions in the first place. Talk about only treating the symptom!

    My comment on this story, relatively gentle as it is, is awaiting moderation. I’m not holding my breath.

  25. @Chelsea: Ah, fair enough, I was clearly projecting my own reaction to the argument (or “bingo,” is it?) that I’m selfish for not having kids, which I have in fact heard more than once.

    While I also understand the other side of the argument, I think it would be utterly hypocritical to insist that my reproductive rights and desires are private, but then pass judgment on people for wanting to have kids. It’s intensely personal. (I guess my judgment does kick in when it’s an extreme case of people who are most probably not prepared to be parents, such as very young teens, addicts unwilling to detox, etc.)

    And sorry for not combining my comments; I managed to miss your response even though I was checking for one. I’m smart that way.

  26. @Chelsea: It was the childless who claim that having children is selfish and that there is no way to do it without that being the case.

    Yes, but everything we do is selfish. To believe otherwise is denial. We were taught selfishness was bad by the same people who taught us masturbation is bad. The difference between selfishness and altruism is spin.

  27. In the words of Jack Johnson, if you’ve got one sandwich, yo cut that thing in half!

    Unless of course there is no one around.

    I used to have a roommate who would take three bites of everything and then put it in the fridge, and NO you could not have it because he was going to eat it later. Which really meant the trash was going to eat it two weeks later when it has turned into a new species.

  28. @davew: Yes, but everything we do is selfish. To believe otherwise is denial.

    ————

    In the prior thread you said that adopting children was “more altruistic” than reproducing, an act which you described as the maximum selfish act possible.

    To pretend now that you consider “everything” to be selfish, and to deny that you drew value judgments between selfishness and altruism, is quite the reversal of position.

    But your premise is either a matter of extremely narrow definitions or denial of observed reality. Clearly, we can draw distinctions stealing televisions and purchasing televisions. You may say that both behaviors are selfish, but there are real, measurable, objective differences between engaging in voluntary transactions for mutual benefit and engaging in involuntary transactions for sole benefit. Just as clearly, we can draw a distinction between donating a television and throwing away a television. There is a qualitative difference between behaviors that take into account the needs of others and behaviors that do not.

    And finally, we can make a distinction between purchasing a television for the express use of others and purchasing a television for personal use. Giving your labor away has different consequences than trading it.

    These differences are not “spin”, they are measurable. If you are uncomfortable with the concepts of “selfishness” and “altruism”, by all means come up with different words and use those. But in everyday conversation, these are the types of concepts that are generally symbolized by those words.

  29. I apparently work with one of the most selfish people in the world. The drama is still in fallout mode right now, but dayum y’all! Talk about someone who is willing to screw people over for his own ends, and to shut down friendships in an instant, all for his sense of self- worth… wow.

  30. Anything that ever impacts another person (so basically everything you do) runs the risk of being selfish. You can give to charity because you want your name to appear on a website or because you need the tax write off. Is that selfish or is that generous? Can it be both?

    I think one of the problems I have with a lot of religion versus atheist debates is that anyone feels there’s some sort of moral absolute. There are things that, by and large, are agreed to be wrong. We agree that murder, generally, is wrong. But is it wrong if you kill someone who is endangering your child? What if you kill someone who might become a serial killer? Cannibalism is wrong, but is it wrong if you are stuck on on a mountain top and someone in your party has died and it might save your lives? Is that selfish? What if that person believes their body must stay intact after death to ascend to their idea of heaven?

    Selfish is just another word to describe something that is morally wrong and almost any moral question has ambiguity.

    All that is to say that I don’t really have a line I draw about what is selfish and what isn’t because there are simply too many factors to consider in any instance.

  31. all I know after reading this is that davew would SO eat the cake and then put some spin on it by telling you he was doing you a favor as cake isn’t good for you.

    Gotta admit, if you can spin your sense of morality, life is good.

    life isn’t “spin’ we don’t live it on prime time. If you can spin your selfishness to yourself, then hey Madoff seemed to have no problem with it. You sometimes wonder how some people can do things and live with it. The answer appears to be “spin”.

  32. I think much of what we do could be considered “selfish”, i.e. it benefits only ourselves and not really anyone else. Even getting your child vaccinated has a modicum of selfishness attached to it – “I don’t want my child to get sick and die because that would make me sad” – tho I think the opposite (no vaccinations) is much more selfish.

    OTOH, truly selfless (altruistic) acts are so uncommon we may never experience them in our lifetime. (Think of a non-firefighter running into a burning building to rescue a child that is not their own). This, IMO, is why altruism is such a slippery subject and difficult to understand.

    Oh, and Chelsea, you took too long and I ate the last piece of cake already

  33. @kittynh: You sometimes wonder how some people can do things and live with it. The answer appears to be “spin”.

    I believe that the motivation for all actions is selfish, but there are the consequences to consider. Madoff hurt people which is wrong and in this case illegal. It would still be wrong and illegal even if he had genuinely intended to make money for them.

    It’s a mistake to assume selfish acts always hurt other people. It’s also a mistake to assume that acts people consider to be unselfish will help other people. People, aside from the mentally ill, are always out to selfishly maximize their own happiness. I defy anyone to come up with a counterexample.

    I’ll prime the pump. A woman runs into a burning building to save kittens and children. What’s the one thing she will always say in the obligatory hero interview afterwords? “I just couldn’t live with myself if I had stood there and done nothing.” Her actions were laudable. Her motivations were selfish. She maximized her happiness by saving the kittens and children.

    I’m not saying everyone has to agree with this point of view, but I’m a little disappointed with the number of commenters who don’t appear to understand it.

  34. @davew: Your point of view seems to imply that selfishness is an empty word. If every act is selfish, then how does that help to differentiate one action from another? If selfishness admits of degrees, couldn’t we agree that it’s more helpful to just call acts which are the least “selfish,” altruistic?

    In short, by your definition of selfishness, how is the phrase “selfish action” any different from the word “action?”

    It’s not so much that I disagree with you, as that I think you’re being silly with your words.

  35. @ZachTP: If selfishness admits of degrees, couldn’t we agree that it’s more helpful to just call acts which are the least “selfish,” altruistic?

    In short, by your definition of selfishness, how is the phrase “selfish action” any different from the word “action?”

    It’s not so much that I disagree with you, as that I think you’re being silly with your words.

    Selfish is a motivation. Motivation leads to action. Action leads to consequences. Actions are separate from motive so “selfish action” doesn’t really mean anything.

    Silly? Not by intention. I’m really not trying to play word games. I do think that altruism does not exist not at least in the way people seem to think it does. I also think it is useful to understand this so people can suss out their true motives. This would go a long way towards curing the more malevolent forms of altruism that especially occur at this time of year.

    Once again I cheerfully admit my own selfishness. I give quite a lot of money to charity primarily so I can feel better about myself as a human and secondarily so I have a good answer when people ask how much money I give away. I also work very hard for the environment, but again so I can feel good about having done the work. I don’t drive because driving makes me miserable. I have come to peace with my motives as I shed my illusions about them.

    Just in case you think I’m alone on this I’ll leave with a Heinlein quote: “Beware of altruism. It is based on self-deception, the root of all evil.”

  36. @davew: Selfish is a motivation.

    ———

    Based on what you’ve said previously, “selfish motive” is redundant, because no other motive is possible. My problem with that is that you’ve essentially created a world in which all motivation is equivalent, and no motivation is different than another.

    This doesn’t jive with what you’ve said earlier about selfishness and altruism. In the case of having children, you drew a clear difference between an act that is maximally selfish and another act that is more altruistic. You now seem to be contradicting that statement by claiming that altruism does not exist.

    If altruism does not exist, it makes no sense to say that one act is “more altruistic” than another, any more than it would to say that one occurrence is “more supernatural” than another.

    The reason people don’t seem to understand your position is that your position is inconsistent. When it suits you, you use the words “selfish” and “altruistic” the same way everyone else does, to measure the degree to which another persons happiness or well being factors into your decision making. But when you want to demonstrate your superiority, you claim that all acts are actually selfish, a word you therefore deprive of any meaning.

  37. @davew: What’s the one thing she will always say in the obligatory hero interview afterwords? “I just couldn’t live with myself if I had stood there and done nothing.”

    ——-

    Anecdotes are poor support. Imaginary anecdotes are no support at all. Imaginary anecdotes with quotes are merely a reflection of your own thinking.

    Your fuzzy use of the word “happiness” is clever, in that it allows you to pigeonhole any act by employing the fuzzy definition, but it doesn’t actually add any intellectual meat to the discussion. Like your use of the word “selfish”, you’ve basically made “happiness” mean priority. What you are actually saying is that people’s actions are motivated by their current priorities and choices, which is trivial.

  38. @davew: What I mean is that I would concede that every action anyone takes is eventually traceable to fulfilling some need, provided emotional ones count.

    But that wouldn’t mean that all those actions count under any meaningful definition of selfish. Any actually helpful adjective must be a category into which at least something might not fall. If it doesn’t, then it’s just an addendum to another word’s definition. If no motivation can be unselfish, then the word might as well not be there.

    Like I said, I don’t entirely disagree. I think most actions are undertaken for far more selfish reasons than people admit. But I also won’t give up the usefulness of a perfectly nice word.

    Also, I refuse to trust Heinlein’s views on human nature. I’ve read too much of his work to do that.

  39. @ZachTP: If it doesn’t, then it’s just an addendum to another word’s definition. If no motivation can be unselfish, then the word might as well not be there.

    I agree.

    Like I said, I don’t entirely disagree. I think most actions are undertaken for far more selfish reasons than people admit. But I also won’t give up the usefulness of a perfectly nice word.

    To me selfish is a word like miracle. I don’t believe anything is miraculous therefore I have no use for the word. When other people use it I understand what they mean. In real life if someone called me selfish I know what they mean. I’ll even use the word myself. But here, here where we explore ideas in greater depth, I thought the more philosophical (or perhaps pedantic) point was worth exploring. On the other hand, embracing this concept has helped me understand myself better.

    (I agree about Heinlein in general. He did say a few things I agree with, though.)

  40. @davew: To me selfish is a word like miracle. I don’t believe anything is miraculous therefore I have no use for the word.

    —————–

    In which case, your prior point that all actions are selfish becomes sort of self-contradictory. Which is okay, because your definition is off anyway.

    What the word actually means is “characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself.”

    So regardless of the consequences of including the wants and needs of other people in your priority function (feeling good about yourself or feeling happier in general is a consequence), doing so is not selfish by definition.

    Using any non-trivial definition of the word, if you give to charity because it feels good to help other people, that’s not a selfish motive. The reason it feels good is because you aren’t being selfish. If you give to charity because you want other people to think of you as charitable and therefore be nicer to you, that is a selfish motive.

  41. The key distinction in a discussion about selfishness and altruism is the difference between a person doing something which has a motive that is in accordance with the wishes of the person doing it (helping people because it makes you feel good, saving your cat from a fire because you like the cat’s company, etc) and doing something which results in a benefit to others.

    Davew is defining selfishness by his analysis of motives. Sethmanapio is drawing a distinction between the RESULTS of an act. I can kill babies because they annoy me (selfish motive, selfish result), or I can work to stop a company from polluting a river because it annoys me when innocent people drink contaminated water (selfish motive, altruistic result).

    The whole thing goes up in flames when what YOU want is other people to be happy. Are you being selfish or altruistic? I agree with Sethmanapio that the words are best used to distinguish between actions and results — it’s a near-tautology to say that everything we do is what we decide to do. What else can we do?

  42. @sporefrog: The whole thing goes up in flames when what YOU want is other people to be happy. Are you being selfish or altruistic? I agree with Sethmanapio that the words are best used to distinguish between actions and results — it’s a near-tautology to say that everything we do is what we decide to do. What else can we do?

    There are other choices, but we see them as various forms of mental illness. I’ m not trying to be glib. People who don’t look out for their self-interest according to societal standards are likely to be institutionalized as a danger to themselves.

  43. I don’t recall being accused of being selfish. Probably because I have a lousy memory of such things. I have been accused of being other things (which probably can’t be mentioned here).

    I don’t think I’d hate someone for eating the last piece of cake, especially if one asked (which is what I make a point of doing).
    Of course, I’d have absolutely no problem if the cake was laced with laxitives. :)

  44. @davew: There are other choices, but we see them as various forms of mental illness.

    ———-

    This is fundamentally not true, as you’ve redefined selfishness. If being selfish simply means choosing the best behavior based on your current priority set, even the mentally ill are always acting selfishly, even when they are being self-destructive.

    This is the basic problem with your definition of “selfish”. You’ve stripped the word of any possible discriminatory meaning.

    Also, I’d point out that you are contradicting yourself. If “selfish” equals sane, you would rewrite your prior comment to say “To me sanity is a word like miracle. I don’t believe anything is miraculous therefore I have no use for the word.”

    Since clearly you have a definition of sanity, you’re either gibbering or you have a very poor understanding of your own argument.

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