Lately I’ve come to wonder if maybe Ayn Rand was right when she said that selfishness is a good thing. There are many people on this campus who have a problem with selfishness, but I don’t think there are very many people who have questioned why selfishness is a bad thing. Since our own viewpoints can be ones that we have inherited from our environment and culture I ask: why is selfishness a bad thing?
Oftentimes selfishness, at least in the context of Gustavus, is taken to mean taking whatever you want and doing whatever you want regardless of other people’s opinions on the matter. However, that is an incredibly limited view of selfishness. People often get the idea of greedy business people when the word selfish is used, but is this the only case of selfishness?
Think about being in a relationship with somebody, whether that is a friend or a significant other, aren’t you in that relationship because you genuinely like being with the other person? Do you not get benefit from being friends with that person? Not necessarily in the case where you use them, but a deeper benefit.
I think it’s a form of endearment that somebody wants to spend time with you because it benefits him or her, not in spite of it. Wouldn’t you rather hear that your friend enjoys you because of your personality and not because he or she feels like they have to. Imagine if all relationships worked out in that manner and we actually strove to spend time with people who we did not want to but did so out of “duty?” Wouldn’t that be a pretty miserable existence?
Let’s move out of our narrow focus on selfishness and on to more enlightened ground. For example, even the Dalai Lama has said that “wise selfishness” is a good thing. By this he means that we should look at things long-term and that if we want to achieve ultimate happiness we must cultivate compassion. His Holiness does say that we should help others, but he frames it in a way that means that it is helpful for ourselves to help others.
Going even further, and highlighting a point I should have made more clear in my article two weeks ago, the Dalai Lama thinks that we need to make peace with ourselves before we can make peace with others. Think about it, if you are stressed out or not in a great place mentally can you really help that many people out? Sure, you could spend time at a soup kitchen, but you wouldn’t be enjoying it, in fact this may make you resentful of those you are trying to help.
This means that we need to figure out ourselves before we can even hope to help others. How can you truly help someone when you don’t know how to help or when you have issues within yourself?
Helping others can make us feel good; it doesn’t have to be this duty that we feel we must force onto others. We can be motivated by selfish desires while still helping people by becoming a generous or charitable person. There isn’t this huge dichotomy that people seem to think there is. When you help someone, you get a feeling of satisfaction much the same way you do when you help a friend out. At the same time, if you perform the wrong action don’t you feel bad?
You want to avoid the bad feeling and strive for the good and I ask again: what is wrong with that? Shouldn’t we be enjoying our life and the good that we do? Don’t we want to be good people?
We can be selfish in a way that drives us to be the best possible person we can be. This does not mean that we should disregard others or act in a way that alienates our self from others, but instead that there is nothing wrong with being selfish. This means not only being a good person, but also examining what it means to be a good person. Maybe a good way to start would be reexamining our theory on selflessness and selfishness because right now it seems to be lacking.