More than a few times over the years I have heard students claim that everyone is selfish. According to this belief, even people we call selfless, good, or self-sacrificing are “in reality” pleasing only themselves. That they get pleasure from being “what society calls good” does not mean they are any less selfish than those who get pleasure from being bad.
This pseudo-doctrine has settled upon the modern imagination as a noxious fog, exuded when the mixture of Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism (good is pleasure minus pain) with Nietzsche’s moral solvent (good is envy in disguise) in Freud’s psychoanalytic cauldron (good is superego’s rationalization of ego’s survivalist suppression of id) spilled into the popular press. The result: behind every good move is a “real” motive, which is invariably selfish.
In fact the actual adoption of the belief that every choice is a selfish one can lead to nothing but boredom. Once we agree that everything we do is for selfish reasons, what else is there to say? It is an assumption that recognizes to no distinctions, evokes no practical or moral or spiritual discussion. It is the end of conversation. Which is why the young would be so disappointed if one were simply to agree with them in accepting it. Without the presumption of resistance, the selfishness doctrine dies of its own vacuity.
Let’s accept for a moment the hypothesis that we are all essentially selfish. I am; you are; Einstein is; Descartes is; Mother Theresa is; Saddam Hussein is. Now what? What am I to do about being me, or you about being you? What choices are left us to make? And why would any choice be significant? If all motives are selfish, then choice is only illusion, the selfish preference of this form of selfishness over that. Whether I should apologize to you or hit you again harder is a question exactly like whether I should order vanilla or chocolate. Who could care about anyone or anything if we really believed in this universal selfishness?
If we are all only selfish, then talking about selfishness is like talking about our need for oxygen. We all need oxygen, saints and sinners, our beloveds and the villains who torment us. So what? Shall we ignore everything about people except that they need oxygen? Wouldn’t that go against our natures, which, whether or not they are totally selfish, certainly militate against boredom?
Now let us entertain an alternative assumption. Let us say that all creatures are mostly selfish but potentially unselfish. They are selfish in various ways, in accordance with their natures, and yet they have an area of freedom in which they are capable of choosing either to be consistent with their own natural selfishness or, alternatively, to sacrifice their own selfishness in certain limited respects in the name of some value or principle (other than selfishness) that they find to be meaningful.
If this alternative assumption is true, it is not wrong to say that all creatures are selfish, but it is wrong to say that all creatures are only selfish. Now there is space for us to distinguish between good selfish beings and evil selfish beings, between kind selfishness and uncaring or brutal selfishness. If despite being rather selfish we still have some freedom to be more or less selfish, selfish in better or worse ways, or even unselfish, then we can begin to talk about things that matter to us. To solve for x, we cancel out the common factors on both sides of an equation. Similarly, only in agreeing to leave our common selfishness aside can we discuss what besides ourselves we may value. Only then can we find interest in being human.
This more complex assumption also has the advantage of corresponding better to what we actually experience in life. For almost no one, including one who believes that all human beings are only selfish, actually behaves or judges himself or others as if that assumption were true. In practice we all make moral distinctions as well as factual ones. Who would be content to say “out of selfishness he stole my wallet; out of selfishness I didn’t want him to”? Whether they say so or not, most people will also believe “he was wrong to steal my wallet” or “his selfishness is immoral; mine is not.”
Nothing that simply is can be morally bad. Only beings that can freely will alternatives based on moral imperatives can be said to be bad or good. If we are merely nature following our natures, whatever we think we’re doing, then even the word “selfish” is meaningless. We are just being what we are being, wanting what we want, and freedom is illusory, discussion is vain, and the assertion that we are all selfish is pointless.
There is undoubtedly a measure of selfishness in most of our choices, but the word “selfish” has meaning because we use it in the context of the freedom not to be selfish. And only belief in that freedom is consistent with our actual experience. We are, by nature and in practice, choice-making beings. We judge, decide, pick, and prefer constantly throughout our waking lives. By our choices we fill our lives with meaning, and in comprehending our choices and their consequences we slowly come to comprehend who and what we are. To say that all our choices amount to the same choice—selfishness—is to say we make no real choices at all, that we already know all there is to know about ourselves.
The belief that there is not also a measure of freedom to choose the good despite our measure of selfishness, that there are not better and worse ways to please the self, not higher as well as lower satisfactions—this belief dissolves all culture, art, and civilization, all discussion and argument, all human conversation. A universally selfish world is a universally boring world in which souls are but belly-feeders and mind is a waste of matter.
If at the end of his life a man discovers, on reflection, that he has been selfish all his life, that is a meaningful discovery only if that selfishness has been chosen, only if another route had been possible. Similarly, if a young person argues that selfishness is all there is, we are not in the presence of logic or wisdom or insight or experience. We are in the presence of a devil’s advocate, an intellectual faddist, or a soul in despair. Knowingly or not, all three crave healing refutation.