Obviously we need to define selfishness – at least within the context of this article. Each of us is born with desires and needs which tend to insist on their satisfaction. We (and all other creatures) cannot help it, it’s the way we are made. Words such as desire and selfishness have had a bad rap, ever since religious folk managed to convince the masses that self negation was some form of superior state. But since we didn’t make ourselves, all these people are doing is criticizing the power that brought us into existence – use whichever word you want – nature, God, the universe. Since I was born into this body, with this set of desires, it would seem that I have some responsibility to satisfy them. Hopefully no one would criticize a person for eating, drinking, defecating, sleeping, running, learning, loving – or whatever desire forced us into action. And so to be selfish just means to satisfy our desires.
Things do get a little tricky when we consider desires that might harm someone else. So maybe we see someone in a very nice Ferrari, and we desire that we should own it. The desire is quite legitimate, but fulfilling the desire is clearly against the law – theft is viewed as undesirable in most societies. Other desires may mean we want to hurt someone, particularly if they have hurt us. Again, violence is considered undesirable and usually considered illegal. The State can only operate if we are all protected from desires that would cause some kind of harm. Nature on the other hand has no such inhibitions and a male lion killing offspring, or any of a thousand brutal acts, are just dismissed as ‘nature’. Ten thousand years from now lions will still be savaging lions and there will have been zero evolution in the species. Man on the other hand, provided we have not destroyed ourselves, will have moved on – possibly for the better, and possibly for the worse.
So to act selfishly is to be willing and able to satisfy our desires without causing harm. Say a partner wants to spend an evening at the ballet, but for you this would be pure purgatory. Do we inhibit our own desire, or do we submit to the desire of another. By accepting some level of coercion we offend ourselves, and by simply declining to go we offend our partner. It might be that we would take pleasure in being with our partner – in which case there is no offense either way. Each case will have its own pro’s and con’s. The important point is that we pursue our own pleasure without feeling guilty or coerced. I know in my own life that I tend to be very selfish. Very often people have asked me to meet up at the pub. I dislike pubs – noisy and boring as far as I am concerned. People have said to me – don’t be such a bore. On one occasion it was very attractive young woman who asked me – maybe I missed out there, but even that would not have compensated for an evening of hardly being able to hear what people said.
The philosopher Spinoza was quite clear on the point – No one wishes to preserve his being for the sake of anything else. In other words I seek my own fulfillment, and other people have the right to seek theirs. If there is a meeting of minds then a good time should be had by all. Research has been carried out into the most successful relationships. Those that tend to persist are the ones where each party understands their own needs, likes and dislikes and is unwilling to compromise. Clio Cresswell presented the findings in a Ted talk – very illuminating.
The joy of selfishness is a good thing, contrary to the bad rap it gets. The alternative is continual compromise and an unhappy life. And finally it is worth pointing out that nothing makes many people more angry than the notion that selfishness is OK. Well after a life of sacrificing your own desires on the altar of being unselfish, nothing could be more infuriating than someone saying that it was all unnecessary.