Selfishness: A misunderstood Reality

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In the essay “The Unselfishness Trap” by Harry Browne and “The Objective Basis of Morality” by Thomas Nagel, two contrasting views on the morality of selfishness are presented. According to Browne, sacrificing one’s own happiness for others is the best way to bring happiness to people. Conversely, Nagel argues that our moral values should be grounded in our concern for others. While selfishness is often viewed negatively, it simply signifies being primarily focused on one’s own interests and cannot be universally classified as morally correct or incorrect.

Harry Browne challenges the conventional belief that selflessness and concern for others are necessary for happiness. He argues against the idea of sacrificing one’s own happiness in order to benefit others, which he calls the “Unselfishness Trap.” According to Browne, being happy is like holding a big rubber ball; only those who have it can experience happiness. If people were selfless, they would pass the ball along, relinquishing their own happiness. This cycle would continue indefinitely, preventing anyone from achieving happiness because there would be no selfish individuals to break the pattern and claim happiness for themselves. Browne questions how this selfless behavior would actually make the world a better place. He maintains that since everyone finds happiness in different ways, individuals are best equipped to determine what brings them joy. Therefore, acts of selflessness may not effectively bring about happiness as people may not understand what truly makes others happy. Browne classifies selfless actions as negative choices.

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According to Browne, the “unselfishness trap” can result from negative choices made to avoid being labeled as selfish. In contrast, positive choices offer freedom. Browne argues that the concept of giving as a means of achieving happiness is subjective and only applies to the individual who believes in it. Not everyone finds joy in selflessness, and Browne dismisses this perspective as irrelevant to the main issue. To maximize happiness, Browne suggests providing others with something they find valuable rather than assuming what they would like. Additionally, he recommends utilizing agreements for trades and exchanges that benefit both parties involved. Ultimately, Browne believes that individuals are best equipped to pursue their own happiness instead of relying on others. If people prioritized their own well-being more, sacrifices for others would not be necessary, resulting in greater overall happiness.

Nagel’s argument revolves around the idea that individuals who are solely concerned about their family and friends do not fit within his moral framework. According to Nagel, morality should be based on a direct concern for others that goes beyond personal relationships. While it is natural to have a direct concern for family and friends due to the connections formed, Nagel argues that most people have similar experiences. Therefore, he believes that it is necessary to have a direct concern for all individuals.

In his essay, Nagel places significant emphasis on the term “wrong” as he delves into its meaning. While many people agree that stealing a book from a library is wrong, they often attribute its wrongness to breaking the rules. However, Nagel challenges this perspective by highlighting flawed rules in society and asserting that breaking such rules does not justify considering an action as inherently wrong.

Stealing a book from a library infringes upon others’ opportunity to read it, thus demonstrating a lack of concern for those interested in reading it. Nagel acknowledges the objection that someone may not care about being thoughtless or inconsiderate but argues that this does not exempt them from wrongdoing.

To support his argument further, Nagel employs the well-known expression “how would you feel if someone did that to you?” as flawed reasoning because those who disregard others may not care since they are personally unaffected by their actions.

Additionally, Nagel presents another argument that strengthens and enhances his initial theory.According to him, if individuals resent something happening to them, they should avoid doing it to someone else. He believes that morality is based on the understanding that good and harm can be perceived from a general standpoint. While there are various reasons for acting morally, these motivations often come from misguided intentions. Many people act morally out of fear of punishment or with the expectation of a reward. Nagel argues that these motivations are improper for morality and asserts that the main reason for performing actions should be a genuine concern for others. His argument centers around the idea that if individuals could empathize with others, they would refrain from engaging in behaviors that cause resentment. Thus, having a sincere concern for all individuals serves as both the motive and foundation of morality.

Selfishness, which refers to being primarily concerned with one’s own interests, has gained a negative connotation over time. People worldwide prioritize themselves, leading to the labeling of these individuals as selfish. However, despite efforts to avoid selfishness, every person will exhibit some degree of self-interest. Philosopher Ayn Rand argues that selfishness is neither inherently good nor evil. Due to its long-standing negative perception, selfishness often accompanies “bad” individuals. For example, society considers a successful and hardworking businessman as good while viewing a bank robber as evil. Both have selfish motives for their actions; however, only the robber carries the negative connotation because theft is perceived as wrong and hard work commendable. Nevertheless, true selfishness applies to both individuals. Some argue that this term carries a weightier meaning than its dictionary definition – portraying a “selfish man as a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses…” This stereotype unfairly characterizes all businessmen as savage brutes willing to stop at nothing for personal gain when this may not be the case in reality. Selfishness is often seen as amoral and results in a negative perception.The act of being selfish is more effortless compared to being selfless, resulting in society’s condemnation and disapproval of those possessing selfish attributes. Ayn Rand argues that humans are not naturally provided with the means for survival by nature, implying that prioritizing one’s own interests is deemed immoral. As the desire to live revolves around self-interest, it becomes impossible for any individual to escape being labeled as selfish. Over time, the term “selfishness” has gained a strongly negative connotation, despite its initial definition relating to concern for one’s own affairs.

The topic of determining someone’s selfishness and the definition used for it is explored in various perspectives. There are conflicting views due to the different interpretations people have. To truly understand selfishness, it is important to consider its genuine meaning. Two authors, Browne and Nagel, approach this subject from different angles.

Browne argues that leading a selfish life results in more happiness while Nagel believes our morality should be based on a direct concern for others. According to Browne, if everyone prioritizes another person’s happiness over their own, nobody will be happy. On the other hand, Nagel criticizes Browne’s theory by rejecting the idea that individuals can pursue any action solely for their own happiness since some actions may cause resentment.

Selfishness has acquired a negative connotation due to its association with heartless individuals. However, this negativity stems from a distorted perception of the term. It is natural for people to have self-concern and it is not fair to criticize someone for it. Selfishness cannot be categorized as right or wrong; it simply describes self-interest.

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Selfishness: A misunderstood Reality. (2016, Oct 29). Retrieved from

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