Selfishness: A Misunderstood Reality
Who is to say whether someone should or should not be selfish? Many people will say it is wrong to be selfish, but where does this notion come from, and why should we care? Two very distinctive views of selfishness are shown in the essay’s “The unselfishness Trap” by Harry Browne and “The Objective Basis of Morality” by Thomas Nagel. Harry Browne would say that if everyone sacrificed their own happiness for someone else. On the other hand, Thomas Nagel would object to Harry Browne’s theory claiming that a direct concern for others should be the basis of our morality. In the two different theories of selfishness, Browne addresses, in his opinion, the best way to make people happy, whereas Nagel discusses how people’s concern for others should be a moral basis. Many people would say that being selfish is evil. They would also generally agree that being selfless is a good focus goal for the future. Selfish people are often stereotyped as horrible swine or people who would stop at nothing to get what they want.1 Selfishness, by definition, is to be primarily concerned with ones own interests. If this is true, that would make everybody on earth a selfish being. Selfishness has earned a negative connotation, altering its real denotation. Selfishness cannot be declared right or wrong, it’s merely a term to describe care for ourselves.
Selfishness is the key to happiness. That’s the answer someone would receive if they were to ask Harry Browne on his approach to selfishness. At first glance, most people would be opposed and reject this theory. Most people would believe that selflessness and concern about others before oneself is key to overall happiness. Browne sees this theory as the “Unselfishness Trap,” which is where people are led to believe they must sacrifice their own happiness for someone else. Browne see’s happiness as a big rubber ball, and “when [someone] has the ball in [their] hands . . . [they] hold the ability to be happy” (147).2 If Browne were to apply the concept of being selfless to this idea, the person with the ball would quickly pass it along, giving up their own happiness. The next person to receive the ball would follow the same principle, passing it along continuing the pattern. In the end, no one has achieved happiness because there were no selfish people to interrupt the cycle and take the happiness for themselves. Browne questions “how it would be a better world if everyone acted [this] way” (147).3 Since everyone’s happiness comes in different ways there is no better judge of what makes someone happy than that person. Since a person may not know what makes another person happy, acts of selflessness can be unsuccessful in delivering happiness. Browne believes selfless acts are categorized as negative choices.
A negative choice is considered life restricting, whereas a positive choice enables a person to be free. Browne considers you stuck “in the unselfishness trap if you make negative choices . . . to avoid being called selfish” (148).4 If someone were to tell you that giving is the key to happiness, that person is speaking based on their own opinion. Being selfless is the key to happiness for that individual, not everyone else. Many people would object to Browne’s theory because being selfless makes them happy. Since this only involves a small percentage of people, Browne rejects the idea because it does not affect the main issue. Browne provides a few solutions to avoid sacrificing happiness for someone else. He states that giving someone something they value rather than something that is assumed they would like would produce more happiness. For both parties to benefit from happiness, Browne recommends they use an agreement between them for trades and exchanges.5 Browne believes that since we know what makes us happy better than anyone else, that happiness will be achieved more efficiently on our own rather than someone doing it for us. Browne concludes that people don’t need to make sacrifices for someone else, if everyone were simply more concerned about their own well being, there would be a lot more happiness.
People who only care about their family and friends are not considered part of Nagel’s moral basis. Nagel argues that the basis of morality should be derived from a direct concern for others. A direct concern for family and friends comes from the relationships built, but Nagel argues that most people experience things in a very similar way and therefore people should have a direct concern for everyone. The term “wrong” appears in Nagel’s essay many times as he will argue what it means to do something wrong. Many people would agree that stealing a book from a library is wrong, but why is
it wrong? Many people would claim it’s wrong because it’s against the rules, but Nagel would say there are many bad rules in the world, and by breaking them, that doesn’t determine why it is wrong.6 Stealing the book would take away the opportunity of others being able to read it, which means there is a lack of concern for those who may have wanted to read it. Nagel recognizes and acknowledges the objection that a person might not care that they are being thoughtless and inconsiderate, but this doesn’t warrant them to do wrong. Countering this fact, Nagel uses the common saying “how would you feel if someone did that to you?” (114).7 Nagel proves this argument to be flawed because that someone may not care that they are disregarding someone else because its not being done to them. Nagel has a second argument that backs up the first theory by making it stronger and more applicable. He states that if someone were to resent something happening to them, then they are not permitted to do it to someone else. His objective “basis of morality is a belief that good and harm . . . can be viewed from a general point of view, which every thinking person can understand” (116).8 While there is many motives to do what is morally right often times these motives come from the wrong place. Many people would act morally because they fear punishment (by God) or because they hope for a reward in terms that someone else will return the favor to them.9 Nagel says these are the wrong motives for morality and the reason for doing something should be for a direct concern for others. Nagel’s argument focuses on how if people could understand how someone else feels, they would avoid doing something resentful. A direct concern for all people is the motive and the basis of morality.
Selfishness has earned a very negative connotation over the years. By definition, selfishness means concerned primarily with one’s own interests.10 The majority of people around the world have more interest and concern about themselves than others.11 By definition these people are selfish, but this is an unavoidable reality. No matter how hard each person tried to avoid being selfish, everyone would still act with some level of self-interest. Ayn Rand, a famous philosopher, stated that selfishness is not said to be good or evil. Since selfishness has been seen as a bad thing for so long, it is now often related with “bad” people. For example, most people would consider a bank robber to be evil, but a successful hard
working businessman to be good.12 Each of them has a selfish motive to succeed yet most people only see the robber to be the selfish man because the term “selfish” has earned a negative connotation. Since people see stealing as wrong and working hard as right, we accuse the robber of being selfish because of the match of negative feelings.13 Though this is true, the real meaning of selfishness applies to both men. At this point someone may object by saying that the term selfishness has a very different significance than the dictionary term. It is possible that people see a “selfish man as a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends” (161).14 In this case, people are using a stereotypical view of selfishness. Just because the businessman fits the description, this doesn’t make him a savage brute that would stop at nothing to get his way. Selfishness is seen as amoral, the reason why it earned a negative connotation.15 It is much easier to be selfish than it is to be selfless, and with this said people are still judgmental and disapproving of someone who has selfish characteristics. Ayn Rand uses an example that “nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival . . . which means the doctrine with ones own interests is evil . . . and therefore the desire to live is evil” (162).16 If the will to live is self-concerning, no one on earth can be excluded from being selfish. With the connotation that selfishness has obtained over the years, it seems nearly impossible to be more selfless than selfish. Selfishness is a term that has been warped into something that has a very negative meaning, where in reality the word means concern with ones own interests.
How can we establish whether someone is selfish, and by which definition are we using? There are many different and contradicting views on this. It is so widely interpreted because people aren’t using the real meaning of selfishness.17 Browne and Nagel argue from distinct points of view with distinctive ideas. Browne states that a selfish life is a life to more happiness, whereas Nagel objects and claims that a direct concern for others should be the basis of our morality. Browne believes that if everyone sacrificed their happiness for another person, no one would be happy. Nagel critiques Browne’s theory by saying that people are not permitted to do anything they want for happiness because there are many actions that are
resentful. Selfishness has earned a negative sense of being because it is often association with ruthless people.18 In reality, selfishness is a term that has been twisted into an unrelated negative function. People cannot critique another person for having concern about their own being because it is in human nature to do so. Selfishness cannot be seen as right or wrong, it merely describes self-interest.