What’s Wrong with Being Selfish?

I am writing this at 3pm, having slept a meagre 3 hours after a night of trying futilely to fall asleep. I am tired and my head throbs.

But I want to write.

This is my first post in a little over three weeks. I have been busy writing my essay (which by now is safely handed in and hopefully sitting in a file somewhere within UCL’s School of Public Policy – if someone manages to lose it, I will wreak havoc upon the Department come March. They have my word.) So, sensibly, I put my pleasure writing aside. Not that I don’t get pleasure from writing my essay, but that’s another story.

For the past few days, I have been meaning to write a post entitled “Two Worlds” – it felt like the most appropriate topic given that it accurately reflects the state of mind I have been in over said period, since flying back from London on Tuesday.

But this question keeps coming up. And it’s true that I’ve been meaning to write this post for ages. So here it is.

What’s wrong with being selfish?

For the life of me I can’t see anything that’s wrong with it, and I do hope that someone will enlighten me as to what makes selfish ‘wrong’ at the end of this post. I’m really quite an open-minded person (but most people do seem to think that, so I really don’t know how well I’d fare against other open-minded individuals out there). So pour your heart out, do.

Here’s my tenet: I think everyone is selfish. The fact that everyone is selfish does not make it right (i.e. not wrong) – that’s a separate point. But the two facts are causally related. Some will take issue with me defining ‘not wrong’ as ‘right’, but this is not an academic paper, and I shall let myself get away with it.

Let me explain my position.

What is being selfish? I see ‘selfish’ as putting the self before others, striving to fulfil one’s self interests before those of others. Is it rational? I’d rather not get into that. But is it natural? I am adamant that it is.

Why do I think it is natural to be selfish? This appears obvious to me. But maybe not to everyone. The downside to something being obvious to you is that you’re not used to explaining it, to thinking through the logical steps that lead you to that conclusion. And my head is too heavy for such a task right now.

So I’m going to try and do this another way.

What does it mean not to be selfish? Does it mean you always put someone else before you? Does it mean, before making every decision and taking every action, you evaluate who will get the most benefits out of it, and only proceed if that person turns out not to be you? This seems quite impossible – given the amount of decisions and actions taken by any one individual on a daily, if not hourly basis. And our brain isn’t wired that way. I’m inclined to follow Kahneman’s dual-brain system.

He explained in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow that we can think of our brains as having two parts – System I is the automatic brain, the one that’s always running in the background. When you take the same journey to work everyday, you stop thinking about the route you take. You turn left when you’re supposed to turn left. And this turn is effortless, you don’t have to think: ‘which way do I turn now?’ when you come upon the junction. This is the work of System I.

System II comes into play for tasks which System I is not apt – indeed able – to perform. System II is the thinking brain, the one that exerts effort. This might be, to continue with the example, when one day you have to work at a different office from one you usually work at. If you leave yourself completely in the hands of System I, you are bound to end up at your usual office before slapping yourself on the forehead. But if your System II isn’t being lazy that day, you will take the correct route. Because when you arrive at the place where you’re supposed to do a different turn, your System II will take over and command you to go the right way. What triggers II to take over? I don’t know. Reasonable candidates are a high concentration level, being organised, timed reminders. We’re far from perfect – and so is our brain, the both of them.

All that detour leads up to this: I believe that being selfish is natural in that System I – for evolutionary reasons – will always tell you to be selfish. Being selfless requires more effort, at least to ponder over your intentions to validate their selflessness. And since System I operates far more of the time than System II, we must be selfish more of the time. I know I haven’t really defended the position that being selfish is natural, but I hope that somewhere in my explanation lies a string of thought that someone will carry onto its logical conclusion, thereby revealing the underlying logic to all this.

So, it is because selfishness is natural that it is right (i.e. not wrong). And also because selfishness is natural that it is universal. In other words, the two effects come from the same cause – i.e. that selfishness is natural. And this is why I wrote above that the two events are causally related.

So I guess the question boils down to this: am I right in thinking that selfishness is natural? I think that I am. But you may think differently.

And I’d like to hear from you.

And I need to sort out my sleeping patterns – a throbbing head is not conducive to happiness. Not at all.

You know you can always comment on my post (as long as you observe the rules set out here). But some of you may be shy or do not wish to share your thoughts with strangers, so here’s a box for you to privately share your thoughts.

And oh, it’s good to be back (writing).

Love,

Val

8 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Being Selfish?

  1. I believe being selfish is totally part of being human. The level or intensity of selfishness determines a lot about our character. Tells us a lot about our compatibility with someone, be it friends, family OR even that “special” person.

    Ultimately, being selfish doesn’t always necessarily mean a bad thing. I’ve learned recently first hand that it’s necessary. It means a world of difference.

  2. Pingback: Two Worlds | Living Time

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