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COLUMN

Be More Selfish

Matt Craighead

If there’s one thing that everyone seems to agree on, it’s that selfishness is evil and is the cause of many problems. Poverty, they claim, is caused by the selfishness of businessmen. Racism stems from white people who refuse to sacrifice their position of superiority, and environmental destruction from people too selfish and conceited to give up their cars.

Since you’ve likely already heard these exhortations to sacrifice and selflessness, I’d like to present to you the opposite view. I think you should be more selfish, not less, for your sake and for mine. You should look out for yourself first and foremost, not for others, not for your community, family, race, nation, or planet.

It’s odd to need to take this side of the debate. After all, it’s easy and rewarding to be selfish. (Note that I am referring to the idea of selfishness in its strictest sense: seeking one’s own self-interest. I reject many of its false connotations, like boorishness, hedonism, or mindless obsession with money; these are certainly not in one’s self-interest.)

In fact, it seems that it would be difficult to convince people to be unselfish. What argument could you make? If you link a supposedly unselfish action to some benefit down the road, that action is no longer unselfish! An example is the Christian concept of heaven; if you do “good deeds” (which happen to be unselfish) in life, Christianity claims, you will eventually receive a reward that compensates for all your earlier suffering.

The modern advocates of selflessness are far more sinister. Typically, they do not even attempt to link actions to benefits; instead, they link them to ideals. For example, they might insist that you donate to the poor in the name of “fraternity” or “compassion” or “equality.” They claim that these ideals transcend any materialistic values, like self-interest, and therefore they take precedence.

This is a dangerous road for you to tread. Remember that a valid concept must be linked to objects in reality. Yet your deceivers would tell you that you cannot grasp the importance of, say, equality on a “materialistic” level; instead, you must recognize its transcendent value as an ideal. Observe that this is a religion, a religion where equality is a supernatural concept, pursued for its own sake, as an end in itself.

Once you believe that there is any idea which, by itself, can override all worldly concerns, you are in grave danger. Upholding that belief consistently requires following it in all cases, not just some. So, for example, if equality conflicted with your desires, you would be obliged to pursue equality, regardless of the cost. Likewise, if equality conflicted with someone else’s life, liberty, or property, you would be compelled to take any means necessary, including murder, to ensure equality.

Pick any ideal; you will find that you must follow similar rules, no matter which one you place at the top. If you unconditionally uphold it, you will sacrifice yourself and everything you know.

So most practitioners of sacrifice do not insist that you uphold their ideals consistently, only when it is feasible or practical. But when you hold something as an ideal and fail to practice it, you are condemned to Original Sin and a life of guilt. Although you know that you must fulfill your duty to that ideal regardless of the cost, you often pursue your self-interest instead. Any compromise or middle ground between selfishness and sacrifice is destined to failure, at the cost of your sanity.

I propose a simple alternative to this life of suffering and guilt. To decide whether an action is right or wrong, use logic and reason to deduce its consequences on yourself alone. If the action benefits you, it is proper; and if it harms you, it is wrong.

This standard is not as controversial as you might think, as I will illustrate by applying it in a less obvious way. If you were investigating two ways of building a machine, you would evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of each before choosing between the two possibilities. For example, you might say that one design is objectively good, i.e., it contributes to your values. You ought to recommend that your company build the better design, as wasting time on the other design would be wrong. That which is right promotes your life, and that which is wrong does not. Severing the connection between these ideas makes ethics inapplicable to life as we know it.

This standard is based on reality and not the supernatural; you can only decide what is in your self-interest by observing the world around you. Acting based on feeling or intuition alone will only harm you. This standard is very practical, as it never forces you to choose between the moral and the practical; they are the same. It is the quintessential American standard; what is “pursuit of happiness” besides seeking your own goals? It also leaves plenty of room for ideals that can be linked to reality and self-interest, such as justice, honesty, integrity, and productiveness.

So be more selfish. It’s in your self-interest to do so.