Redefining concepts: A discussion about selfishness.

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I’m having few “sort of” arguments about being selfish and if it’s that bad being it.

Maybe it’s just me and my difficulties to understand the shades in English lexique but all the synonymes related with selfish are negative. It’s true as well that I used to think about selfishness as a negative trait myself, but I’m kind of changing my mind about it. There are nuances, and that’s what matters, the nuances. Not all is black and white, not all is enterely bad or good… I love the grays!

What the dictionaries and the etymology has to say

I was having a class about vocabulary related with personality traits: the student had to put the negative traits in one column and the positive ones in the other column. I expected “selfish” was placed into the negative (thumbs down) column but what I was surprised to see is that “independent” was placed in the negative one too (by a 90% of my students!!!). It was a general consensus about what traits are positive and which ones are negative. But the fact that some traits were seeing differently in some cases made me think that even the social rules and positive personality traits are subjective and not work for everybody or are seen in the same way. There is an approved general consensus about what’s good behavior and what’s bad but I think this consensus should be revisited.

What if we forget about the dictionaries, which by the way, are amazingly useful tools but really biased and not objective at all… and focus in the etymology of the word “selfish” which is the closest we can go for a scientific answer to words?

The etymology suggests that “selfish” means ‘about the self”. The suffix “-ish” means ‘belonging to’. Nothing negative so far. Ok. Then, I turned to my own mother tongue to look up for the Spanish equivalent, “egoismo“, which comes from latin “ego” and the suffix “-ismo” which means ‘the practice of’. Nothing negative here neither.

Without wanting to be too Machiavellian, up to the point to say that all human acts are selfish even the altruistic ones because even those are an act of self-interest too. This view, albeit true, has a pejorative sense. However, f we don’t take into account the “hypocritical” reasons why we might help others, it’s clear that helping and loving others is the best way to love and help yourself…

Without extending much about the evolutionary aspects of being selfish, as in being focused or concerned about survival. The truth is that being selfish could be applied to ‘being concerned with oneself’ and strive to reach the full potential of oneself as well as taking a full responsibility of your physical and emotional needs. It’s just to put yourself first, to make yourself your priority and look for your survival and welfare. And I don’t see how being concerned about self-welfare and being concerned about others welfare can be exclusive.

The problem is when we look for our own needs and desires at the expense of others needs, but if we combine both ideas of selfishness, the Machiavellian and the evolutionary one, we end up having an equilibrium where we become our own priority without damaging others.

Freud, the psyche and selfishness redefined

I have more arguments to support the positiveness of selfishness.

Freud tells us about the 3 levels in our psychic apparatus: Id, superego and ego. Id would be the instinctual drives, composed by the “eros” o the constructive side (sexuality) and the “thanatos” or destructive side (aggressiveness). Then the superego would be the ethics and morality of the person which always aims to perfection. And then, we have the ego, which is what I’m interested here. The ego encompasses the conscious awareness and has the mission of make us adapt to the reality by distinguishing between what is convenient or inconvenient, it’s related with judgement.

So the ego / self is the instance between the impulses and blind desires and our morality, what one conceive as good. So, we end up behaving in a convenient, moral way in an unconscious way, or something like that!

My point is that we still can save other person life risking ours not expecting apparently anything back. When someone saves other person’s life is mainly for empathy amongst other instincts. We tend to put in the other person’s shoes, we understand what the other is experiencing and we want to help expecting that same empathy back and because of the satisfaction we experiencing by doing it as well.

Selfishness = empathy + reciprocity

Put yourself first and don’t feel guilty about it

The concept of selfishness as a negative trait has left such an strong mark on our minds that we often feel guilty when we act in our own best interest. A friend of mine used to call that the Christian sense of guilt. I don’t know… The problem I see is that if we feel guilty when we put ourselves first, we tend not to do it and we put family, friends, partners needs in the top of our priority list.

Can’t you see something wrong in that?

I think that in order to serve others well, one needs to serve oneself well first. Love yourself to love the others, they say.

Imagine a mum that doesn’t take care of herself. How is she gonna take good care of her babies?

I am talking here about the importance of recognizing our needs and fulfill them, not about getting lost into a fulfillment of hollow, unnecessary desires that would make any positive impact in our lives, though. For example, you need to feed yourself but you don’t need to have that amazing looking browny (although once in a while…. one should be allowed to indulge into unnecessary pleasures…) or you need to be assertive by exposing your own views or feelings, but you don’t need to win always by being right or imposing others to fulfill your feelings (you are the one that has to do that… )

This leads again to a self-knowledge. Ask yourself: what does make you the person you are now? What are your needs to keep feeding (physically, emotionally and intellectually) that person? Once you know that, there’s nothing wrong by putting yourself first and focus on your own growth as long as you don’t damage or interfere in other person’s growth.

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