Can anyone be truly selfish?


There has always been a big, big question mark around the concept of altruism. At its worst, calls for others to give freely can often be a cover for naked theft. Just above this, an appeal to determine value on something which is unearned, can be a cover for lack of worth, or perceived lack of worth, by those who make such an appeal.

Even in the absence of an ulterior motive, when one gives freely, with no expectation of reward, one can still receive a benefit – whether it is the return of the favour down the track, increased social approval, or at the very least, that warm, fuzzy feeling deep down inside. It is practically impossible to prove either way whether the giver gives altruistically or not. And even when we examine our own motives, it can be tricky to discern whether such actions were purely altruistic.

So, the idea of altruism is shrouded in doubt. It is an ideal, an aspiration. We shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly if we can’t live up to it. We are, after all, human.

But the same can be said for selfishness, or to put it better, rational self interest. When one pursues rational self interest, one puts one’s own needs first before any other, the pursuit of ones goals and ambitions above any other consideration.

This does not mean hurting others, or sacrificing others, to achieve one’s ends. Indeed, the pursuit of rational self interest by productive, creative, virtuous people leads to enormous benefits across society and throughout an economy.

14407482486_4518b0cba7_Elon-muskFor example, Elon Musk became a billionaire as a tech entrepreneur, through his involvement in the development of Paypal. He invested this fortune in the development of three new companies to develop clean energy, electric cars, and most importantly, reusable rockets. At every stage he has pursued his own self interest to make himself rich and follow his dreams of launching a manned mission to Mars. In doing so, he has provided employment for thousands, the technology his companies develop will benefit mankind for centuries to come, and the part he is playing in helping to make human civilisation multi-planetary will help ensure the very survival of the human race.

Ayn Rand argued that the benefit brought to others by selfish actions, although real, is not necessary to justify the pursuit of rational self interest above all else. Man has the right to pursue his own rational self interest simply by the fact that he exists.

But the knowledge that the pursuit of one’s rational self interest brings benefit to others cannot be expelled from one’s mind. As single-mindedly selfish as one wants to be, the knowledge that it brings benefit to others means that one cannot be truly selfish, for the same reason that even the most generous serving of others, which can lead to even the smallest benefit to oneself, means that one cannot be truly altruistic.Photo by jurvetson

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David has studied history and political science at Melbourne University. His thesis was written on how the utilisation of Missile Defence can help to achieve nuclear disarmament. His interest in history was piqued by playing a flight simulator computer game about the Battle of Britain, and he hopes to one day siphon the earnings from his political writings into funding the greatest prog-rock concept album the world has ever seen.