It’s amusing when ethics discussions come up in class, how someone always points out that we all act in our own self-interest, whether we consider that to be selfish or not. Today I came across an interesting point along the same lines in my readings, this by Harry Browne:
Everyone is selfish; everyone is doing what he believes will make himself happier. The recognition of that can take most of the sting out of accusations that you’re being “selfish.” Why should you feel guilty for seeking your own happiness when that’s what everyone else is doing too?…
To find constant, profound happiness requires that you be free to seek the gratification of your own desires. It means making positive choices.
If you slip into the Unselfishness Trap, you’ll spend a good part of your time making negative choices—trying to avoid the censure of those who tell you not to think of yourself…
If someone finds happiness by doing “good works” for others, let him. That doesn’t mean that’s the best way for you to find happiness.
And when someone accuses you of being selfish, just remember that he’s only upset because you aren’t doing what he selfishly wants you to do.
Though most of us don’t like to be viewed as selfish, Browne has a very valid point. You can’t go around spending your whole life doing everything for the benefit of everyone around you. All that results in is making yourself miserable. I’ve tried it, and while it sounds good in theory, doing what is best for others in every case can only end up with hurting yourself. However, I do think he’s wrong that you should also always do what will make you happier. As with most areas of life, there needs to be a healthy balance between the two.
James Rachels makes another valid point that deriving happiness from helping others does not necessarily make one selfish:
Why should we think that merely because someone derives satisfaction from helping others this makes him selfish? Isn’t the unselfish man precisely the one who does derive satisfaction from helping others, while the selfish man does not? Similarly, it is nothing more than shabby sophistry to say, because Smith takes satisfaction in helping his friend, that he is behaving selfishly.
I suppose if you were doing things for others to gain something for yourself besides happiness (using them as a means to an end, as Kant would say) in that sense you would be selfish. But doing nice things because you like to is not in itself a negative thing. It all comes down to perspective.