Saturday, 24 November 2018

Self-interest and selfishness

It could be argued that selfishness is a vice of the individual. But it is self-interest that as an individual property, selfishness is only a vice in community.

Self-interest is inherently a virtue and not a vice. It is natural and normal to care for one's well-being. To lack care for one's self is associated with a range of unsavory behaviours ranging from neglect to self-harm. It is right to care one keeps warm, and sated, and free from thirst. And one can seek these things in private as much as he can in community. A hermit looks to care for himself.

Of course a man can care too much for himself, but that is because he has weighted his desires incorrectly: he loves food more than avoiding starvation, and thus becomes fat. Though obesity is hardly in a man's self-interest. The man needs to avoid the idolatry of his passions. Self-control contributes to self-interest.

But selfishness is a vice that one can only exhibit in a community. Those are selfish who care more about themselves than others. The problem is not that he had a second piece of pie, it is that there were others who had none. He may well have 3 pieces of pie at his own table, but not at a gathering where the provision was sub-optimal.

Selfishness is intrinsically a problem of community but self-interest is irrespective of community. Therefore self-interest need not detrimental to society. Selfishness is always bad, self-interest is problematic when it is idolatrous, or when a man is also selfish. But we have seen that all men have self-interest but not all men are selfish.

In order to serve others we must reject selfishness, though that need not mean rejecting self-interest. Service to others may involve going against self-interest, this is the path of Christ who walked towards death in order to give us life. Going without so others can have; giving away our time, property, money; fasting and praying for others. That we have self-interest does not mean we always need attend to it.

But we can also serve others by helping in areas that bring us pleasure. We differ in gifts but also desires. It is no virtue to insist that gardening and visiting and baking and teaching all be performed by the very men who dislike these activities. It may be in a necessity, but we can serve others in ways that also feed our enjoyment. It is not self-interest which damages community, it is selfishness.



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