What’s Wrong With the World – Selfishness


Related Book: Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – And More Miserable Than Ever Before by Jean Twenge

In exploring what is wrong with the world, I think we must discuss the aspect of selfishness. It’s not difficult to realize that we live in an incredibly selfish society, mostly because selfishness drives our economy.  Unfortunately, thought it has created a good economy, it has also created a morally bankrupt society, which ironically enough is leading us to a financially bankrupt society as well.

What is selfishness?

Selfishness can best be summed up as, “Looking out for myself first and all others second.” A selfish individual is someone who will look to his own desires first with little to no consideration for other people’s desires or feelings.

The other night I was walking into a store and saw a young person trying to wrestle away a case of beer from a security guard. When other people began to intervene, the young person dropped the case of beer and ran off. In this case, the young person represented what it is to be selfish; he gave no regard to the people who would lose money by him stealing that case of beer (most notably the store employees), but rather only cared that he got what he wanted. This, however, is an obvious and extreme example of selfishness.

Another form of selfishness is when we ask ourselves, “What can I get out of this?” For instance, if someone asks for you to donate money to the crisis in Haiti or to some other crisis and you respond you don’t have the money, you might have a legitimate excuse. Of course, if we find out that you’re paying money to keep your cable TV, your internet, to buy new clothes (when the ones you have aren’t tattered), or other uses to spend on yourself, it becomes apparent that you are selfish.

Some might read that and go, “I worked hard for that money so I should be able to use it how I desire.” And that is true to a certain extent. There’s nothing wrong with having luxury items or being rich – the problem is when we fail to use that money for good as well. It is popular in our culture right now to lament against the rich and accuse them of being the epitome of selfishness, but most of the people who complain about the rich are just like the rich, only with less money. It doesn’t matter if someone is a millionaire or lives from paycheck to paycheck; if both use their money for luxury items (like cable TV or a yacht) and barely come to the aid of those in need, then both are selfish, regardless of their income.

Even in our ethics we have become selfish. The ethic of hedonism has invaded America in full force. The belief is that so long as you don’t bring physical harm to someone, who cares what you do? If it makes you happy then do it. This argument is often used in the debate on homosexual marriage, that since two people getting married doesn’t impact anyone else (since we’ve forgotten that marriage has major social consequences), who cares what two individuals do? If an individual wants to use drugs, so long as he doesn’t hurt anyone else, who cares? Look at how many men and women don’t want to have kids because it would ruin the lifestyle they enjoy, of going out late, not having kids crying in the home, and so on. Or how many women don’t want children because it would ruin their body, or how many men bolt when they find out their girlfriend is pregnant or become emotionally distant when the wife is pregnant. The reason is we’re selfish and can’t imagine sacrificing our desires for someone else.

This ethic, however, is ignored in other cases. In the case of abortion and even some proponents of infanticide, even if the individual’s desires brings harm on the fetus or infant, that’s fine. We irrationally and unscientifically declare that the fetus or infant is not really a full human or not a person and therefore justify our selfishness. In the case of Judith Jarvis Thompson, she even acknowledges that the fetus might be a person, but still allows harm to befall the fetus in the defense of personal happiness and comfort.

We can look to the numerous cases of a man leaving his wife for another man or a woman leaving her husband for another woman and, regardless of how much that action hurt the spouse or the children, such an action is celebrated because it brought happiness to the offending party. Or what about when adultery occurs, but we justify it because “It makes the person happy!” In these cases, harm is done to an individual and a victim is created, but so long as happiness exists, for the offending party we don’t care.

So even the hedonism in America with the one clause, “Do not harm others in your pursuit of happiness” is not consistently followed; even if our pursuit of happiness will harm others, if we can justify such a harm, then we can continue our pursuit. We allow the harm to occur because we are selfish.

Selfishness is found in all aspects of our society, from the rich to the poor, among all races, all classes, and all business structures. We are a society founded upon looking out for ourselves first and other second.

Why are we selfish?

Diagnosing the problem of selfishness isn’t enough, we must also find out why we got here. In the Great Depression it wasn’t uncommon for neighbors to help neighbors, even when no one had anything. There were cases in the Dust Bowl that when a bank foreclosed on a farmer’s house, all the other neighbors would get together and bid one or two pennies on the property and let the previous owner bid ten cents on the property, allowing him to buy his property back. Rather than making a grab for property, the neighbors put each other first.

In the almost 80 years since the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, what has happened to our society to make it so selfish?

First, our society has not only done away with virtue ethics, but we’ve turned vices into virtue. In doing away with virtue ethics, we no longer have a reason to be selfless. Pride is the ultimate cause of being selfish, but when pride (a vice) is valued as a virtue and a good thing, selfishness is what ultimately follows.

Secondly, selfishness is good for the economy. If people were convinced that they should spend money on other people before spending money on themselves (unless it comes to needs), then how many people would buy an iPad, an iPod, a new computer, or an HDTV? Understandably it is not always wrong to buy these things, but when the focus of our luxury purchases becomes focuses solely on “me,” then we have bought into our selfish society. But such a society creates a booming economy, with people looking out for themselves first and trying to compete materially with their neighbors, companies promote selfishness in their advertising (e.g. “You deserve it,” “Treat yourself,” etc).

Third, we are raised to be selfish with our emphasis on self-esteem. I remember in elementary school that we were given “warm fuzzies” to hand out to people when we thought they did a good job on something or when we thought they needed encouragement. The thing is, we were never allowed to criticize an idea because that would hurt someone’s self-esteem.

With such an emphasis on having high self-esteem and not hurting someone’s feelings, is it any wonder we have become selfish? We’ve raised a generation (my generation) and are currently raising a generation that receives little to no criticism over their actions or beliefs because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. At the same time, we encourage them to act as they please so long as it makes them happy. In short, we have two generations that have been raised like only children under parents lacking a backbone; we have raised these children to be selfish.

What does selfishness accomplish?

Even if raised to be selfish, we wouldn’t continue to be selfish unless there was some benefit to being selfish. The sad reality is that there are temporal benefits to being selfish rather than selfless (though there are no eternal benefits to selfishness).

By being selfish we can guarantee that our desires will always be met. When I’m selfish and putting myself before others, I know that I will generally get what I want. Whether that means a better parking spot, a promotion at work, or a Saturday night not having to deal with my kids, being selfish will get me what I want.

Likewise, as indicated earlier, being selfish can be very good for business. Rather than working with co-workers, I can give myself all the glory and in so doing get a promotion with a raise, even if others deserve the glory. I can put other companies out of business just so I can raise the prices later, rather than being honest with my product.

Finally, I feel better about myself when my desires are met. I get to do the things I want and have a feeling of autonomy from my ethical obligations to the world. Being selfish helps “free” us from any overbearing ethical obligations, this explains why people enjoy being selfish (and why it’s so easy to be selfish).

What’s wrong with selfishness?

The first problem with being selfish is that all things ultimately belong to God and He is ultimately greater than us, so it makes little to no sense to be selfish. Even though our society has done away with God, this doesn’t mean He no longer exists or doesn’t hold us up to certain standards. Saying, “God made me selfish” or “well if being selfish were wrong, why did God allow me to be born when He’d know I’d be selfish,” might make sense to the masses, but it doesn’t make sense logically or theologically. Just because we make a non-sequitur justification for our actions doesn’t mean God will somehow look over our offenses. God is greater than us and all things belong to Him, so to be selfish is to be selfish with what does not belong to us.

Secondly, a selfless society is better than a selfish society. A selfish society is one that focuses on the individual whereas a selfless society is comprised of individuals looking out for the common good. A bank manager might realize that he can keep his salary the same if he lays off three people. He may further realize that he can lay off four people, keep the bank running as is, and make extra money on the side by not having to pay a fourth person. In a selfish society, though SEIU and others might condemn this action, he’s fully justified in acting this way (and SEIU and honestly have no moral ground to object to such an action since they’re also based on selfishness). In a selfless society, the bank manager would see that he can take a cut in salary and still have his needs met and so instead of firing people, he would cut his own salary first. A selfless society creates better jobs and in the end creates a better economy. Most importantly, a selfless society creates better people.

Third, selfishness ignores that we all have a common good, or a overall ethical obligation to each other. We have an obligation to help one another so long as someone isn’t taking advantage of the situation (i.e. relying on other people’s help without at least attempting to contribute to society). I have an obligation to help my neighbor when he’s in trouble, even if that help will cost me something. Unless helping will force us to forgo taking care of our family or would cost us our needs, we have an obligation to help. When we’re selfish, however, we cannot fulfill such an obligation.

Fourth, it ignores the plight of our fellow human. While we might be aware of someone’s struggle, very rarely do we step in. Instead, we ask, “Why isn’t someone else helping” or we try to guilt people into helping. The best example are the multi-millionaires in Hollywood who ask that the millionaires be taxed to help the poor. All the while these “stars” fail to help others out and fail to use their own money to help the poor. They build multi-million dollar mansions and go on extravagant trips, buying the most expensive clothes and driving the most expensive cars. Their humanity makes them realize that there are people in this world who need help; their selfishness prevents them from actually helping these people.

Finally, being selfish puts man at the center of the universe. Humanity is flawed and almost every philosophical system known to man recognizes this in some way. Since humanity is flawed, what sense does it make to place ourselves in the center of the universe? Why should we be the standard for happiness? Why should we get to decide what makes us happy, or better, what is good for us? We’re admittedly flawed, so how could we possibly be adequate in determining what is good for us?

What’s the solution?

The first thing we must do as a people is humble ourselves before God. For some, this means they must acknowledge His existence. For others, it means they must begin to live with the knowledge that He exists and has set a certain moral code for us to follow. We cannot humble ourselves to humanity unless we first humble ourselves to God.

Secondly, we must humble ourselves to our fellow man. We must put the needs of others first (within reason) before looking after our own desires. While this doesn’t mean we should sell all our belongings and live in a commune or get rid of our nice things, it does mean we should consider the needs of others first before we spend money on luxury items. If we have put time, effort, and money into helping other people, then it’s not wrong to get a luxury item. But earn that item, not just by working at your job and getting a paycheck, but by helping out with your community as well. If an item cost $60, why not volunteer 30 hours of work in your community and donate $60 to a local charity first, and then buy the item? It’s not easy, but it something we should do.

Third, we should realize that we shouldn’t be prideful over our accomplishments. We must always remember that someone somewhere else has done far more than we currently have. There is always someone who is better than us and could do more than us, so there’s no reason to be prideful over what we have accomplished.

Finally, we need to actually do something on a consistent basis before taking pride in what we do. We might take pride that we went on a missions trip or gave $5 to a homeless man, but if our lifestyle is not one of selflessness, what does it matter? Why take pride in once-in-a-while actions? And once we develop a lifestyle of selfishness, we can take pride in our work (that is, we’re pleased with what we’ve done), but we can never become prideful over what we do.

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11 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With the World – Selfishness

  1. Are you mistaking greed with looking out for one’s personal self interest (what you call selfishness)?

    1. No, because at the heart of greed is selfishness. We become greedy because we want things for ourselves, thus we put our desires first. Selfishness always comes before greed.

      Likewise, looking out for one’s personal self interest is okay when it comes down to needs. But when our self interest is over desires and we places those desires ahead of the needs of other people, or we look to our own personal self interest before considering other people, then we have become selfish.

      1. “looking out for one’s personal self interest is okay when it comes down to needs”

        Who determines your need(s)?

      2. Nature determines what we need to survive – that’s just common sense. Food, water, shelter, etc. Food from a star restaurant is not needed in order to survive, but a certain amount of calories is needed per day in order to survive. The same stands true for water and shelter. I multi-million dollar house is not needed in order to have shelter, but a house that is well-built is needed in order to survive.

        Anything beyond survival is a luxury (e.g. internet, phone, television, etc). It’s not wrong to have luxuries, but it is wrong to pursue luxury, especially when such luxury comes at the expense of the poor within our community.

      3. I don’t think you understood my question. It is a fact of life that people have needs, but who determines if one’s needs have been met?

        Do you have the capability to determine when your own needs have been met?

        Or is that jurisdiction of someone else?

        Also, with your new comment, how can a luxury come at the expense of the poor? Are you assuming that say a rich person pursuing profits employed poor people and did not give them a ‘fair’ wage, and therefore the rich person was made more rich at their expense?

      4. Again, nature determines if a need has been met. Certain people need x amount of calories and liquid each day in order to survive. If the person nears death due to malnutrition, then the person’s needs are not being met. If the person is able to remain healthy on a certain diet (without being overweight due to overeating) then the person is having his needs met.

        It’s similar to the virtue of temperance, or self-control. I would liken it to Aristotle’s happy median; in a society where it is possible to prosper financially, one can eat well and have a nice home without over indulging. Obviously, “over indulging” will be subjective to each culture and time, however we do know when such indulgence has been met.

        So yes, we do have the capability to know when our needs have been met. We know this from nature. We know if we are surviving, then our needs are being met. Likewise, some of the auxiliary needs in society (the things that help us succeed in obtaining our basic needs) should also be met, needs like healthcare, education, savings, etc. All of these aid in survival or in obtaining our basic needs. So if it comes down to paying for healthcare (if the society has healthcare available) or sending money to a charity, more often than not we should choose to pay the healthcare (if we have a family, we are morally obligated to do so).

        As for it being the jurisdiction of someone else, yes and no. I fully support society shunning people who are greedy or who over-indulge in luxuries. I do not, however, believe it is the job of the government to enforce such standards. Mostly because governments, logistically, cannot handle such a task. But more on the philosophical level, it is better to let people be free and abuse that freedom than to rob them of that freedom so that they are moral (in most cases).

        As for employers and “fair wages,” I do believe in having a minimum wage (as the 1890’s showed us employers will abuse not having a minimum wage), but I don’t accept the socialist term “fair-wage.” The “fair wage” allows people to buy stuff beyond basic needs, which is absurd. A minimum wage simply makes sure that employers are giving their workers a wage that they can eat with and provide shelter for themselves. If the employee abuses his income, that is his own fault, not the fault of the employer.

        Likewise, I’m not against luxury items. A 40 foot yacht is not inherently evil if someone buys it; how it’s used is what makes such a purchase evil. For one, people help build those yachts, which provides money. Secondly, who’s to say the person who purchases such a yacht doesn’t also use it for charity events?

        At the same time, there are employers who abuse Capitalism. They realize that if they lay off x amount of people, it could potentially raise their bonus at the end of the year. Or they realize they could pay more on employee health insurance, but choose not to because it would cut into their own salary. Or in the case of celebrities, they make millions of dollars (and want the government to spend our meager dollars), but give little to nothing to local charities or worldwide charities, much less donate their time to help. This is the selfishness I’m speaking of concerning the rich.

      5. You are saying three very different things at the same time. First you say, “nature determines if a need has been met” because if we are surviving then the need is quenched, then you say you are in favour of people shunning others based on ‘standards’, and then you say, people should be free? You can’t have all possible worlds at once.

        Your, “you are free to do what we tell you” idea is pure nonsense.

        First, on nature, nature presents certain challenges that must be overcome, these facts of life, e.g. that one needs food, or that sometimes one need shelter etc etc, are not always so self evident and clear cut as you make them seem. The world, and individual situations, are very complex, and just because 1 plus 1 equals 2 on paper (i.e. several facts of life have been dealt with) does not mean that the need has been met. Things are always in flux.

        Let’s take shelter, I get a house, should I say, I have a house and no need of pursuing better and better housing? Should we all be living in mud huts or caves?.

        If it wasn’t for people looking out for themselves and being what you call selfish and/or trying to profit we would not have the brick/wood houses we have today.

        Secondly, how is it possible to call someone free when they have to live up to someone else’s standard for living? Let’s say I wrote you a letter with a 1000 signed supporters who think it is unreasonable for you to think you need to have internet access at all, irregardless of how you get it and that it is very selfish and greedy of you to even think you should have internet. If you comply to our request to never use the internet again are you free or a slave to our ideas?

        My whole point in asking you the questions that I did is that I believe you have not thought it through, you say we shouldn’t be greedy and be reasonable, who are you to judge (or even think of that one needs to be judged) on how they view their personal needs and whether or not they feel they have been met (while looking out for there own personal self interest). Isn’t it a form of greed to wish to control the behaviours of others.

        Lastly, minimum wage and fair wage are synonymous. Minimum wage keeps people, who are unskilled poor and unemployable. If I have a business and I can afford to pay 3 employees 6 dollars an hour based on their skill level, and they agree to do so voluntarily no fault has taken place. However, with a minimum wage law set to say 7 dollars I would have to fire one of my employees and he might not have the skill to be worth paying 7 dollars for in any businesses located in his area.

        Now before you say, well the store owner is being greedy and should let go some of his profits to hire the 3rd guy. Imagine a case scenario where a business operates on credit and any profit is used to clear that debt and keep the business running, or profits are used to improve the business and reduce the cost of the service from the perspective of the consumer.

      6. You’re completely missing the point.

        I don’t set three different standards for basic needs. I defined basic needs (which nature determines), auxiliary needs (things that help us obtain basic needs, this is determined by what is necessary in that society to obtain basic needs), and luxury items (which people are free to pursue). None of these are contradictory, mutually exclusive, or even referring to the same need. By missing this point, your response is skewed from there because it’s based upon a false premise.

        As for the “you are free to do what we tell you,” where did I ever make that argument? “Freedom” doesn’t mean we’re free from moral obligations, merely that we have the ability to choose to act on such moral obligations. We must understand that no man is autonomous to himself, therefore when we fail to act on certain moral obligations, even if such obligations are not codified in the law, other free moral agents have the right to shun us for our actions. This doesn’t negate freedom (unless you accept autonomy as freedom, which would be an absurd standard since freedom has never been defined in such a way), but rather shows that even in a free society we have obligations.

        Dealing with your first point, I must say that your argument makes little to no sense. If I have food and shelter and I am surviving, then basic needs have been met. If I have an education, a nice house with electricity, and so on, by Western standards my auxiliary needs have been met. It really is that simple. Things are always in flux, but needs are not – humans 40,000 years ago had the same basic needs that we have today.

        You then bring up a non-sequitur argument about living in mud huts, but this is simply not what I was arguing. You’re taking my argument to the extremely absurd and then attacking it – that is a logical fallacy. Rather, what I argued is there’s nothing wrong in having a nice home that is up to the standards of your society. Likewise, if someone wants a “nicer than normal” home, then so be it. I have stated quite explicitly that there’s nothing wrong with having luxurious items; the problem is when we pursue luxury at the expense of others. What about this are you not getting?

        In dealing with your second point, once again you’re taking my position to an absurd, non sequitur end, and then attacking that. It’s dangerously close to a strawman, but regardless (not irrigardless…irrigardless is not a word) it’s still illogical because it’s attacking an absurd conclusion that does not follow from what I have been saying.

        Let’s say you have over one million people asking me to give up the internet because they found it useless. I would simply ask them to point to which vice I am incurring. Unless I am using the internet for my own pleasure, by writing on a blog or emailing people, it is no different than writing articles, books, or letters to people. Thus, to be logically consistent, all one million people would have to stop writing articles or sending letters, making their petition impossible to be created or be sent to me, that is, if they wanted to be consistent.

        Even if I look at the basic idea of what you are saying, in order to show me why my action is wrong, they would need to appeal to virtue. They would need to show how my action is actually a vice and contrary to virtue. Virtues are not subjective or formed within society, but are external to society and individuals. They are, however, applied differently within various societies. What is greed is determined by wealth, and wealth is, for the most part, subjective to each society. If you owned four cows, ten chickens, and five acres of farmland, that wouldn’t make you “wealthy” in America, but it would certainly make you wealthy in a developing nation. Greed (a vice) is therefore a mentality, the unwillingness to share the excesses that a person has. What those excesses are is somewhat subjective to any given society, but not completely subjective.

        If your entire point is that I haven’t thought this through, I would argue that you’re very wrong on that. You’re taking a subjective, autonomous stance on the issue. That is a stance that I absolutely reject. I believe there is an absolute standard for selfishness, but such a standard will be applied in different ways in different societies. As I stated, it is an unwillingness to share one’s excesses. I’m not asking for one to give up all excesses or to even share half of one’s excesses, merely that one should be willing to give to those who are less fortunate. This is one example of being selfish.

        Lastly, I’m not trying to control anyone. I am, however, pointing out that we have certain moral obligations. While it is not my job or the job of the government to enforce some of these obligations (such as preventing selfishness), this doesn’t negate that certain obligations still remain. I have every right to tell someone when they are being greedy, when their basic needs have been met, and when their auxiliary needs have been met; though I can’t enforce any action on such judgments, so long as said judgments are within reason then I am justified in saying them. Natural biological law determines our basic needs, society determines what auxiliary needs we have that help us meet our basic needs, and Natural Moral law determines whether or not we’re being selfish in our needs.

        Again, I’m not exactly sure why this is a difficult concept to grasp. Unless you are an extreme libertarian of the Ayn Rand sort, most of this should be basic.

      7. Penultima,

        “You are saying three very different things at the same time. First you say, “nature determines if a need has been met” because if we are surviving then the need is quenched, then you say you are in favour of people shunning others based on ‘standards’, and then you say, people should be free? You can’t have all possible worlds at once.”
        This sounds like the words of a high school student who happened to wander into a modal logic lecture while visiting the local community college . In short, what is the point here?

        “The world, and individual situations, are very complex, and just because 1 plus 1 equals 2 on paper (i.e. several facts of life have been dealt with) does not mean that the need has been met. Things are always in flux.”
        If I need food and I get food then that need was met. The fact that survival is a continuous need in no way indicates that a need has not been met in the process.

        “If you comply to our request to never use the internet again are you free or a slave to our ideas?”
        The very word “comply” implies that there was a voluntary choice made and therefore the person in question could have done otherwise. Commonly, the ability to have done other than what one chose is known as freedom.

        “who are you to judge (or even think of that one needs to be judged) on how they view their personal needs and whether or not they feel they have been met (while looking out for there own personal self interest).”
        Since there is a severe lack of anything resembling an argument in your responses, I’m going to assume that this is the crux of your objection. This is no real objection at all; anyone could ask of you, “who are you to judge Joel on his views and tell him he is wrong? You’re trying to control what he thinks and does.”

        “Isn’t it a form of greed to wish to control the behaviours of others.”
        Joel is very obviously NOT saying that he wishes to control others behaviors. Joel is clearly arguing from a Judeo-Christian worldview in which there is a consistent and absolute morality and by which humanity is to conduct itself. Therefore, in order to bring a real objection to his views, which are consistent with his worldview, you must depose the worldview itself.

        By the by, “irregardless” is not a real word and actually communicates the opposite of what you mean Of course this assumes one is able to derive any sort of meaning or argument from this literary masturbation you continue to carry on.

  2. I should add that a “fair wage” is what makes someone more equal to the average American in terms of income. That is, their wage makes them able to consume more within the given economy. A minimum wage determines what a person needs in order to have basic shelter and food.

    Regardless, your analogy is another venture into absurdity. I gave specific examples of what would be greedy, but instead you choose to put words in my mouth. Instead of dealing with the examples I gave, you created a new example, assumed I would respond in the way you chose, and then attacked that. That is a straw man argument.

    Rather, in the example you listed, as unfortunate as it is, the business owner would have to layoff the third person. Budget cuts resulting in layoffs is a fact of life and an unfortunate one at that. But it does happen and it’s not always because of greed.

    So please, stop drawing non sequitur conclusions on my arguments. It would be better for you to ask questions (not leading questions that bring you to a point, but questions to gather information) before jumping to conclusions on what I’m saying.

  3. Our country is in a sad fate, today – and the mega wealthy have turned a blind eye to the suffering of the poor. Here in my area in Albemarle, Virginia we have a particular family who are worth BILLIONS. The woman in question started out as a porn star, seriously. She married a billionaire and today lives in an oppulent 45 room mansion. She spends money on herself – lavish cars, clothes, jewelry, parties, first class travel, etc. – meanwhile, people are losing their homes, living in their cars, standing in line at food banks and this woman couldn’t care less. She’s just like many other mega wealthy people in our country – only concerned with themselves.

    Unfortunately, this has always been the case. People like this COULD help alleviate a lot of suffering, but they don’t. They hoard their money, keep all their “goodies” to themselves, and when they DO donate anything they do it for selfish reasons, first – tax breaks, for instance, or to gain attention.

    These are the very people the Bible refers to when it says a rich person has as much chance of entering the kingdom of Heaven as a camel does passing through the eye of a needle. God is keeping score. They need to live it up while they can – they’ll pay in the next life!

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