Why practice selfishness as art? Selfishness has always had a bad rap, so should we concern ourselves with such an alleged vice? First as Edward De Bono, author of “Lateral Thinking” would say; suspend judgment, challenge the assumption and then consider alternatives.

MSN Encarta Online defines selfishness as “showing that personal needs and wishes are thought to be more important that those of other people.” Note that the definition above, does not offer a qualitative assessment. It simply states what it considers to be a fact. Basically man is selfish if he primarily holds his life and the pursuit of his happiness as his highest goals. The life and happiness of any other person is at best secondary and at worst irrelevant.

Primarily, mans life and the pursuit of his happiness are his highest values. The life and happiness of any other person is at best secondary and at worst irrelevant.

Alex spent 7 years tirelessly developing his computer software business. During this time he offered no financial assistance to his ailing mother who suffered from diabetes and could barely walk. Today he owns a large multinational corporation in several countries . His brother Steve forsake the full athletic scholarship he had been offered to attend Harvard University. While he earned a meager income from a part time newspaper delivery job, he cared for his mother providing food, shelter and companionship. Which of the brothers would you consider to be more virtuous? If you chose Steve, you are probably part of the majority. It may not even matter that Alex eventually hired thousands of people who were consequently able to provide financial support to their families. Today, Steve can now barely even afford to feed himself since he has no skills that he can market to earn a decent living.

In the minds of many the capitalist is automatically regarded as less ethical or moral than the altruist. Consider this question, Did Bill Gates do more for society through building his mega billion dollar Microsoft corporation than he does today as a philanthropist now through his Bill and Melinda Gates corporation?

According to Ayn Rand, the author of the ground breaking book “The Virtue of Selfishness”, the ultimate purpose of man is to survive and to hold his life and his happiness as his highest values, bar none. Even organized religion entices us with the promise of eternal life. Man needs a code of ethics that guides him through the process of evaluating his values and detriments. The preservation of his life is the standard by which he makes these choices. Mans natural pleasure pain mechanism is the barometer by which he measures his effectiveness at surviving. When he attains or maintains constructive values, he is rewarded with the experience of pleasure and ultimately happiness. When he fails to lose or resist destructive detriments, he is punished with pain and ultimately depression. Within the context of our personal code of ethics, the GOOD are the values which lead to our survival and the EVIL are the detriments which result in our destruction.

Within the context of our personal code of ethics, the GOOD are the values which lead to our survival and the EVIL are the detriments which result in our destruction.

Selfishness is not a choice? We are ALL selfish and this trait is hardwired into our physiological and psychological makeup. Have you hear about the selfish gene?? Man is programmed to pursue consciously or subconsciously what he “believes” to be his values or flee from what he believes to be his detriments.

At a physiological level, man is programmed to hold his survival as the highest goal in life. His life depends on the the nutrition he needs from the external world and his ability to digest and effectively process that nutrition. From the simple act of breathing to digesting his nutritional intake into essential amino acids and vitamins, he is programmed to digest the GOOD and reject the EVIL. He has no choice in this matter.

At a psychological level, man is programmed to hold his survival as the highest goal in life. For example, when he sees a lion, his mind and faculty of reason is essentially bypassed and a signal is sent to the amygdala which sends a signal to his brain to fight or flee. which decides whether to fight or flight. This happens at a subconscious level and he has no choice in the matter.

At a philosophical level, man is programmed to hold his survival as the highest goal in life. He processes external concepts and ideas through the act of thinking. He cannot control his emotional responses (pleasure or pain) to his values and detriments. He is programmed to pursue what he considers to be his values and flee from what he considers to be his detriments. He has no choice in the matter.

We are programmed to be innately selfish. So what role does man play in the pursuit of happiness and the flight from depression?

 

I choose therefore I think

Man automatically acts to pursue what he “believes” to be his values and to flee what he “believes” to be his detriments. He has no choice in his emotional response (pleasure or pain) to these. The EVIL is not that he pursues values or flees detriments (that is automatic) but in what he chooses as his values or detriments.

Man has no automatic code of ethics. He has to choose to develop his own. He can draw inspiration from religious traditions for example Christianity, Islam or create his own religion, but this is a choice he has to make. Man has to choose for himself his values and detriments. There is no guarantee in life that he will make the right choices. He bears the full responsibility for these choices and must be prepared to suffer the consequences of an incorrect choice. To quote Ayn Rand,

Mans responsibility goes further, a process of thought is not automatic nor instinctive nor involuntary nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results.

We program our emotional pleasure pain mechanism by our choice of values and detriments. We have to make these choices in the context of our lifetime and distinguish between short term pleasures that lead to our destruction and short term pain that lead to our survival. If we make the wrong choices, our emotional pleasure pain mechanism which is supposed to be a guardian angel instead becomes a demon of destruction.

To quote Ayn Rand -”A mans responsibility goes further, a process of thought is not automatic nor instinctive nor involuntary nor infallible. man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results.”

Man may escape his responsibility to think through disengaging his consciousness via various forms of escapism (e.g. alcoholism, workaholism, addictions etc.,). These diversions only offer temporary relief from unhappiness. Man however cannot evade the consequences of violating his ultimate goal in life.

 

Rational Self Interest

The question now is not whether man is selfish, but in the quality of selfishness he chooses to practice. In this endeavor, is man foolish or wise? is man rational or irrational?

Man experiences short term pleasure when he takes morphine or excessively consumes alcohol but this ultimately leads to his destruction. When man wills himself to effectively exercise he endures the short term pain and gains the lasting pleasure from the release of endorphins (the bodies natural morphine).

Man experiences pleasure when he consumes products containing saturated fat (red meat, dairy products, ice cream) but eventually this leads to destruction. illness such as heart disease, diabetes, cholesterol etc., Man may not life fish (high in polyunsaturated fats) but eventually this leads to good heart health and better physical and psychological fitness.

The heart is deceitful. The emotions are not tools of cognition, so man should not be guided by whims, and desires whose source, nature and meaning he does not know. It is mans responsibility to define his propore code of ethics, his values and detriments to give him the means of achieving lasting happiness. This is not achieved through the faculty of feeling (emotions) but through reason and basically thinking things through.

The foolish man chooses destructive values (e.g. a life of crime as opposed to productive work), focus his mind on irrational ideas and strives to seek short term happiness. This man seeks pleasure as an end in itself and does not realize that lasting happiness is only attained in the context of maintaining life as the highest value. He flees from the pain that must be endured to arrive at a place where he can enjoy authentic and lasting happiness.

 

Embrace Sacrifice

John Galt the lead character from Ayn Rands “Atlas Shrugged” delivers this stirring quotation: “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will not live for the sake of any other man, nor will I ask any other man to live for my sake”. John Galt knows that he should never sacrifice his wishes, desires or opinions for those of another person. Does this act of sacrifice in his best interest or further his own life?

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will not live for the sake of any other man, nor will I ask any other man to live for my sake.

When the rational man offers a sacrifice he forsakes a lesser value for a greater value. Jesus endured the crucifixion “for the joy set before him” but he knew that he would rise from the dead, and that by sacrificing his mortality he would be rewarded with eternal life, be seated at the right hand side of the father and win immortality for millions of followers and believers to come. Surely Jesus in offering the sacrifice was pursuing his values and acting in his own best interest. Jesus by definition was selfish.

Surely Jesus in offering the sacrifice was pursuing his values and acting in his own best interest. Jesus by definition was selfish.

The classical altruists on the other hand considered that the ultimate beneficiary of a sacrificial act should be society, essentially anyone except the person making the sacrifice. This is a destructive code of ethics because pursuing this path does not further mans life but an actually lead to his neglect and consequently depression and destruction.

Some acts of sacrifice give the impression that Man is acting ultimately in the best interests of others and are therefore considered more virtuous.

Consider the father who’s son faces the firing squad. The father pleas to take the place of his son and suffer death at the hands of a firing squad.

The father offers this sacrifice because he loves his son, so ultimately he is striving to keep this highly important object of value thereby satisfying his own self interest. Secondly, the father knows that his life will be come unbearable living with the memory of his executed son and in offering up his life as an alternative, he would actually succeed in fleeing from the worst sort of emotional and psychological pain that he could imagine. Again the father is ultimately acting in his own best interest.

Imagine if the son felt the same way, and would rather be executed than live with the memory of his father dying for his own crimes. If the father denied the sons wishes, would he be acting in the best interests of his son? Will this act now be considered less virtuous if he still sacrificed his own life while refusing to save his son from the same mental torment that he subconsciously seeks to evade?

 

Love Thy Neighbor

Love thy neighbor as you love yourself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is more blessed to give than to receive. These are truisms that when practiced lead to the experience of pleasure, happiness and ultimately an enhancement of life. In the rebel war in Sierra Leone, at least in the urban centers, the rich were targeted for looting and many other countless crimes. Man is not acting in his own best interest when he builds a mansion amidst slum dwellers living in abject poverty and squalor, thereby fostering sentiments of resentment and possibly even hatred. It is in the best interests of the wealthy to value the lives and happiness of his neighbors. This attitude may lead to his own safety and protection.

Man is not acting in his own best interest when he builds a mansion amidst slum dwellers living in abject poverty and squalor, thereby fostering sentiments of resentment and possibly even hatred.

Another definition of selfishness, this time from the Merriam Webster dictionary is as follows: ” Seeking or concentrating on ones well being, pleasure and advantage without regard for others. I would prefer to use the word “inconsiderate” so that we can give the word selfishness a well needed break.

It is very exhausting and consuming to continually pursue ones own interest. Remarkably sometimes the best way to seek your own interest is to be actually become disinterested (to the extend that it does not become destructive) and instead focus on the needs of others.

 

Pursue Happiness

A simple quote from Ayn Rand would suffice; “Happiness is the state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of ones values. The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold ones as ones highest value, and ones own happiness as ones highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement.”

Selfishness is a very complicated art form and can only be honed in time with knowledge and practice. The battered wife who chooses (consciously or not) to stay with her emotionally abusive and violent husband “believes” probably at a sub cognitive level that she is actually acting in her own best interest. She has tried to leave him before and remembers too clearly the pain that comes with a broken relationship, and the withdrawal symptoms of depression, fear and anguish that comes from breaking away from loves powerful and various forms of addictions. Rather than go through that process, she chooses what she “considers” to be the lesser of two evil; to stay with her husband.

The man who walks away from his girlfriend of 10 years from an intensely incompatible and confrontational relationship to start a new life with a different woman that promises him happiness is ultimately acting in his own best interest. He cannot imagine coping with the displeasure of living with the former lady that he had grown to despise and decides that he will not live the rest of his life for her sake.

I leave you with this final thought. God helps those that help themselves. Do not tempt God by disengaging from your responsibility to think and relying instead on him to make the right value judgments for you. When you have done your part, remember the words of the prophet Nathan to King David when he had to make difficult decisions of his own; “Do what is in your heart to do because God is with you.”