The Virtue of Selfishness

When I was a teenager, I had a fascination with all things supernatural and superstitious.  It started out with me telling stories about witches and the occult.  Then I started to carry an astrology book with me and work out the horoscopes of my schoolmates.  My tarot card reading phase got me into trouble with a catholic priest once.  I must confess I actually read those incredibly boring books about witchcraft while the other kids merely put them on their shelves to impress fellow adherents to the gothic sub culture.  But one day a classmate produced something truly scandalous: a copy of “The Satanic Bible“.  Now I can’t for the life of me articulate what I actually was expecting to find in this book, I just knew it had to be bad.  Preferably dark, sinister, and disturbing so I could impress girls with my wicked seductions or some other nonsense.  However, I remember feeling disappointed with the book.  It just didn’t contain anything in it that sounded particularly evil.  The idea behind the book was the assumption that Christianity was altruistic and therefore Satanism logically should be the opposite of Christianity and thus be selfish.  However, the book quickly ran into some philosophical problems regarding the nature of selfishness and how it related to evil.  Namely the assumption was that being selfish was necessarily a bad thing, however, this assumption about selfishness quickly hits a brick wall.  So for a book that’s meant to be about being evil it ends up being a rather peculiar, if not silly, unintentional self-help book.

Altruism is generally regarded as good thing, which many people ascribe erroneously as originating from Christianity; when it is actually a very recent idea invented by the philosopher Auguste Comte in the 19th century.  Wikipedia has this to say about altruism:

“Altruism or selflessness is the principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others… Altruism or selflessness is the opposite of selfishness.”

This all seems quite straight forward doesn’t it?  As far as the colloquial definition goes selfishness is bad and altruism is good.  Couldn’t be simpler.  Until you try to apply it to your everyday life and start asking questions like: did I help that old lady with her shopping because I cared about her wellbeing or because I would have felt guilty if I hadn’t?  Even if I didn’t feel guilty, maybe I did it more for my own pleasure from helping her than for her sake?  It soon becomes difficult to pinpoint the difference between an altruistic act and a selfish act.  Namely because caring for other people is often rewarding both emotionally, and socially once you have a reputation as a caring person.

Let us go through an a fanciful anecdote about an act generally perceived as being evil: robbing a bank.  Mr. Boris Brickhead has a gun and he wants to rob a bank so he can be rich.  He doesn’t want to earn a living, he wants to get all the benefits of hard work without actually doing the work.  By stealing the money from the bank he is effectively enslaving the rest of the population to work for him when he has done nothing for them: making him a parasite – an intrinsically evil thing.  So he walks into a bank, pulls out his gun and demands the speedy handover of all the cash from the vault.  However, as it just so happens that day the bank teller on duty is the stunningly intelligent and pretty Ms. Samantha Jones, who has a degree in philosophy.  Naturally, being of sound philosophical mind Ms. Jones wastes no time beginning a philosophical argument about the nature of selfishness with the would be bank robber Mr. Brickhead.

Mr. Boris Brickhead: Gimme the cash from the vault, all of it luv’.

Ms. Samantha Jones: All of the cash?  Are you sure you don’t just want some of it?

Mr. Brickhead: Of course I want all of the cash, why would I only want some of it?  I want all the cash for myself.  I don’t want to share it with anyone.

Ms. Jones: Yes, but this is the only bank in town and if you steal all the money the bank will have to close up.  This means if you ever want to rob the bank again in the future it won’t be here to rob.  Meanwhile all the businesses in town that rely on this bank won’t be able to function anymore, therefore you won’t have any places to spend your money.  Furthermore, since you will be the only person in town with cash people will know you were the bank robber.  If you care about yourself, you will only take some of the money and leave the rest for the others to have and use.

Mr. Brickhead: Lady, you’re right, it doesn’t make sense for me to steal all the money, the selfish thing for me to do is to only steal some of the money, but leave enough for the bank and local businesses to keep running so that I can enjoy the proceeds from my crime.  Just give me some of the money and put it in this bag.

Ms. Jones: are you sure you want me to put it in this bag?  Wouldn’t you rather I put it in an account for you?

Mr. Brickhead: Lady, I’m robbing the bank, why would I want to deposit the money I’m stealing straight back into the bank?

Ms. Jones: Well if you take the money out of the bank you won’t be able to earn any interest from it.  So I’m assuming after you rob this bank you’re just going to come back here and deposit the money back into the bank anyway.  Why not just do it now and save yourself the hassle?  I mean, there’s a lot of money here, you’d probably have to make lots of trips to the bank to deposit it all without drawing suspicion.  It would save you a lot of time and stress if I just deposit it now for you.

Mr. Brickhead: That’s true, I was thinking of coming back here to deposit the money into the bank for safe keeping.  But if I do that now then everyone will know who I am.  So I need to return to the bank later and deposit the money but disguised as someone else.  It is a drag for me to have to do that, but I think it’s still worth it.

Ms. Jones: Yes, but I don’t think that’s wise, I think you should stay here in the bank to make sure the money is safe.  I think if you care about your wealth that’s the best thing for you to do.

Mr. Brickhead: Why on Earth would I do that, woman?

Ms. Jones: Because the bank can easily be robbed as you’ve just proven.  If you want your money to be safe in the bank then you need to make sure it doesn’t get robbed again in the future otherwise why bother robbing the bank in the first place?

Mr. Brickhead: Good point.  So let me get this straight, you don’t want me to rob the bank all at once, but to come back regularly and steal a small amount of money at a time, by putting it into my own account and in the meantime patrol this bank making sure no one else steals it so I have a secure financial future for myself?  What do you think I am?

Ms. Jones: Well, I think you should definitely be our new security guard and instead of saying that you’re stealing the money, instead say we are paying you a salary because you are providing a valuable service to the bank and its customers by making sure their money is safe.  I think this would be a good idea for you because then people would like you instead of hate you, allowing you to feel much safer and happier.

Mr. Brickhead: It’s true, people would like me more if I wasn’t stealing from them, and it would be nice to feel like other people cared about my well being because then if something happens to me people would like to take care of me like I took care of them by protecting their money in the bank.  But why would I choose to work as a security guard for someone else, instead of controlling my own finances?

Ms Jones: Because if you were good with how you managed your finances you wouldn’t be in the bank robbing business, rather it’s better you trust the bank to make the money for you and to give you a portion of what they make.  It’s in your best interests to allow people smarter than you to guide you.  Keep in mind that because it would be risky for you to spend the money in this town, at least not too much of it a once, you would only be able to safely spend as much money as you would be making doing an honest job, but with the benefit that people will admire you and respect you.  In fact, I might even date you if you wear a neat uniform, enunciate your words better, and share some of your money with the less fortunate.

Mr. Brickhead: So the most selfish thing for me to do is to not steal any money, to help protect other people’s money, so I can get paid some of their money, to listen to and respect people who are wiser than me, and be treated as a hero instead of a villain.  Furthermore if I give some of my money away to charity, and keep myself presentable, I will get the girl and live happily ever after without feeling guilty or having to live a lie?  A life without any true companionship and intimacy?

Ms. Jones: Yes, that’s the most selfish thing you could do.

Mr. Brickhead: Ok, I’m hired!

The point of this fanciful anecdote is I hope to point out that whether or not a person is a decent human being or a villain has nothing whatsoever to do with how selfish or altruistic they are.  A decent, honest, generous, hardworking person will still always act selfishly depending on your point of view.  If you want to be liked, you need to be honest.  If you want women to date you, you need to be generous.  If you want kids you need to be giving of your time and attention.  If you want to have stability in your life you need to be hard working.  All the short cuts to getting these things typically lead to endangering yourself and denying yourself real genuine happiness.  How does being hunted down as a criminal seem like a good thing to do yourself?  How does getting a reputation as a liar and slacker demonstrate care for oneself?  How does having to keep this secret forever harm your capacity for intimacy?  The problem is not so much about whether one is selfish or altruistic, but how smart one is.  A smart person doesn’t go about lying and committing crimes because a smart person knows they can get a much better deal by being honest and working hard.

That’s why people who have more self knowledge are more successful in life.  They know themselves better and they apply their skills and traits more advantageously.  In fact, people with self-knowledge are more selfish because they are less likely to unwittingly act against their best interests.  If you have the courage to rob a bank, then you have the courage to defend it. Not many criminals have the self-knowledge to appreciate that they actually have some virtues they could be using to make themselves much happier than they are.  Like a drug addict: they can have a few short years of occasional drug induced highs, or they would have a long healthy life of modest comfort.  Consider a rapist: he could have a few minutes of an adrenaline fuelled sexual high and then rot in prison maligned by all, or he could learn self control, get a job, and have a lifetime of lovemaking with a loving wife.  Likewise murdering someone else is really murdering yourself as you can never feel truly free or safe again after that act: your life is ruined permanently by such an act.  The most selfish thing to do is not to ever steal, rape or murder anyone.  It has nothing to do with altruism, rather it is all about self-respect: taking the best care of yourself possible.

This is what I learned from reading The Satanic Bible: that being selfish is not evil, sinful, or wrong in any way shape or form.  Even the most generous philanthropist is still giving out of a selfish desire to feel better inside himself.  On some level all of our actions are selfish and it is unavoidable.  Yet I meet in my practice, as a therapist, dozens of people who are sick with toxic guilt because they believe themselves to be failures because they lack altruism.  I honestly don’t believe altruism exists.  I tend to see it as a lie created by abusers to guilt trip kind hearted people into being abused by them.  There is nothing wrong with asserting your own interests selfishly, just make sure you do it intelligently as there is no profit to be made in harming people who pose no threat to you whatsoever.  Finally, The Satanic Bible was wrong because evil is not so much about being selfish, evil is actually about being stupid.  The real Satanic Bible would simply be a guidebook on how to do stupid things that punish yourself and help no one.

 

 

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