Is being selfish really such a bad thing?


OCALA, Fla., June 19, 2014 — Just over two years ago, a local public figure encouraged folks to give blood because it was the selfless thing to do.

“Selflessness” is an odd notion. Of course it is a wonderful idea to donate blood if one is physically able and free of disease. But if it were truly selfless, how many would do it?

The man promoting blood donation talked about self-sacrifice, but if there is no personal benefit involved, or even hope of a possible benefit, is self-sacrifice rational?

Sacrifice is the relinquishing of something at less than its presumed value. If giving blood is truly a sacrifice, it is counterproductive to the donor. People being what they are, “sacrifice” has to be compensated somehow, if only with a warm glow and a pat on the back.

Perhaps a better way to describe voluntary charity is this: rational self-interest.

While some might find it unseemly, the primary motivator for aiding those around us is personal gratification. Seeing positive developments in our society makes us feel good not only about ourselves, but the future. Therefore, so long as one consciously and freely chooses to, lending a helping hand can be a very self-sustaining course of action.

Living with others in a society involves a constant series of compromises, doing things for others that we’d rather not do. In return, people do things for us. Charity can be seen as a form of insurance, or as a means of earning credit with others that will buy us a better position in society.

It thus becomes neither a chore nor a mindless burden. Rather, it fulfills important social needs and is beneficial for all parties involved. Realizing this is the key to motivating increased public participation in charitable causes, and awareness regarding important social matters.

Simply put, people will not do things which immediately inconvenience them if they aren’t convinced that these acts will have some ultimate benefits. This happens especially when we care about the cause we support. Self interest has a stunning track record of trumping all else.

When people are given concrete reasons to take the time and effort to do something “selfless,” we get a lot more civic minded behavior.

Neglecting to acknowledge the importance of self interest may be the worst mistake that is made during any charitable campaign. Moral virtue and wholesome self-sacrifice may do nicely in front of the congregation on Sunday morning (and aren’t even they often offered the carrot of salvation and eternal joy with God?), but elsewhere, overt appeals to self interest can be powerful incentives to be good and be charitable.

This is a lesson, and not solely for the sake of charity, best learned early on. Rational self-interest is a key component of life, not a character defect that deserves shame and derision. Maybe most will own up to this glaring reality someday.

We should hope, anyhow.

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  • JWPicht

    As a neo-classically trained free-market economist, I might be expected to agree with you. In fact, I don’t.

    My disagreement comes at two levels: First, there is ample evidence now that humans don’t behave by the economic standard of rationality; second, the utility concept that gives us rational self-interest is a tremendously powerful descriptive tool, but there’s no reason to believe that it explains human motivations.

    I can find a utility-maximization, rational self-interest argument to cover just about any situation we might call “altruistic.” You’d feel bad about letting a child die in a fire without trying to help; it would violate your self-image; saving the kid might give you a reputation for heroism. So you do a calculation, decide the potential payoff is worth the potential risk, then run into the burning building to try to save the child. And if he’s yours, you might be fond of him and consider his utility a positive argument in your own utility function – that is, it makes you happy to see him happy, so making him happy is self-interested, even if it seems to cost you.

    The trouble is, we often fly blind, we often value things inconsistently, we often respond to emotion rather than reason, and that utility-maximization argument can be used to explain any possible result that we see – it has no predictive power at all at an individual level. It’s like observing the behavior of an animal and arguing that it’s optimal because evolution rewards fitter members of a species, so whatever we see must be optimal. If evolution can explain every possible behavior, then it explains none of them. It turns into a “just so” story.

    I think what makes us human is our ability to calculate costs and benefits and then throw them out the window and do otherwise. Sometimes we help others when no one else is watching, when there’s no hope for reward and ample possibility of harm to ourselves. I’ll continue to use rational self-interest and utility maximizing behavior as simplifying assumptions, because as simplifying assumptions they work very well, most of the time. But they don’t have to be any more real than the massless strings and point-masses we assumed in my physics classes.

  • Bitter Cold

    Private property was discovered to be one of the best institutions by which to motivate people to make the most of their own unique talents.

  • George Allegro

    Selecting one’s government, through democratic processes or otherwise, is by no means a guarantee of liberty.