Many cultures and moral philosophies have promoted so-called selflessness, such as the ethical doctrine of altruism by Auguste Comte (who coined the term altruism). Perhaps as a result, some other philosophies have promoted so-called selfishness, such as the ethical doctrine of Egoism and Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism.
Putting prescriptive morality aside, I contend that the self-interestedness supported by pro-selfishness philosophers does not necessarily conflict with the kindness supported by pro-selflessness philosophers.
The two philosophical viewpoints appear to directly oppose each other, but that appearance stems from the use of divisively confusing terminology.
Firstly, let’s look at the use of term selfish. Generally speaking, what most pro-selfishness philosophers call “selfishness,” I would just call self-interestedness. To most people, ‘selfishness’ generally refers to acting upon especially greedy, uncompassionate or narcissistic motivations. In contrast, ‘self-interestedness’ can simply refer to acting out of one’s own interests, including indirect interests. Many people, including myself, argue that all people are inherently self-interested because, by definition, a person desires and values what he or she desires and values. Those desires and values also develop into goals, and the person makes their decisions in an attempt to most fulfill those desires, values, and goals. While everyone is self-interested, the label ‘selfish’ is usually reserved only for people whose interests are more greedy, uncompassionate or narcissistic than other people’s interests.
Now let’s look at the use of the term selfless. Generally speaking, what most pro-selflessness philosophers call “selflessness,” I would just call kindness or compassion. Using the term ‘selflessness’ seems to absurdly suggest that an allegedly “selfless” person does not have any desires, values or goals or at least that the person does not try to act out of his or her desires, values or goals at all. But that is probably not what most pro-selflessness philosophers mean. When they call a person “selfless,” they probably just mean that the person has compassionate desires, values and goals, in that the person likes to help other people and other people’s happiness makes the person happy. In contrast to the misnomer ‘selfless,’ referring to such people as kind and compassionate more accurately portrays that the people each have kind and compassionate interests which they each act out as opposed to not having interests or not acting out of their interests.
In conclusion, so-called “selfishness” and “selflessness” can actually be compatible because the former can mean ‘self-interestedness’ and the latter can mean ‘kindness.’ And self-interestedness is compatible with kindness. In fact, I believe it is in most people’s self-interest to help others, not only because others may return the favor, but also because we naturally love each other. We empathize and sympathize with each other. We feel good when we observe others feeling good. We feel bad when we observe others feeling bad. We feel enjoyment and satisfaction by helping other people and by making other people feel happy.
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