Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum

Definition of "selfish", what do we do?

Rate this topic


Recommended Posts

It's clear to me that the popular accepted definition of selfish is an irrational selfishness. We can debate this issue, if we must, but I think that it is absolutely clear.

selfish

1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others

2: arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others <a selfish act>

It's not just the dictionary. Just ask any non-Objectivist what it means to be selfish, and they'll probably use all kinds of words which describe irrational selfishness.

Why must Objectivists endure this scarlet letter, this slur against Objectivism? We have a choice. I chose to reject the word and reject the scorn of being perceived as any kind of irrational person in even the slightest way. The solution is to reject the word selfish and replace the word with an equivalent phrase. I'd like to use the phrase rational self interest as a replacement for the term selfishness, but I will also debate the appropriate replacement phrase, if I must.

From VOS intro:

Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles. This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness.
Edited by slacker00
Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • Replies 96
  • Created
  • Last Reply

Top Posters In This Topic

The word selfish is not properly defined by Webster (because they decided to editorialize, which is always improper for a dictionary), but other dictionaries have it right. It means acting in one's best interest. (whether that best interest should be established through rational or other means is editorializing)

As for average people, they know what the word means, they just don't think that is the rational or moral way to act. But that error comes not from misunderstanding the word "selfish", but rather the words "rational" and "moral". And, of course, the word rational actually means "epistemologically correct", so the source of the problem is popular epistemology and ethics, not scarlet letters at all.

If you want to help, I suggest understanding Objectivist Epistemology, and then explaining it to others, not playing word games in the hope of swaying people. You are in fact (in a manner of speaking) making the same epistemological errors most modern intellectuals are making, by assigning weight to words rather than ideas.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

A lot of Objectivists have already started using the phrase "rational self-interest".

This could be a good discussion though.

A lot of Objectivists say one of the biggest problems with the world is that people embrace the concept of selflessness.

But I don't think this is actually true.

I see people TALKING about being selfless but I don't see any of them actually BEING selfless.

Most people already practice rational self-interest.

I don't think Objectivists convincing other people that selflessness is immoral will accomplish anything.

Politicians talk about selflessness, but they are not actually selfless, they are the most greedy people in the world, but they are looters, they are interested in stealing money and controlling other people.

And the people who vote for these politicians are also not selfless, they just want free stuff, they are moochers.

If everyone in the world agreed that selflessness was evil and selfishness was moral, would it make a difference?

Looters and moochers would still exist.

In Atlas Shrugged, the productive members of society took the power and control away from moochers and looters by going on strike.

This was an awesome way for Ayn Rand to explain concepts, but I don't think it's is a practical solution for the real world, and I'm pretty sure Ayn Rand didn't intend it to be.

The real world contains 6.6 billion people and millions of them are productive.

I have to go to work now, I'll write more later.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

It's not just the dictionary.
There is no such thing as The Dictionary. There are hundreds of dictionaries. It is specifically on the point of "excess" that different definitions disagree. I suggest that if you want to get a "dictionary definition", integrate existing definitions, and ignore non-essential measurement differences. When one dictionary says "excess" and another doesn't, obviously "excess" is not essential. Not part of a proper definition of the word. A definition identifies existents, it does not evaluate them.
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I agree with turboimpala, and I see what slacker00 is saying. Rand was trying to reclaim the word "selfishness", but maybe we should concentrate on the larger battle. After all, nobody's trying to reclaim the word "gay" to mean "happy" - it's gone!

Maybe the approach we could take is to mainly use the term "rational self-interest" and then explain as an aside that the root of the word "selfish" is "self", and that that word has had a negative connotation tacked on to its meaning which we reject.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My dictionary defines "selfish" as: 1) devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned only with one's own interests. 2) characterized by or revealing concern or care only for oneself. syn: self-interest, self seeking, egoistic. [Random House College Dictionary, 1973].

So it does depend on the dictionary. Of course, the thing is that if one cares for oneself then one will care for one's own selfish values -- i.e. one's significant others, friends, lovers, etc. Just as one will take care of one's own car and one's one house, etc.

Besides, Ayn Rand's book The Virtue of Selfishness explains the issue quite well, so I don't think we need to be concerned with what others think about it. The altruists don't care if you call it selfishness or rational self-interest, they still think it is immoral and it won't make a difference at all.

It is the proper understanding of egoism and selfishness that we need to keep in mind, not the moralizing that goes along with the phrase -- "You are a selfish bastard!"

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Of course, the thing is that if one cares for oneself then one will care for one's own selfish values -- i.e. one's significant others, friends, lovers, etc. Just as one will take care of one's own car and one's one house, etc.
This is the fact that many people don't seem to grasp, about the selfishness of love. It's not just "any and all others" that matter, it is "those others that are values to you".
Link to comment
Share on other sites

It's clear to me that the popular accepted definition of selfish is an irrational selfishness.

I disagree. It is more accurate to say the popular package deal is that anything that is pro-self is immoral.

I don't think most people understand that irrationality and not self is the root of immorality. Further, in the popular understanding of selfishness and selflessness there is no room for the trader principle. There is no room for the man that is neither master or slave.

For example, it is perfectly moral for me to get a job, mind my own business and have a good life. Then, a local Christian busybody asks me to donate money to her altruist cause. I say, "No." She accuses me of being selfish because I don't want to give away my wealth to a cause in which I have no value.

She is right about about this much: I am being selfish. And I would instantly agree with her, "You're damn right I am." But the point on which we disagree is in our moral evaluation of my selfishness. Conversely, by what standard would she call me irrational? She doesn't care about rationality vs. irrationality. She only wants me to give up my values because I value them.

The solution is to reject the word selfish and replace the word with an equivalent phrase. I'd like to use the phrase rational self interest as a replacement for the term selfishness, but I will also debate the appropriate replacement phrase, if I must.

I respectfully disagree. An Objectivist (or any human that retains a shred of dignity) should never surrender the word self.

Selfishness is the root of all good. No compromise. Ever.

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/selfishness.html

A lot of Objectivists say one of the biggest problems with the world is that people embrace the concept of selflessness...

This is not accurate.

The problem is that people evaluate altruism (via selflessness) as moral. To the degree that, as you say, any people already practice rational self-interest, this is of course how they stay alive (achieve values). The problem is that they regard this part of their lives as amoral at best and as a necessary evil at worst.

This is how the average man morally evaluates:

To work, earn a living, pay for a house without a handout, to enjoy a few leisure hours. The average man wants to do them and does do them. But he regards them as amoral or immoral.

To give away all your money, to wash leper sores, to give up your leisure hours. The average man does not want to do them and does not do them. But he regards them as moral.

What is the one thing that can help them to understand they have everything exactly upside-down?

http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/self.html

I don't think Objectivists convincing other people that selflessness is immoral will accomplish anything.

Not by itself. But as part of an integrated philosophy that contains the concept of self as good, it will.

But of course, you are right that no one is actually selfless. It's impossible to achieve in perfection; it would mean death. This does not stop most people from evaluating altruism as good, and any action taken in self-interest as evil.

Politicians talk about selflessness, but they are not actually selfless, they are the most greedy people in the world, but they are looters, they are interested in stealing money and controlling other people.

And the people who vote for these politicians are also not selfless, they just want free stuff, they are moochers.

In other words you have just evaluated stealing, mooching and looting as selfish by saying they aren't being selfless.

It would be more appropriate to say they are being irrational by desiring and seizing that which they did not create and does not belong to them. Where is their self? It "exists" in the every person that did create the wealth they desire to steal.

If everyone in the world agreed that selflessness was evil and selfishness was moral, would it make a difference?

Looters and moochers would still exist.

But there would not be a body of laws that enshire and enforce altruism as the good.

Yes, since humans have free will, there will always be irrational people, parasites. The point is that the laws should restrain them from stealing that which does not rightfully belong to them. The laws would protect the property of those of us that are rational and selfish enough to create values to survive and enjoy life while we have it.

Besides, Ayn Rand's book The Virtue of Selfishness explains the issue quite well, so I don't think we need to be concerned with what others think about it. The altruists don't care if you call it selfishness or rational self-interest, they still think it is immoral and it won't make a difference at all.

Well said. :dough:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

But there would not be a body of laws that enshire and enforce altruism as the good.

Yes, since humans have free will, there will always be irrational people, parasites. The point is that the laws should restrain them from stealing that which does not rightfully belong to them. The laws would protect the property of those of us that are rational and selfish enough to create values to survive and enjoy life while we have it.

If the body of laws are created by immoral people, how do we get from where we are now to a moral body of laws?

I still think that the people who create immoral laws are not stupid, they are evil.

They realize that what they're doing is immoral, but they do it anyway because they are only interested in wealth and power.

Am I wrong?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The word selfish is not properly defined by Webster (because they decided to editorialize, which is always improper for a dictionary), but other dictionaries have it right.

I took a survey of the online dictionaries I could find, as well as my household encyclopedia which I own in addition to my standard "tried & true" Merriam-Webster College Dictionary that I've had since summer of 1995.

selfish(thefreedictionary.com)

1. Concerned chiefly or only with oneself:

I'm chiefly concerned with reason, reality and the people contained within it. It's irrational to ignore others, whether friend or foe, because they are a part of the fabric of reality. It's like speeding down the highway and ignoring an insane driver, a police car or perhaps a stranded friend. I'm always grounded in reality, not tied down to any singular concern which doesn't encompass the entirety of reality and reason. I am only one part of reality. There is plenty of reality which extends beyond myself.

selfish (From Wiktionary.org.)

1. Holding one’s self-interest as the standard for decision making.

2. Having regard for oneself above others’ well-being.

This one is dead-on correct. Now if I could just wedge rational in there. ;)

selfish(From reference.com)

1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.

2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only foroneself: selfish motives.

Again, it's irrational to ignore reality which includes other people besides myself. I am my own primary concern, but not my only concern.

selfish(From yourdictionary.com.)

1. too much concerned with one's own welfare or interests and

having little or no concern for others; self-centered

2. showing or prompted by self-interest

#1, same explanation as above. I can live with #2, even though rational self interest is more accurate to the true concept rather than only showing or prompted by self-interest.

-Below are some of my physical "hard copy" dictionaries I use.

<Same definition as my first post of this thread>

(Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary 1994)

This is my standard. I've had it since college and it's been everywhere with me since then. I've never had a problem with any definition and I've probably looked up thousands. It's a reason why I link the same dictionary, so I'm consistent.

selfish(Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedia Dictionary-1966,1968.)

1.Caring chiefly for oneself or one's own interests or comfort,

especially to the point of disregarding the welfare or wishes of

others.

2.Proceeding from or characterized by undue love of self.

#1, disregard is irrational. #2, I'm not sure how to qualify undue love of self, can one love one's self to extreme?

So, the conclusion of this brief, informal survey is that there is too much lacking in these definitions of selfishness. I cannot, in good faith, accept the concept when there is so much disparity. Wiki had it right, but it's a lone wolf amongst a forest of incorrectness. I'm actually impressed because usually people piss all over me when I reference Wiki.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

selfish(thefreedictionary.com)

1. Concerned chiefly or only with oneself:

I'm chiefly concerned with reason, reality and the people contained within it. It's irrational to ignore others, whether friend or foe, because they are a part of the fabric of reality. It's like speeding down the highway and ignoring an insane driver, a police car or perhaps a stranded friend. I'm always grounded in reality, not tied down to any singular concern which doesn't encompass the entirety of reality and reason.

I am only concerned with myself. Reason, reality and the people contained within it are there whether I am concerned with them or not, my concern is to my own needs. Any attention I may have for anything other than myself stems solely from my concern for myself. I am selfish, by this definition.

The idea that being only concerned with oneself implies ignoring reality is preposterous. I avoid insane drivers on the highway precisely because I am concerned only with myself.

I am only one part of reality. There is plenty of reality which extends beyond myself.

You are stating this as if the definition of selfish somehow denied this metaphysical fact. If you are concerned with yourself (selfish), you should be aware of reality and act to preserve yourself.

The definition of selfish does not define how one should act to be selfish, it defines only what the word means. That should not be a problem, quite the opposite. If you are looking to express more than the fact that you are selfish to someone (such as by what means you act in your selfish interest), feel free. But just because the word selfish doesn't explain an entire system of ethics, it doesn't mean it's wrong.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Why must Objectivists endure this scarlet letter, this slur against Objectivism? We have a choice. I chose to reject the word and reject the scorn of being perceived as any kind of irrational person in even the slightest way. The solution is to reject the word selfish and replace the word with an equivalent phrase. I'd like to use the phrase rational self interest as a replacement for the term selfishness, but I will also debate the appropriate replacement phrase, if I must.

Slacker00 it sounds as though you're concerned with the commonly held connotation of selfishness, not the definition. Selfishness typically has a negative connotation because of the predominant philosophy influencing our culture. That is one of Rand's most important points. To provoke people into rethinking what it truly means to be selfish versus selfless.

What does it matter if other people today "perceive" you as irrational, as long as you understand the idea. If someone is perplexed by your usage then it's open to further explanation, and if they still disagree with your usage well that's their problem. If it is true that "selfish" does not deserve a negative connotation then those people are wrong and who cares what they think.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

If the body of laws are created by immoral people, how do we get from where we are now to a moral body of laws?

Ayn Rand covered that quite well in Philosophy: Who Needs It. In particular, read the essays "Don't Let It Go" and "What Can One Do?". Also, support ARI - http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pag...te_arc_activism

I still think that the people who create immoral laws are not stupid, they are evil.

Some are evil. Most are either stupid or mistaken. Rationality is not automatic. Otherwise it wouldn't be a virtue. ;)

They realize that what they're doing is immoral, but they do it anyway because they are only interested in wealth and power.

Am I wrong?

Yes, you are quite wrong here. I suggest re-reading Atlas Shrugged here if you truly think that is the case.

If they were truly interested in wealth, they would work to create it, or work to protect it's source. Instead, their efforts are aimed at seizing what they did not create in order to destroy the wealth and it's creators. They are interested in the destruction of values, not the creation of values.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Politicians talk about selflessness, but they are not actually selfless, they are the most greedy people in the world, but they are looters, they are interested in stealing money and controlling other people.

And the people who vote for these politicians are also not selfless, they just want free stuff, they are moochers.

Being a looter or moocher *is* being selfless, replacing your means of survival with another person. A looter or moocher is by necessity utterly focused and dependent upon *other people* and loses any real functioning "self" as a result.

So, yes, if everyone agreed that selfishness was moral and selflessness evil, there'd be no more looters and moochers and things would be greatly improved.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I am only concerned with myself. Reason, reality and the people contained within it are there whether I am concerned with them or not, my concern is to my own needs. Any attention I may have for anything other than myself stems solely from my concern for myself. I am selfish, by this definition.

The idea that being only concerned with oneself implies ignoring reality is preposterous. I avoid insane drivers on the highway precisely because I am concerned only with myself.

You are stating this as if the definition of selfish somehow denied this metaphysical fact. If you are concerned with yourself (selfish), you should be aware of reality and act to preserve yourself.

The definition of selfish does not define how one should act to be selfish, it defines only what the word means. That should not be a problem, quite the opposite. If you are looking to express more than the fact that you are selfish to someone (such as by what means you act in your selfish interest), feel free. But just because the word selfish doesn't explain an entire system of ethics, it doesn't mean it's wrong.

I'm not arguing the concept. I'm arguing the description of the concept.

The definition you are arguing, I think you've made a reasonable case for that definition. It's just that most people don't think like Objectivists.

That's my point. I must live in a reality, which is largely populated by non Objectivists. I need to explain my behavior, one way or another, at times in order to function in cooperation with non Objectivists. I can't just reject reject reject indefinitely anyone not Objectivist as I go down the road of life. In fact, some people do find me of interest and would like to know more about my code of ethics, at times. Do I tell them, flatly, that I'm selfish? That's what I'm getting at. I'm not good at doublespeak or keeping two lies disconnected. When I say I'm selfish, it's a lie when it hits someone's ears that interprets it the incorrect way. Sure, misunderstanding is inevitable to some degree. But I think this word contains a misunderstanding which breaches my threshold for truth. Truth in communication. Language is all about 2 or more people communicating and it isn't individualistic. I'm not ready to abandon language.

Edited by slacker00
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Without a doubt , the "moral" high ground has been held for too long by those extolling selflessness.

The mental and emotional gymnastics that the human race has put itself through for a few thousand years,in trying to live up to some primitive , tribal, social, and religious "ideal", is truly mind-blowing.

One can almost ( almost!) feel compassion for the millions who tortured themselves with guilt, for never attaining that "ideal". There was never anyone to say to them ------ 'Just Shrug...'

BTW, slacker00, you sure got a stack of dictionaries !!

It's amazing how that definition has mutated over time. When I looked up 'selfish'in I think an ancient Oxford English once, all it said was ' concern with oneself'. Clean and neutral. And that's the one I've always used.

Since when have even our dictionaries sunk so low into politically correct, subjective moralising ?

Is nothing sacred?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'm not arguing the concept. I'm arguing the description of the concept.

Fair enough. But in my personal estimation, you seem unnecessarily concerned with upsetting people that are wrong in their understanding. You don't have to convince or conquer them. Just explain that you are rationally selfish and go about your business. You don't have to argue with every fool that comes along. If your actions are integrated with your professed principles, you will be happy, and anyone that is worth dealing with will notice it.

It's just that most people don't think like Objectivists.

That's my point. I must live in a reality, which is largely populated by non Objectivists. I need to explain my behavior, one way or another, at times in order to function in cooperation with non Objectivists. I can't just reject reject reject indefinitely anyone not Objectivist as I go down the road of life.

Ayn Rand wrote about this issue in The Virtue Of Selfishness in an essay entitled, "How Does One Live A Rational Life In An Irrational Society?". Her theme in that essay addressing that valid question is:

"One must never fail to pronouce moral judgment."

-Ayn Rand VOS

And this goes to the central issue involved here in this thread. You might be surprised how quickly the rats scurry back to their little holes when they hear a confident, perceptually successful, happy individual say with sincere conviction, "Yes, I am selfish. I am rationally self-interested. I have no intention of sacrificing my self-interest."

You don't have to be mean or combative about it. Just be sincere. Do not be meek or unconvincing or humble. If nothing else, just do not agree with or acquiesce to the evaluation that self is in anyway bad. If you expect to have a chance to live and enjoy your life, if you ever expect to have a society that is ever more rational, we must never surrender the word self in any way shape form or connotation.

In fact, some people do find me of interest and would like to know more about my code of ethics, at times. Do I tell them, flatly, that I'm selfish?

Hell, yes.

If they are of value to you, then be prepared to rationally, honestly, but not combatively, explain.

Language is all about 2 or more people communicating and it isn't individualistic.

This is wrong. And I wonder if it is not what is causing you trouble with this issue.

Language is primarily about identification. Only after that first crucial task can it be used secondarily, as a consequence, as a tool of communication.

So, yes it is individualistic. Like all thinking is.

Best of success standing up for your self. :pimp:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

selfish(Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedia Dictionary-1966,1968.)

1.Caring chiefly for oneself or one's own interests or comfort,

especially to the point of disregarding the welfare or wishes of

others.

I disregard the welfare and wishes of billion others in the world because they are of no interest to me. When I chose to buy something for myself, I chose not save several starving babies in the third world. It's the truth and it's not irrational.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some are evil. Most are either stupid or mistaken. Rationality is not automatic. Otherwise it wouldn't be a virtue. :pimp:

Yes, you are quite wrong here. I suggest re-reading Atlas Shrugged here if you truly think that is the case.

If they were truly interested in wealth, they would work to create it, or work to protect it's source. Instead, their efforts are aimed at seizing what they did not create in order to destroy the wealth and it's creators. They are interested in the destruction of values, not the creation of values.

I’ve read Atlas Shrugged several times.

You must remember that Atlas Shrugged is a fiction novel, it is not reality.

Just because the looting characters created by Ayn Rand were not intelligent, doesn’t mean that the looters that exist in reality are also unintelligent.

Many evil people are evil because they choose to be evil, not because they are stupid.

Assuming otherwise is dangerous!

When I look at a politicians face, I see shame, due to lack of pride.

He knows his actions are immoral, but he does them anyway.

Although he knows that freedom, individual rights, honesty, integrity, justice and productiveness are moral, he has chosen not to be moral, he has chosen to do whatever he can to acquire as much political power as possible so he can control other people.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I disregard the welfare and wishes of billion others in the world because they are of no interest to me. When I chose to buy something for myself, I chose not save several starving babies in the third world. It's the truth and it's not irrational.
Shouldn't one always be mindful of the big picture of reality?

disregard

: to pay no attention to : treat as unworthy of regard or notice

synonyms see neglect

I agree about the starving babies in Africa. For me, they might as well be starving babies on some unknown planet hosting life which we have not discovered yet. I have no answer for Africa. That doesn't mean that I completely disregard the continent and the people entirely. If we discovered life somewhere out there in the universe, I'd be interested in that as well.

I'm interested in the entirety of reality, despite the fact that I may have a primary focus of interest. Reality is of high regard.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Think about actions. You're so caught up in definitions. The meaning of words are important, but words don't exist just as words. They represent concepts. None of my actions have any regard for other people. I don't do things for other people, I do them for me. If I write a book and other people find it offensive, I don't care. Of course, if they like it, that's fine and it would probably provide me with some money. When you do something because someone else wished it or wanted it, you are acting unselfish, with regard to others. If you help someone because they have something of value that you want, not because they want to be helped, you're being selfish.

Edited by Eiuol
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I need to explain my behavior, one way or another, at times in order to function in cooperation with non Objectivists... In fact, some people do find me of interest and would like to know more about my code of ethics, at times. Do I tell them, flatly, that I'm selfish?
Wouldn't you have to explain what it means to be rationally self-interested?
Link to comment
Share on other sites

But with selfish, I have to explain why everyone is wrong and I am right and the dictionary publishers have a conspiracy against me, etc, etc. I'm not sure how long I can maintain that type of conversation before I sound like a loon to the average person. Meanwhile, explaining RSI, I'd already well on my way down the path of my concepts, in explanation. In one case, I've achieved a negative results, in all probability. In the second example, a rational result, explaining things accurately without need for political commentary or side tracks to bigger concepts like socialized mind control.

But I've changed course. Until further notice, I'm doing some slacker00 activism and I'm going to write to all of the dictionary publishers and see what they have to say about their definitions. I'm going to change the word selfish back to Rand's definition. There's no need to tag their incoherent baggage to the word which needs no political commentary. Selfish-acting with respect to self. I just came up with that. I like it. I dunno, it's 2 am.

Edited by slacker00
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Guest
Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

Loading...
 Share

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
×
×
  • Create New...