Pearls of Wisdom: The Virtue of Being Selfish Versus Self-Centered and Self-Obsessed

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Ayn Rand

By Upendra Mishra

During my university days, I had fallen in love with the writings of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. I remember I would have my exam the next day and a day before I would be reading either Kafka or Camus in the library or on the lawns of JNU. What attracted me most to Kafka and Camus was their brutal honesty in expressing themselves, no censorship, no trying to be politically correct.

Of the two, I liked Camus more. The opening line of Camus’ novel “The Stranger” (1942) still echoes in my head: “Mother died today. Or yesterday may be. I am not sure.” Another Camus quote that reverberates is: “To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.”

Upendra Mishra

Although I loved their philosophy of existentialism (a theory that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will), I suppressed the selfish part within me because it was bad to be selfish in the society and culture I grew up.

Perhaps, being selfish was and is still considered to be one of the most hated qualities in human beings. Whenever we act selfishly, we are quickly reminded about this by those who are closest to us.

Is being selfish evil? Some will say selfish is sinful.

Some of us who are lucky enough to have seen the split seconds of difference between life and death, however, may have a different opinion altogether, and may embrace the fact that there is nothing more precious in the world than our life; and there is nothing wrong in living our own dreams and our own wishes the way we want as long as we don’t hurt others.

On the pretext of being nice, we foolishly tolerate so much non-sense of others. Good people and those who truly care about us help us live our lives. They don’t play the so-called “moral police” or “selfish” and “morally right” cards. Life is too precious to waste on useless things.

I do believe that being selfish is a great virtue, but being selfish is different from being self-centered and self-obsessed. People often get confused with being selfish and self-centered or self-obsessed people. When we are selfish, we take care of ourselves, our family, our friends, our neighbors and our community. Being self-centered and self-obsessed make us the center of everything around us and that is totally different from being selfish.

Buddha was the first person in the recorded history to realize the importance of being selfish and urged people to be selfish. He said: “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

Being selfish does not mean you hurt and put down others, but you take rightfully what is yours; you may give it to others on your terms, though. It is your choice.

In modern times, the virtue of selfishness was popularized by Ayn Rand (1905—1982). “Man is a being of self-made soul,” wrote Rand. Her book “The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism,” which was published in 1964 as a collection of essays, openly talked about the virtues of being selfish. For her, selfishness meant “concern with one’s own interests.” Nothing more, nothing less.

Ayn Rand

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy has nicely explained Rand’s concept of selfishness. “Fundamentally, the means by which humans live is reason. Our capacity for reason is what enables us to survive and flourish. We are not born knowing what is good for us; that is learned. Nor are we born knowing how to achieve what is good for us; that too is learned. It is by reason that we learn what is food and what is poison, what animals are useful or dangerous to us, how to make tools, what forms of social organization are fruitful, and so on,” says Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  “Thus, Rand advocates rational self-interest: One’s interests are not whatever one happens to feel like; rather it is by reason that one identifies what is in one’s interest and what is not. By the use of reason one takes into account all of the factors one can identify, projects the consequences of potential courses of action, and adopts principled policies of action.”

The principled policies a person should adopt are called virtues. A virtue is an acquired character trait; it results from identifying a policy as good and committing to acting consistently in terms of that policy, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“One such virtue is rationality: Having identified the use of reason as fundamentally good, the virtue of rationality is being committed to acting in accordance with reason. Another virtue is productiveness: Given that the values one needs to survive must be produced, the virtue of productiveness is being committed to producing those values. Another is honesty: Given that facts are facts and that one’s life depends on knowing and acting in accordance with the facts, the virtue of honesty is being committed to awareness of the facts,” says the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy about Rand’s theory. “Independence and integrity are also core virtues for Rand’s account of self-interest. Given that one must think and act by one’s own efforts, being committed to the policy of independent action is a virtue. And given that one must both identify what is in one’s interests and act to achieve it, the virtue of integrity is a policy of being committed to acting on the basis of one’s beliefs. The opposite policy of believing one thing and doing another is of course the vice of hypocrisy; hypocrisy is a policy of self-destruction, on Rand’s view.”

Justice is another core self-interested virtue: Justice, on Rand’s account, means a policy of judging people, including oneself, according to their value and acting accordingly. The opposite policy of giving to people more or less than they deserve is injustice, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

“The final virtue on Rand’s list of core virtues is pride, the policy of “moral ambitiousness,” in Rand’s words. This means a policy of being committed to making oneself be the best one can be, of shaping one’s character to the highest level possible,” says the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “The moral person, in summary, on Rand’s account, is someone who acts and is committed to acting in their best self-interest. It is by living the morality of self-interest that one survives, flourishes, and achieves happiness.”

(Mr. Mishra is managing partner of the Waltham, MA-based integrated inbound marketing and PR firm The Mishra Group. He writes about his three passions: marketing, scriptures and gardening.)

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