08/04/2015 02:45 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2016

Reconceiving the Idea of Selfishness

In the realm of ethics, no characteristic is more widely condemned than selfishness. Practically no one challenges the premise, which we're all taught from childhood, that acting for one's own benefit is morally tainted, while sacrificing for the benefit of others is the essence of moral virtue. It is considered self-evident that selfishness is evil.

But is it?

Selfishness is reviled because it is associated with the amoral, predatory behavior of a Bernie Madoff or an Attila the Hun. Selfishness is supposedly personified by someone who lies, steals and kills in order to gratify his own desires.

If we seriously examine the meaning of selfishness, however, a very different evaluation emerges. To be selfish is to be concerned with one's own interests. If so, what about those who pursue their own goals and advance their own interests without victimizing others? What about the ambitious student who chooses to spend time studying rather than giving in to the pleadings of his fraternity brothers to help them party? What about the entrepreneur who, ignoring the people urging him to go for the "fast buck," endures years of struggle in order to develop a superior product? What about the dedicated artist who refuses to compromise and instead creates a work that fully meets his independent standards? These are all people who are acting to benefit themselves--who are acting selfishly--but whose gain is not attained through another's loss. Why, then, is a concern with one's own life linked with the victimization of others? Why aren't the non-victimizers--i.e., the people who choose to further their lives by their own effort--the proper representatives of selfishness?

Think of what it means to be concerned with your self-interest. It does not entail doing whatever you happen to feel like doing; that's the road to self-destruction. The first requirement of self-interest is a commitment to reason--a commitment to discovering and abiding by the facts of reality, a commitment to being guided by the mind rather than by random whims. The authentically selfish individual adopts a long-range, morally principled approach to life. For example, he embraces the value of honesty because he understands that faking reality in any way is ultimately to his detriment. He embraces the value of justice because he understands that judging people for what they actually are, rather than pretending they are something else, is in his own interest. He embraces the value of integrity because he understands that he benefits by being loyal to his convictions--which he derives from the facts of reality--rather than by surrendering them for the expediency of the moment. (For an elaboration on selfishness and moral principles, see chapter 4 of my book In Defense of Selfishness.)

In dealing with people, therefore, the selfish person disavows reason's antithesis: force. He respects the principle of individual rights because he realizes that his self-interest depends on it. Consequently--and contrary to the Attilas and the Madoffs--he deals with others by persuasion and trade, not coercion and deceit.

The authentically selfish individual enjoys a productive, self-respecting life. He rejects the unearned. He does not leech off others. He lives, not by seizing their goods, but by earning what he wants. He interacts with people by offering value for value, to mutual benefit. He neither sacrifices himself to others nor others to himself.

The predators of the world are contradicting their actual, long-term interests. By evading the requirements of human living, by seeking a law-of-the-jungle existence, they are harming themselves. Their evil lies not in their desire to achieve their own well-being, but in their irrational belief that the way to achieve it is by parasitically feeding off others.

But those who set the intellectual tone of our culture want us to believe that selfishness requires the destruction of others. They blur the obvious distinction between a producer and a predator, between someone who makes money and someone who steals it. They fuse the two into one fuzzy "package-deal," leading people to believe that, just as a predator is committing a moral crime, so is anyone who pursues his true self-interest.

We are thus left with the false alternative of either being altruistic by sacrificing ourselves to others, or being "selfish" by sacrificing others to ourselves. And what about the real alternative? What about the category of self-responsible, self-supporting individuals who diligently pursue their interests without sacrificing either themselves or others? No such category exists, we are told.

But since there is, in fact, such a category, and it represents genuine, rational selfishness, what justification is there for the demands of altruism? What earthly reason is there for you to subordinate yourself to others? Why should you have a duty to suffer so that someone else might benefit?

It may be perfectly appropriate, out of simple generosity, to help an innocent victim of misfortune. But this is not what the code of altruism requires of you. Generosity is a gift, for which the recipient should be thankful. Altruism, however, demands the payment of a debt--an unchosen moral debt you owe to anyone who lacks what you have. If money is needed for someone's college tuition or health insurance or mortgage payments--or for foreign aid to Bangladesh--you are mandated to provide it, according to the doctrine of altruism.

The question is: Why? Why does the fact that someone needs your money create a moral entitlement to it, while the fact that you've earned it, doesn't?

You have one life, and it should be precious. It should be an end in itself, not merely a means to the ends of others. You should not be obligated to sacrifice yourself to the wishes and needs of others. Your life is yours--and you ought to have a moral right to live it.