What is Selfishness?


What Is Selfishness
Regardless of what you may feel is true about yourself (your level of selfishness) every human is inescapably self-interested and self-absorbed. The very design of our existence is all about this self-interested self-expression and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Essentially we all make the following self-interested declaration:

“I exist, I am unique, I matter, and I make a difference.”

This self-interest is essential for our survival as an individual. Each of us have our own unique twist or style to this vital self-expression which is the basis for judging everything as “Right and Wrong” and “Good and Bad” as well as what we consider to be and not be “selfish”.

Kinds of Self-Interest

There are three kinds of self-interest that humans exhibit:

  1. Natural
  2. Rational
  3. Irrational

Despite the way they sound, both Natural and Rational Self-Interest are not solely focused on oneself. Together these two naturally take into account the interests of others in order for the one expressing the self-interest to have full sense of completion with regard to their own state “of being”. In other words, we require other people in order to complete our own self-interest.

To clarify, let’s use the example of a nurse. Nobody would ever suggest that being a nurse is a selfish occupation. However, without the sick, injured and ailing the nurse has no purpose. Without others who are in need, a nurse can not fulfill their own self-interested need to heal and nurture others.

When Natural Self-Interest Goes Wrong

So what is it that can misfire within an individual and cause them to act excessively self-interested and thus what we consider to be selfish?

What we commonly refer to as “selfishness” can be classified as “Irrational Self-Interest”. It’s a quick and dirty self-expressive shortcut that finds immediate, albeit artificial validation by directly taking an action at the expense of another individual. It bypasses entirely the natural channel of expression that both Natural and Rational Self-Interest take.

Objectively, we can agree that there are certain irrationally self-interested acts such as robbing a convenience store or pushing people down to get on a cramped subway. These are very obvious selfish acts. What is more difficult however is to accurately judge the behaviors of someone with whom we are in a relationship with as selfish.

Perception, Interpretation and Judgment of What is Selfish


Determining what is “selfish” is a highly individualized, subjective process. It involves:

  1. Your perception of some action or behavior
  2. Your interpretation of that action or behavior
  3. Your judgment of that action or behavior

As you can see, every step of this process is unavoidably biased.

As the judge, you interpret certain behaviors as “selfish” when you feel (based on your own personal criteria) that another individual’s need for time, money, food, pleasure or other scarce resources appears to be unreasonable or otherwise excessive and where someone else is victimized and denied a share of that same resource. Again, the very criteria for making this judgment is skewed by your own particular type and style of self-expression.

For example, people whose style of self-expression is “Love” (Based on the Life Theme Archetypes of: Love, Justice, Wisdom and Power) are often perceived and judged by others as the least selfish and the most generous, since their very core motivation and personal fulfillment is derived from acts of assisting and supporting others. Whereas, people whose style of self-expression is “Power” are often misjudged by others as selfish and the least generous. The truth of the matter is neither of these two Archetypes of self-expression (Love and Power) are immune to committing acts of selfishness.

Selfishness and Extroversion Vs. Introversion

Another thing to consider is Extroversion vs. Introversion (as defined by Carl Jung and not by what is commonly believed due to the teachings of pop-psychology). True extroverts who lack an introspective gauge and depend on external factors such as social rules of conduct are often perceived and misjudged by others as selfish. (for accurate information on extroversion and introversion see the article: Is He a Sociopath or Simply an Extrovert )

Outside Influences

One must also consider how their own society, culture, sub-culture, religion or other belief system influences them as to what constitutes a selfish vs. a generous act.

For example: In some Middle Eastern cultures it is quite normal and not at all selfish for the firstborn son to be served first and receive a much larger portion at meal times then the rest of the family. However, western society/culture judges this as “selfish”.

Resolution to Selfishness

Often, accusations of selfishness and the misunderstandings that arise among healthy, rational people can be remedied by simply understanding another person’s unique form of self-expression and the worldviews that it generates.

No one has a monopoly on either selfishness or generosity. In the end, we are all being selfishly unselfish.

About the author

CEO of Authentic Systems, Degree in Philosophy from University of California, Berkeley.
3 Responses
  1. er.harishaero

    Hello sir,
    My name is HARISH REDDY.
    I want to ask you a question with my personal life experience.
    I did have feelings with my class mate long time ago.
    I didn’t propose her that time because am afraid to propose her.
    She did leave the town.
    After many years that i did finally get a chance to talk with her on facebook.
    I did propose her on facebook.
    She did take less than 24 hours and tell me that she don’t have any feelings with me.
    I remember her first words with me that she said “Surprise” at chat.
    I never did write any words on any page.
    I did believe that am in TRUE LOVE.
    I did argue with her but she never respond to my messages.
    She was my class mate about a decade ago and i did talk with her first time about 5 years ago.
    I believe ATTENTION IS LOVE.
    I want your opinion in this topic.

  2. John Voris


    I have always admired those who can speak more than one language. Trying to describe our innermost feelings in any language is difficult. However, this is most difficult when exploring various layers of metaphysical ideas where definition agreement is so important. So, I want to apologize in advance if I did not correctly interpret your post.

    Attention is first required before we can produce any of our deliberate intentions. We direct our attention on many facets of life. What catches our attention can be what we like, as well as, what we dislike. In battle, each enemy is very much the attention of the other combatant. So, the word “attention” is a neutral term that can be applied to anything.

    When one person does not feel affection for the one who is in love, both or either of them do not know who they are on a deeper level. It is possible that if you knew yourself better, you would not be as attracted to her as you feel now. Also, if she knew herself better, she may discover that you are the mate for her.

    Love is found in synchronicity when both know enough about themselves and their future mate to feel mutual compassion. While this is a simplistic view, it is so due to the limitations of this venue. However, this should assist you in re-assessing the situation. Above all, you should not focus attention on someone who does not equally want you.

    You also need to explore why so much time has passed. Love is not about “can you live with her but can you live without her?” For me, too much time has passed and your feelings for her might be coming from another source.

    Keep in mind, I am not a family therapist. I responded to you from an Archetypal position of motivation offering my opinion.

    I hope this will prompt you to explore your hidden feelings.

  3. er.harishaero

    In India, we say that don’t hate enemy too much so that one day we come love that enemy. You’re telling that attention is neutral and you did take an example of enemy in a battle. If we focus on a particular person for a long time then we can find that person in ourselves. We don’t measure hate or love but we come to know everything about that person than about ourselves. what is your opinion in this topic?

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