The Self-Refuting Fallacy of Calling Someone “Selfish”

Human beings are capable of many contradictions. One of the most stunning of these contradictions involves use of the concept “selfishness.”

Think about it. Many people are ready to call you “selfish.” It’s the greatest, most intimidating and most condemnatory phrase they can ever utter against you. The context for this phrase is, “You won’t do what I want. You won’t do this for me. You’re selfish. How awful you are!”

But if selfishness is so bad, then why is it acceptable for the person accusing you of it to want you to do something? Nobody calls you selfish unless they want something from you, something they consider the better option. This elevates the other person’s evaluation, want or need above your own. It’s selfish of them to not want you to be selfish, according to their own definition and standards.

The moment somebody says you’re selfish, and therefore bad or wrong, is the moment the person making this accusation contradicts him- or herself. This should discredit the complaint upon arrival.

Let’s say I want you to come to my house, drop what you’re doing and listen to me complain about something. When you decline to do so, I call you “selfish.” You bow your head in humility. “How awful!” you think. “I’m putting myself before another person.”

But isn’t that what I’m doing to you? Aren’t I demanding that you give up what’s important to you in my favor, merely because I feel I need it or want it? If I’m entitled to be selfish enough to make a demand on you, aren’t you at least equally entitled to decline it?

Much is made about how we live in the glorious new era of self-esteem. Psychologists and psychotherapists everywhere tell us to have self-esteem. But I encounter very few people who are either able or willing to stand up to the self-refuting, contradictory accusation of “selfish,” even in this newfound era of self-esteem. I know of virtually no psychotherapists, aside from myself, who even raise the issue, much less take the position I do on the subject.

How can this be?

Part of the problem may be that mothers and fathers, not to mention teachers or anyone else considered moral authorities, indoctrinate this idea into children at a very young age. Not every single person in every single instance who’s trying to motivate a child with this idea necessarily means harm. But in every single case it’s taught or encouraged, harm is being done. If you teach your child that it’s bad to be selfish, then you’re putting into the hands of other people a weapon to use against your child’s self-esteem, for the rest of his or her life.

To be “selfish” means nothing more than to have a self. To condemn someone for having a self is the psychological and moral equivalent of condemning someone for breathing. You don’t say to somebody, “You’re breathing. You’re taking up air. How selfish of you!” So why would you say to someone, “You care about your life. You care about your time, your needs and your goals. How terrible and selfish of you!”

Many will reply, “To call someone selfish isn’t to condemn them for having a self. It’s just to tell them not to be inconsiderate.” Well, that’s what you should say then. If your neighbor is throwing trash into your yard, you don’t condemn him for breathing, or for having trash. You criticize him for being inconsiderate, refusing to respect your property, and you insist that he stop. Be specific, and say what it is that you’re really criticizing.

The number one flaw among human beings is an unhealthy and improper desire to control others. The primary means of controlling others is not force (although some resort to force); the primary means for controlling others is through unearned guilt. The way to foster and encourage unearned guilt, if you’re sick enough to wish to do so, is to condemn people merely for having and wanting a self.

The next time someone accuses you of being “selfish,” for not doing what they want, then say this: “Aren’t you being selfish for wanting me to do things YOUR way, in a way that suits YOU?” The reaction will not be friendly, but it will end the intimidation once and for all. Nobody can intimidate you without your consent.