The Selflessness of “Selfishness”

If self-interest (rationally and objectively defined) is healthy and virtuous (as this column regularly claims), then what can we say about the person who lies, cheats, or otherwise exploits others via fraud and/or coercion?

Such a person is at war with reality. By definition, he is living short-range. He has no long-range goals and as a consequence his life has no purpose, no direction, and he will never feel the natural ‘high’ that comes from achieving one’s long-term goals and values over time.

It is no accident that many people with these psychological/moral problems are also drug or alcohol abusers. Since they will never attain the natural ‘highs,’ they desperately reach out for anything they can find. The substance abuse is a byproduct, a desperate ‘reach’ of sorts, that a faulty or missing approach to rational values makes seem superficially necessary.

Have you ever achieved a long-term goal of value to you? A college degree? The successful completion of a business or artistic project? A happy relationship which actually works? If you have, then imagine your life without any of these things, or the potential of any of these things (at least based on your current psychological and moral course).

Imagine the emptiness, the desperation, the unspeakable boredom you would feel. This will give you an inkling of what it is like for the irrational, range-of-the-moment person, who may feel he’s acting in his self-interest, but is actually making his life miserable both in the short-run and the long-run.

Is this someone to envy? Or to condemn for his attention to ‘self-interest’ when his only viable alternative would be (supposedly) life in the gutters of a remote country, wallowing with the poor?

On top of these problems, he has alienated spouses, friends, children, and potential allies. He is never on a secure footing with anybody, even if initially the people he meets (not knowing him) give him the benefit of the doubt. They may not know, but he knows, that sooner or later they will be adversaries. So much for rewarding interpersonal relationships.

Imagine the amount of effort it would take to carry on such evasion on such a massive scale, day-in and day-out. Think of the times you, yourself, might have repressed, evaded, or rationalized until you later quickly corrected yourself.

This type of person rarely or never does so.

By definition, the conventionally ‘selfish’ person we typically condemn is in this kind of mental state all of the time. By no stretch of the imagination can he be said to be living a self-serving life. In sacrificing others, through lying and so forth, he is not making his life better; he is simply trying to bring everyone else down with him, on his already sinking ship.

People who live range-of-the moment have chosen this path for any number of reasons. Criminal types usually choose this path because they see a rational, self-responsible existence as naïve or in some sense ‘not cool.’ The same is often true of people who aren’t criminals, or who don’t get caught breaking the law but still act by means of wrongly exploiting others.

A rational person is not necessarily a genius; nor is high intelligence a guarantee of rationality. A rational person is someone who identifies his or her emotions, applies reason and logic to them, and tries to keep everything he or she presently knows in mind when making decisions, particularly major life decisions.

A rational person is also someone who, while holding fixed principles when certainty is achieved in some matter, also has an attitude of continuing growth and learning throughout all of life. It’s an attitude, a lifelong habit of the mind.


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