Selfishness requires consideration for the long-range consequences of one’s actions.
Over the past year, we have seen many highly-publicized instances of people being caught acting dishonestly. Investor Bernie Madoff was caught running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors of billions. Golfer Tiger Woods admitted to engaging in more than a dozen affairs over the course of his five-year marriage. South Carolina governor Mark Sanford likewise admitted to an affair that he covered up through misuse of public funds. Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was caught using a high-priced prostitution ring. Those are just the cases that made headlines; sadly, most of us can find similar, perhaps less dramatic examples among our families or neighbors.
The usual verdict in such cases is that these individuals were thinking of no one but themselves—that they were, in a word, selfish. Madoff, the argument goes, was “selfishly” concerned about making a quick buck, unconcerned by the effects his fraud would have on those who invested their hard-earned money with his company. Woods, many say, did not care about how hurtful his actions would be to his family, fans, and sponsors and instead “selfishly” indulged in his own desires.
By its most basic definition, to be selfish is to be interested in attaining something for oneself, to act in pursuit of one’s own needs or desires. But observe what these men attained for themselves: Madoff will spend the rest of his life behind bars, his stolen wealth lost, while Woods, once the highest paid athlete in the world, has lost his endorsements, his reputation, and possibly even his family. Clearly, such were not the desired outcomes. This raises a question: can these men, whose actions led not to their success and happiness but rather to their self-destruction, really be characterized as selfish?
In answering this question, consider some contrasting cases. What about the investment manager who works diligently to produce honest, legitimate gains for his investors in order to make a fortune for himself, leaving all parties better off as a result? What about a sports star like Michael Jordan who achieved his ambitious career goals and ended up a fan hero, not a disgraced public figure?
Such individuals achieve an enormous amount for themselves without resorting to deception. In the strict sense of the word, they act in their self-interest, i.e. they act selfishly.
Of course, this isn’t the way the word is commonly used. When most people think of selfishness, they think of people like Madoff, who trample over others to satisfy their short-sighted desires. But as Ayn Rand argues, this view of selfishness “permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others.” It assumes that any time a man acts on his desires, however unthinkingly, he is being selfish. It makes no distinction between the man who acts according to his rational judgment and a man who acts without judgment.
Rand argues that this distinction is fundamentally important. That is, just because someone wants to believe an action is in their self-interest doesn’t mean it actually is. This is easily seen by comparing Woods and Jordan, or Madoff and any honest investor. Just because Woods and Madoff acted on their desires doesn’t mean doing so was actually in their interests.
The moral corruption underlying these men’s actions was not that they were acting selfishly but rather that they were acting unthinkingly, without considering the long-range consequences of their actions. Madoff, for example, was interested in the gains he could make in the short term from running his fraudulent investment company. But this was only made possible by his mental evasion of the inevitable long-term repercussions such fraud would have on his life. Similarly, if Woods had thought beyond the momentary pleasure of his affairs, he may have been able to realize the long-range effects his infidelity would have on himself, his endorsements, and his career.
To label people like Madoff and Woods as selfish is to perpetuate the false idea that dishonesty works, that one can become successful and happy while living a lie. It is to miss the fact that these individuals are in fact illustrations of precisely the opposite: far from being selfish, they show that a life of deception is impractical and ultimately self-destructive.
It is honesty—recognizing truth, facing the facts, admitting one’s mistakes, and adjusting to the reality of new situations—that “works” and is, therefore, selfish. Living one’s life selfishly requires that one first have a clear understanding of what values will bring happiness in the long run and then make a principled commitment to pursuing those values.
So next time you read a scandal in which someone acts unthinkingly to throw away a life of so much potential for happiness and success, don’t call him “selfish.” Wonder instead why he wasn’t selfish enough.
Rituparna is a junior at Penn State University, pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology.