“Everyone’s selfish.” That’s the commercial wisdom that’s been pounded into morally flaccid skulls over the last few decades. The recently departed Libertarian presidential candidate, Harry Browne, even placed this very popular idea into an essay that graces a popular ethics anthology. The article was named, “The Unselfishness Trap.”
According to this revisionist logic, people who do what they want to do are selfish. And since everyone—Pope Benedict, Donald Trump, and Richard “the shoebomber” Reid—does what he wants, everyone is selfish.
It’s a clever rhetorical sleight of hand that manages to overturn, without further ado, two thousand years of moral reasoning that portrayed selfishness as a grave vice. Now, armed with this cheaply attained insight, conspicuous consumers and media narcissists are able to dismiss the trait as an empty label that moralists attach to actions they disapprove. At least that’s the conclusion Harry and company came to after five minutes of not-so-strenuous philosophical lifting.
Getting folks to think seriously about morality is, indeed, a daunting task—especially in a culture where individuals are inundated with messages designed to reinforce their worst impulses. “No rules, just right.” “Obey your thirst.” “Just do it.” “You’ve got to make yourself happy first.”
Anyone who can’t spot the flaw in the aforementioned selfishness argument would do well to begin a rigorous moral exercise program—say, ten pages of Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas a day. Heck, you can throw in Confucius or the Tao-Te Ching for diversity’s sake.
The mistake that modern rationalizers make is to define selfishness as “doing what you want to do.” This is not, and never has been, the definition of selfishness. (Indeed, for Aristotle the very definition of a virtuous individual is a person who both does and wants to do what is right.) Instead of “doing what you want,” selfishness is properly defined as the quality exhibited by those who focus inordinately on their own interests—and act accordingly. Selfish people, in other words, regularly fail to look at things through the eyes of others.
By introducing a bogus definition of the word “selfish,” revisionists succeed in undermining the concept itself. For if every single action is selfish, then the phrase “acting selfishly” is transformed into a useless redundancy.
An embarrassing question that arises from this short analysis is this: Which persons and groups are most anxious to do away with the concept of selfishness? It doesn’t take a media genius to figure that one out.
A final question takes this form: Why do contemporary Americans so easily confuse rational self-interest, willing acts of sacrificial love, and craven egotism? The answer, I think, is that people who are brazenly superficial and stunningly narcissistic prefer to employ moral mirrors that are thoroughly muddled.