Selfishness can be helpful or hurtful.
Are you selfish? Depending on the circumstances, it can be right and good to be selfish. Or it can be evil. Let’s investigate.
What is selfishness?
To be selfish is to be focused on yourself. There are degrees of selfishness. At one extreme are narcissists, sociopaths and that person you dated in high school who turned out to be a lunatic. At this end of the spectrum are people who are psychologically incapable of thinking about anyone or anything but themselves. We won’t be talking about them here.
At the other extreme are people who give and give and give because they are obsessed with helping. This too is a pathology. Denying your own basic needs to serve others is troubling and can be as dangerous in its own way as selfishness at the other extreme. These people too will not be a part of the rest of the discussion.
The vast middle area of the spectrum involves looking after one’s own interests first and foremost but only for a specific period of time or only with respect to certain needs and desires. Sometimes that focus is right and good. Sometimes it is wrong and can even be evil. This is the sweet spot for the rest of the column.
Let’s start with the good news.
When selfishness is good
I’ve used the following example before, but it’s so relatable and useful that I’m going to use it again. At the beginning of a flight, even on the few flights that exist during this challenging time, the flight attendant says, “In the event of the loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down. Put the mask on yourself before attempting to help others.”
This is selfishness at its best. If you don’t help yourself first, you won’t be in any position to help anyone else. It’s basic physiology.
But it’s not only during an emergency on a plane that taking care of yourself first is the ethically intelligent thing to do. If you don’t eat reasonably well most of the time, get enough sleep most of the time, and exercise several times a week, you won’t be at your best. You won’t be as productive as you would be otherwise, which might mean you won’t be able to keep the promises you’ve made to clients, colleagues and others who rely on you.
A colleague of mine I’ll call Miwa is being selfish in the best possible way during this crisis. She lives in upstate New York and is taking seriously Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s 10-point executive order to limit the spread of COVID-19. She is staying home, going out only to walk for exercise or get groceries. She is treating herself to comfort food but not overdoing it. She tells her family when she needs to be alone to read, meditate or nap. She is playing a lot more guitar than she used to, because it feeds her soul.
This is selfishness done right. Other forms of selfishness can be despicable. Let’s look at those now.
When selfishness is bad
One of Governor Cuomo’s orders is: “Sick individuals should not leave their home unless to receive medical care and only after a telehealth visit to determine if leaving the home is in the best interest of their health.”
Miwa told me about a friend of hers I’ll call Dan who practices medicine in her town. A few days ago, Miwa went out for a walk and saw Dan coming toward her. He was carrying a couple of bags of groceries, looking pale and sniffling.
“Don’t worry,” he told Miwa. “I don’t have the new coronavirus.”
“Have you been tested?” she asked.
“Don’t need one,” he replied in a raspy voice. “Don’t have the symptoms. It’s just a nasty, garden-variety cold.” Then he walked on.
Miwa likes Dan. She told me he has visited other countries to provide health care for people who need it and can’t afford it. He has done the same in upstate New York. Miwa says is a kind and gentle person.
But Dan was being selfish in the worst possible way. By disregarding a state mandate to stay home, Dan put others and himself at risk. Was he in denial? Did he believe that being a health care professional somehow confers immunity to illness?
Whatever caused Dan to go out in the world with what he believes was a bad cold, he was acting with a stunning lack of awareness and ethical intelligence. Without being tested, Dan can’t know for sure that he hasn’t been infected by COVID-19. His work places him at higher risk. By focusing primarily on himself in this situation at this time, Dan’s selfishness is disturbing and wrong.
Last week the great country and pop artist Kenny Rogers died. The chorus of his best-known song, The Gambler (written by Don Schlitz), is the takeaway from this column:
You got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
Know when to run
This is what Aristotle called phronesis or practical wisdom. A lot of times it’s difficult to know when to hold ‘em or when to fold ‘em. During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, there are some simple choices to make that are quite easy, and they both involve selfishness.
Miwa is selfish in the best possible way. It enriches her and does not harm others. Dan’s selfishness jeopardizes the public health, even if he does not have bad intentions.
We haven’t seen the worst of the pandemic yet. Our society and our own well being depend upon each of us being selfish only in the right way now.