Selfish Character – A Valid Idea?


You may be feeling uneasy about your future. What fate holds in store. And what will happen to you after you die if you happen to have a somewhat selfish character?

On the other hand people might think that being self-orientated is a good thing. They ask, what’s so wrong in loving myself? After all, don’t we have to look after number one to survive and succeed? Yes, I would say it’s good to make our own way and not be a burden on society. Not looking after ourselves is no use to anyone. So, if being concerned for oneself is good, what is actually meant by a selfish life?

According to Richard Whately (English philosopher and theologian) “A man is called selfish not for pursuing his own good, but for neglecting his neighbour’s.

I would suggest that people who are really selfish are willing to exploit others for the sake of their own pleasures. In their dealings they are self-serving even if this means being thoughtless, dishonest, and stingy. Extreme selfishness tends to lead to being sarcastic, obnoxious and even malicious when one’s desires are thwarted.

We might wonder about the destiny after death of those who constantly act in selfish ways. If we actually are to reap what we sow then what are the negative effects of this kind of karma?

Can some of us help having a selfish character?
We behave in a certain way from a mixture of reasons. Chance as well as choice comes into the picture. So, you may ask, how can we be accountable for any one way we are living our life? Don’t we have all sorts of desires and intentions? Indeed, it is a common view today that we are all born with a mixture of positive and negative tendencies. Having natural streaks of kindness as well as selfishness, generosity and also greed, virtues in addition to vices.

Also, it is generally thought that there are loads of external elements beyond our control that affect us. Social scientists can show the connection between mental ill-health and traumatic experience. Also between crime and poverty. Needing social acceptance from our teenage peers, we might conform to their social norms, which may be delinquent in the eyes of others.

Are external factors the only ones responsible for how we live our lives?
This is how I see it. We each start off in the world as children influenced, yes, by all sorts of things. Genetic makeup, family upbringing, community standards, and any hardship, all affect our conduct. So it is true we have particular inherited tendencies and individual life experiences which affect us. As science has demonstrated, ‘nature and nurture’ both play important roles in human development.

But in addition, there is a spiritual perspective. As we grow up, I would say we each become our own person. No matter in what circumstances we started, we develop as individuals with our own concerns and priorities. We gradually choose our own values and aspirations.

I’m trying to argue that who we each become depends on our response to the world around us. How we react challenging experiences. Do we deal badly or well with set-backs? Dwell on failure or get on with things? Yield to or resist the allures of life that can lead to illusion and suffering? I would say, what it comes down to is, we make our own choices.

Are we responsible for our individual character?
In a similar vein, the criminal justice system assumes we are accountable to the courts for obeying or disobeying the law. We are responsible for our conduct because we choose to follow or go against the social rules.

This view is also in line with existential philosophy. The cornerstone of this tradition is the acknowledgment of the reality of inner freedom. It may not always be possible to do what we want, like when we are hard-up, subject to tyrannical pressures, or are bodily disabled, but nevertheless we are free to think and have intentions as we wish.

We may not be free of social constraints in what we outwardly do and say. But don’t we exercise an inner freedom to think and intend as we wish? And do this constantly day by day, hour by hour, and minute by minute? If so, over time, a pattern will slowly emerge of the way one is reacting to circumstances. An underlying attitude to life is growing. And this forms our individual character. I would say it might be a selfish one or not – but that is our choice. We end up being who we are and getting want we want, according to what we most desire.

The Razor’s Edge
How we end up getting what we have inwardly wanted is illustrated in the 1944 W. Somerset Maugham novel ‘The Razor’s Edge’.

Acclaimed as a masterpiece, it tells the story of Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by his experiences in World War I. His rejection of conventional life and search for some transcendent meaningful experience allows him to inwardly thrive.

His fiancée Isabel Bradley cannot accept his vision of life and breaks their engagement to go back to Chicago. There she marries a millionaire who provides her with a rich family life. However, she remains in love with Larry. Her destiny is that she will never get Larry, who has decided to live as a common working man. He is uninterested in the rich and glamorous world that Isabel will move within. Other characters in the book also ended up getting what they had wanted although in some cases tragically so.

It is said ‘We are what we eat’. Our bodies become healthy or unhealthy according to the food and drink we regularly choose to consume. Likewise, do our minds become spiritually healthy or unhealthy according to what intentions and fantasies we often entertain? The habits of thought we form?

According to Swedenborg, throughout life on earth, one gradually creates one’s own inner character. Each person conducts themselves as they choose. In so doing, their own life’s delight and ‘ruling love’ is gradually formed. For example, on the one hand, I may be preoccupied with gaining social status or, on the other hand, be more focused on performing useful roles. As a business person, my emphasis may be more about making a mint of money or, on the other hand, being more concerned about fair dealings with suppliers or employees.

As a regular pattern develops in my life, then I take on board what I mainly aspire to. I attach myself to things, fears, hopes, and values etc, and make them my own along with the thoughts that justify them.

Isn’t the idea of selfishness just polarised thinking?
You might be wondering, if we choose our attitudes who decides if they are selfish? Cannot behaving selfishly be due to naivety. In response I would say yes, a self-centered action might come about because we don’t fully appreciate the consequences of what we are doing. How it hurts someone else. Perhaps our friends unduly influenced us to engage in say mischievous behaviour or petty crime. This may not become a set pattern if we respond well when light is thrown on the matter. If we accept the errors of our ways and the negative effects on others.

In other words, you might see the concept of selfishness as polarised thinking. But I don’t think this is a good reason for not using the word. For I would suggest there are degrees of selfishness.

How selfish one behaves depends on the length one goes with what one wants. Take selfishness only a little way then this might result in say envy for those who have what we want. Apply it further then this feeling might become dislike. Extend it even further and we might feel anger or even hatred for those who have what we want for ourselves. And engage with it even more completely then we may want to cause harm to others to please our own desires.

I would say a more serious kind of selfishness is due to strong desires by those of us who, when we stop to think about, do realise our greed is harming others. But we forget and allow ourselves to be caught up in the feelings of the moment and don’t stop to reflect.

Serious selfishness
According to this framework of thinking, most serious of all is selfishness that leads to sadistic violence or murder planned and thus done intentionally by those of us who convince ourselves we are doing nothing wrong. I guess this more serious level is less common. It is unusual even for the average policeman to encounter someone crooked to the core.

Is to talk of selfishness just being moralistic?
You may be wondering whether the idea of a selfishness just being moralistic? It is true that to speak of a ‘ruling love’ of selfishness is to take a moral stance. But I would like to say that the matter of selfishness and unselfishness is central to social norms. This issue seems to lie at the heart of various social concerns such as the ethics of environmental policy in relation to pollution, business ethics in relation to financial fraud, and ethics of personal conduct that might address sexual disloyalty and betrayal. Does one have to be moralistic to think in this way?

The teaching of Confucianism, a Chinese tradition, is that the evil of selfishness arises because people do not allow their feelings and actions to stay in harmony with their own humanity, e.g. not treating others with the respect and fellow feeling that is their due. We get a similar idea in Yoga. One of its eight fundamentals principles is avoidance of selfish actions. In fact, each of the main religions have a list of ethical guidelines it encourages us to follow.

When I allow myself to become immersed in the selfish consumer society. I move away from the deeper spiritual life with its concern for nature, people in need, etc. By bearing malice and having contempt for others, I separate myself from the spirit of compassion. By acting foolishly in a superficial manner, I turn away from the spirit of wisdom. In other words, by entering more deeply into selfishness, I create my own negative karma. Or in common parlance we say a person ‘creates their own hell.’

Buddhism’s ‘eightfold noble paths’ include ‘right speech’‘right action’ and ‘right livelihood’. In other words, right moral conduct. In Buddhist cosmology we find the term ‘naraka’ usually referred to in English as “hell”. But the Buddhist version differs from the old Christian one in that individuals are not sent there. No judgment is incurred when one reaches the ‘pearly gates’. There is no divine reward or punishment. Instead karma implies self-determination.

How would you sum up selfishness?
Chadwick Boseman, American actor (who portrayed baseball player Jackie Robinson) put it this way.

“The only difference between a hero and the villain is that the villain chooses to use that power in a way that is selfish and hurts other people.”

So, in all this, what counts is not the outward action but rather the inner motivation.

Choosing between facing one way or the other each day and every day is a lifelong process and can be a lifelong struggle. Are we not accountable for the values and conduct we choose to make our own?

As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.

He edits Spiritual Questions a free eZine that explores links between spiritual philosophy and the comments and questions of spiritual seekers. You can share your views and find out more about making sense of life.

His eBook Heart, Head and Hands draws links between the psycho-spiritual teachings of the eighteenth century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and current ideas in therapy and psychology.

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