Self-interest vs Selfishness: They aren’t the same thing and here is why.

I overheard an argument a couple of weeks back that made me want to write this stupid post in turn. Basically, the guy was saying that people shouldn’t be angry at corporations for caring only about profit and the government isn’t better either. The corporations want to make more and more money and the government wants more and more power; both are self-interested. There isn’t anything wrong with that, he said, because that is the nature of human beings in general. We are all self-interested, in one way or another.

Firstly, I agree it is a healthy thing for people to be self-interested. Self-interest means people care for their well-being and look after the things they care about. We think it is unhealthy when people show signs of self-neglect and stop caring for themselves. In a way all livings things are self-interested, it is integral to their survival. 

Secondly, I don’t think people are have a problem with self-interested corporations or governments. People have a problem with selfish corporations and governments. What is the difference? Well, while with self-interest a person cares for their well-being they are also mindful of the adverse effects of their actions on others (other’s being the environment, society, the law/justice, in tune with other people’s needs and wants), with selfishness there isn’t a regard for how our actions adversely affect others. Put simply, self-interest cares about the environment, society, people, morality, the law/justice and doesn’t achieve its goals through the harmful(negative) cost of others; selfishness doesn’t care about the environment, society, people, morality, the law/justice and ,if it comes to it, does so at the harmful(negative) cost of others.
However, it isn’t just people are selfish that is the problem (whether as a government or corporation or an individual), it seems to be the extent to which people are selfish and what people are selfish about. Nobody, or at least most people, don’t think it is immoral to have a little more soda than your sibling or cheat them of it. It seems this is because the harm is little, inconsequential in the scheme of things and not too insensitive. People seem to worry more if the harm is severe, has dire consequences and the issue is very sensitive; for an example, polluting the ocean or denying a race fundamental human rights for one’s own gain. So a selfish act is not necessarily an immoral and deplorable act, the situation, the degree and the issue count. Why does this matter distinction matter? The distinction between acceptable and unacceptable selfishness? Simply because with the picture we had before it becomes hard to talk about certain situations. Like in the case of the selfish sibling cheating his sibling of soda, it doesn’t make sense to think that act is deplorable. A more difficult example would be suicide or being in a position where saving yourself will inadvertently lead, without any other chance of survival, to the death of an innocent life. Because while we can say the suicidal person and the person who rescues themselves are acting in ways that are selfish, according to this distinction, are not obviously immoral (you can’t easily say so without offending someone). While we can both agree it is selfish it is difficult to say it is immoral. They can still be selfish actions yet acceptable, in other words understandable or not warranting punishment. Also, in both acts we see that it is possible that the agents might still have a regard for others and it is because of extreme circumstances the act like they do, something which is completely absent or lacking in immoral selfishness.

Selfishness and being self-interested are, in the end, two sides of the same coin, except the other side has two shades.


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