Is Selfishness Evil?   9 comments

The Giving Tree (for those who don’t know) is a children’s book that tells the simple love story of a boy and his tree.  As the boy grows, he loses interest in the tree except as it can benefit him, so the loving tree slowly gives itself away a little at a time to the boy–apples to sell, branches for a house, until finally…

Many see in Shel Silverstein’s book an example of unlimited, sacrificial love.  I see a brilliant example of co-dependence.  Is it a virtue to harm myself in order to help others?

A year or two ago I read a quote from Ayn Rand’s book “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and was intrigued by her siding with selfishness against altruism as our ethical necessity, our moral calling.  (She did not distinguish between selfishness and self-care, which is a complex contrast to untangle.)  Here is an example of her perspective, which rings true to a lot of my own life experience:

Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit [i.e. selfishness] is evil….  Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life.  The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy: he has nothing to gain from it,  he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect.  He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself….  If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt in which most men spend their lives, these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruist morality—guilt, because they dare not reject it.

I had that guilt of never doing enough for others, but instead of cynicism I practiced and accepted the altruistic morality of denying my own needs (because the needs of others always trumped mine).  This conviction that my own needs did not matter left me with a sense of worthlessness.  Is selfishness evil?  Is it always virtuous to give?  I’d like to explore in a few blogs some of Ayn Rand’s views.


Posted September 11, 2012 by janathangrace in Reading, thoughts, Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

9 responses to “Is Selfishness Evil?

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Very difficult for me to read this without touching deep pain in my heart. Know along with sexual, emotional abuses experienced that my older siblings who made certain their needs were met first, also left myself and one younger sibling with the “leftovers” of whatever it was. Being treated as less than, as well, we filled their roles provided. Had grown to believe myself and the younger sibling were “extra baggage” even down to not receiving a family inheritance. Talk about pain and resentment. Today, I have lost desire to do things for myself as if something inside is permanently broken. Also, don’t have any energy or desire to consider anyone else’s needs.

  2. Interesting questions and statements that are impossible to accept or reject without more precise definition of Selfishness. With your definition of Altruism, it is impossible to act on and accept as the mere act of feeding myself instead of others is evil and therefore I would not last long enough to be altruistic, so this simplistic definition seems to be an extreme and incorrect straw man definition. has a modified definition that seems much more tenable “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others.” This seems to imply a less radical, and livable practice.

    I heard many years ago, that the opposite of love is not hate, but rather the opposite of love is selfishness. In your story of the tree and the boy, you say it is an example of co-dependence and I cannot disagree more. Co-dependence means that each is dependent of the other. In this story, it appears the boy is dependent on the tree and receives benefit from the tree, but the tree is not dependent on the boy and receives nothing from him. The tree was sacrificial in it’s love for the boy and the boy was selfish and abused and took advantage of the tree.

    It is very sad to hear that your life experiences left you with such a poor view of your self. Far be it from me to extrapolate to much from such a brief comment, but it appears that your low view of yourself and your needs was the result of an incorrect view of yourself as God created you and the worth you have to Him. As created in the Garden, man was perfect and had the correct view of who he was and his relationship to God. Our sin nature corrupts this and as a result of our difficulty in seeing God and our relationship with Him is compromised and this incorrect view is what is at the root of our emotional stresses, difficulties, and failures. In short, incorrect theology, creates distorted beliefs of ourselves and God, and breeds emotional issues.

    When I understand my worth to God and His extraordinary love for me and that my relationship with Him and His Grace can satisfy my needs, then I am able to be like the tree and sacrifice myself for others with little expectations for it being reciprocated knowing that Jesus is sufficient and will meet my needs.

    This is much more than theory for me as I am in the midst of seeing Him do just what He has promised as I seek to (very imperfectly) give in several relationships at this time of my life while getting little in return. I would never have believed it possible for me to have sustained my ability to love others in ways that are not natural for me without growing weary and tired and discouraged, but God has provided the strength beyond my own ability and has allowed me to rejoice in the service of others and take joy in it. It has truly been beyond my wildest imagination as I have historically been a fiercely independent and selfish person, and I am acting out of character, but with His character. Now I know that sounds corny but it is really true.

    • Randy, I am glad to hear that you are finding joy in giving. You are right that there is lack of clarity in what I have shared so far–I could not do justice to Rand’s views without going into a long explanation (something I avoid on my blog). That is why I am taking several posts to examine her thoughts. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes we get new readers who could benefit from some context. For now, the only context I offer is previous blogs. Randy, this blog really is centered on those of us who struggle emotionally with our life and faith, so you may find it doesn’t fit the present stage in your own spiritual journey. May you be blessed in learning to give without recompense.

  3. hmmm. as you know, I like to take any question and instead of looking for an answer, look for more questions! So what is the difference between selfish, self-absorbed, self-centered, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-seeking, self-promoting, self-concerned? What about other conjunctions? self-protective, self-nurturing, self-forgetful, self-giving? Cannot all of these be roaming about in each of our psyches bringing with them all sorts of different results for our lives? Now how could we depict this in music, dance or art? Now it’s getting fun!

  4. Appreciate your responses and do know how to give unselfishly without expecting anything in return as well as having it taken without my permission.. The tree can be seen as giving knowing it is a sacrifice, but we all know that trees can’t talk. Similar to a child who could not speak up, stop, prevent, the stronger person from imposing their will upon the child hence the stronger person was able to take something that was not theirs in the first place. Forgiveness is essential in this experience. Justice yet to be served is left in God’s capable hands.

  5. I think it’s necessary to to *love* unconditionally. but not to *give* unconditionally. There are pieces of our “self”, our lives, that define who we are. There are pieces of us that define how we are perceived by those who need us. If we are to become dismantled as the altruism-tree is, then we inevitably become nothing. The story in our real lives does not and can not end with someone sailing away with us. That’s not possible. They will only either die or consume others over and over again. I’m not a fan of that sort of recidivism. So, I believe there is a tight-rope between altruism and selfishness that is appropriate and acceptable. Imbalance is often the result of our need, as humans, to define absolutes. We seek binary results from binary causes. But the truth is, we need to work at the gradients and continuum in between,

    • I like your distinction–it is necessary to love unconditionally but not give unconditionally. I was raised with the Greek golden mean (Christianized), but I find that it doesn’t usually work for me. I find a much more complex relationship than balancing (what are typically seen as) polar opposites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: