When we talk about things that are immoral, evil, or wrong, we often point to selfishness. This is sometimes the root of a bad action, and sometimes is the bad action itself. Particularly in religious contexts, people are called upon to be utterly selfless, to remember that God is the source of the good works that they do, to avoid pride or self-aggrandizing, and to think of others first. Of course it’s a good thing to put the needs of others before your own, right?
Unfortunately, this rhetoric doesn’t always have fact behind it, and I worry that prioritizing selflessness as an inherent good does a lot of damage to many people. Selfishness is focusing on one’s own needs. Generally we also include to the detriment of others, but more and more I see people using it to mean anything that focuses on one’s own needs, whether or not it impacts others at all. Focusing on your own well being is not something that is inherently wrong. I cannot believe that this needs saying, but it’s actually incredibly important to spend some time on yourself, thinking about your own needs and taking care of your own needs. “It sounds nice” or “It would make me feel good” are both perfectly valid reasons to do something.
In fact doing things like this often help us improve our ability to do things for others. No one is helped by burnout, and if you want to make a difference in the lives of others you often have to spend a lot of time ensuring that your own needs are met first. This is the “secure your own oxygen mask first” principle. Sometimes you do have to put your own needs first, particularly when your needs are particularly serious.
I think this is another area in which the harm principle could be used to really clarify what the problem is with selfishness and when selfishness is a bad thing, versus when we simply want it to be a bad thing because we societally have a problem with individuals thinking about themselves and their own needs. There are instances where someone focuses on their own wants and needs to the exclusion of others. They might do so in such a way that they will actively hurt others in order to get their own wants met. This is selfishness in the more traditional sense, in the way that clearly is wrong. However choosing to do things for yourself that mean you’re unavailable to meet the desires of others, or to do things for yourself that have very little impact on others? I think that’s a very healthy selfishness.
If what you’re doing is causing more harm than good, it’s probably the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t matter if the harm is to yourself or to someone else, because your needs deserve equal respect with the other person’s. As an example, there are times that I choose not to spend time with my friends, even though sometimes that makes them unhappy or worried. Generally I do this when I’m feeling emotionally drained and really need some time for my mental health. If I were to prioritize my friends over myself in this case, I’d probably be cranky anyway and not do very much good for them, as well as leave myself feeling even worse than before, potentially susceptible to some bad target behaviors. If I look at the overall picture, it’s better for everyone if I take care of myself, then spend time with friends when I feel up to it.
An additional element to consider is whether or not being selfless is your responsibility. There are many times when I or someone that I know says that they should be there for another person, they should help their friend feel better, or they should always be on call for their significant other. It’s important to remember that while it is kind and wonderful of you to take care of another person, it is never required of you. Another person’s well-being is never your responsibility. Taking on another person’s well-being is a recipe for disaster as it leaves one party feeling overwhelmed and put upon, and the other party feeling beholden and useless. It generally doesn’t improve anyone’s situation. You aren’t doing something wrong by NOT going above and beyond.
Of course it would be a lovely world if each of us could spend all our energy taking care of others and somehow it would all work out that everyone gets taken care of. Unfortunately that isn’t the world we live in. Every human being (yes you) deserves to be taken care of, and that means that each of us needs to put aside some of our energy and time for ourselves to make sure we get our needs met. This is, by definition, somewhat selfish. That does not make it wrong. Sometimes I choose not to spend my time volunteering and I watch Netflix instead. Yeah, that’s selfish. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to do. I deserve my time just as much as anyone else, and if I am not hurting another person, then selfishness is not the worst thing I could be doing.
There is nothing beautiful about diminishing yourself. There is nothing inherently good about it. I would rather respect myself as much as I respect anyone else.