Is it selfish? Is it altruistic?​

The words selfish and altruistic (and their synonyms), aside from their respective pejorative and laudative connotations, are most often used without clear denotations.

Let's explore several different scenarios to tease out when there may or may not be any difference between being selfish and being altruistic.

Helping a stranger on the street with directions

Is it selfish or altruistic?

Whenever I have helped a stranger with directions, it didn't take away from anything that I considered more important and it gave me a satisfying sense of power, pleasure, and connection. So it was definitely a selfish act for me (I was taking care of myself and my own pleasure). Some might call this act altruistic. If so, in this case, there is no conflict between selfishness and altruism. I believe that when others have helped me with directions, they too were acting selfishly.

Volunteering to help out at the soup kitchen

Many selfish benefits could flow forth from this act. You enjoy the adventure of it, the working together and chatting with your colleagues, the connection and gratitude you feel with the patrons. And you know that you're not sacrificing any resources you need for taking care of your own life. Definitely a great selfish thing to do within these circumstances.

But what if volunteering interfered with you taking care of yourself? What if you were doing it to avoid looking bad or being blamed by others? But you did it anyway. Would you call this altruism? If so, it promotes win-lose relationships between people, rather than win-win, where the selfishness of all (both short-term and long-term) dovetails together.

What if you are unhappy in your marriage, but you don't get out and you don't figure out a way to make it happy?

Are you staying in your marriage because you think your spouse "needs" you? Are you staying in your marriage because you fear others (and thereby yourself) will blame you if you leave your spouse or they will blame you for creating a "broken family" for your children? Are you staying in your marriage because of the fear that you anticipate feeling if you initiated a separation? Is staying in your marriage an expression of altruism? If so, it promotes a win-lose dynamic between people.

You could call these motivations selfish, but only short-term selfish. You get to avoid the fear associated with being blamed. You get to avoid the fear associated with taking the risks involved in separating from your spouse.

You join the army and then fight and die for your country

Dying is not a selfish thing to do, unless it's a last resort to ending one's own suffering. So, indeed, this behavior is often characterized as "heroic" and altruistic (and thereby promotes a win-lose world). However, short-range, it cashes in on selfish motivations, which is why most people who join the military do it: We get to look good to others. We get to feel a sense of belonging. We get to avoid looking bad (because we are doing our "duty"). We may even enjoy the camaraderie of the training and the fighting together. We may enjoy the sense of stability associated with someone else telling us what we should do. Some soldiers/fighters get off on the excitement of the extreme risks involved, just as many of us enjoy watching action movies.

Do you have a clear distinction between what is selfish and what is altruistic?

I am an evangelist for selfishness, short-range and long-range, working together with others to dovetail with their selfishness.

Let's create a new laudative connotation for the word selfish.