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Is it selfish? Is it altruistic?​

Knowing what we mean

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

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.

Is it selfish or altruistic?

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? Or you were doing it so that others would think you're a good person. 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, dovetail together.

Is it selfish or altruistic?

What if you're 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 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.

Is it selfish or altruistic?

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.

Is it selfish or altruistic?

You consider it to be your wife's duty to tend the kids and take care of all the housework

As you relax on the sofa for hours in front of the TV each evening, you can tell that your wife's not happy about it. Many times she has asked you for help, but you insist that you've worked all day and that taking care of the house and kids are her responsibilities. She ultimately gives in because she's frightened to take a stand and a part of her also believes "it's her duty." 

Are you being selfish? Yes, but at best it's short-term selfishness at the expense of longer-term selfishness that could later turn into much better short-term selfishness. You're focused on staying comfortable with your evening TV ritual and habit. You're ignoring the damage to your marriage and the damage to your kids, which in your deeper heart you care about. You're not exploring the possibilities of having a more satisfying and mutually rewarding relationship with your wife and children. 

Many of us would say that you're acting selfishly in the marriage. But, within yourself, you've set up a win-lose between your Now and your Next. And, because of that, you have a lose-lose (when considering long-term) with your wife and your kids, between your Oneself and your Others.

Is it selfish or altruistic?

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

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

If you're still having trouble with the word "selfishness," substitute the word "self-interest" or even "self-care."

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

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