Selfishness or Altruism:

a dialogue with a Christian friend

I posted the following quote (by me), which my friend responded to:

The inherent double-standard of altruists and altruism...

An altruist will say, "Even though I'm unhappy in my marriage, I should sacrifice myself for my spouse."

Yet, if you ask this person, "Would you want your spouse to sacrifice for you if the circumstances were reversed?" the answer is usually "no." And, if it were "yes," then that person would not be an altruist in the reversed circumstances.

An altruist will say, "Even though I am not happy in my job, I should sacrifice myself for my boss, my colleagues, and my company...they need me."

Yet if you ask this same person, "If the circumstances were reversed, would you want an employee to sacrifice themselves for the company?" usually the answer is "no." And, if it were "yes," then that person would not be an altruist in the reversed circumstances.

An altruist will say, "Even though I feel I am not taking care of myself, I shouldn't charge my friend for my professional services."

Yet if you ask this same person, "Would you want a friend to neglect taking care of themselves by providing free professional services to you?" the answer is usually "no." And, if it were "yes," then that person would not be an altruist in the reversed circumstances.

An altruist, will say, "Even though I don't feel good about taking my time to help out this poor person, they need my help so I should help them."

Yet, if you ask this same person, "If you were poor like they are, would you want another person to help you out even though they wouldn't feel good about doing so?", the answer is usually "no." And, if it were "yes," then that person would not be an altruist in the reserved circumstances.

Altruism is a win-lose self-contradictory ethical system.

The only win-win ethical system that has integrity is a system of mutual selfishness (considering both long-term and short-term selfishness)."


My friend's generous response (she's from Denmark):

Reading your thoughts about altruism and altruists I am rather puzzled. 

Our Western society was built on the values of Christianity based on the teachings of Jesus.

"Love your neighbor as yourself". This fundamental teaching has penetrated the Western Society. Schools, universities and hospitals were built reaching out and educating people. It mostly was started in monasteries where learned monks spread knowledge. Today these countries are mostly "secular christian nations". The 10 commandments have been the building stone of a society that you and I have benefitted from.


Far from perfect since the human nature is often selfish and cruel, but looking at the European countries they are advanced societies where the individual wellbeing is at the center of the governments politics. Based on sharing and caring for each other.


So when you proclaim your rather strange ideas, I think you have now been influenced by the Chinese  culture that certainly is so different and in many ways terribly cruel since individual rights are so unimportant. 


Caring for each other and being able to be altruistic is in my opinion the most noble way to live. And the most deeply rewarding way to live ones life.

My response to her response

Your feedback on my quote was welcome.


I think there is some fuzziness about the words we are using. I often find that “disagreements” are because words have not been clearly defined. This is especially true for words like altruism and selfishness. 


Although others may use these words to mean something different (while not being explicit in their definitions), I use these words as antonyms with these explicit definitions: 

  1. selfishness means concern about your own wellbeing (both long-term and short-term). It also means that, if you can’t find a way to resolve any conflict that may arise between taking care of yourself and taking care of another, that you prioritize yourself (not sacrificing your life for another). Most often, the best way to take care of yourself is through taking care of others at the same time, an arrangement of mutual selfishness. As you said, taking care of others can be very rewarding (but only if you're not sacrificing yourself in the process). When most people use the word selfishness, I find they are referring only to short-term selfishness (while that person is neglecting their own long-term selfishness). Short-term selfishness can be cruel (even to both sides). But when you include long-term selfishness (which is what selfishness is, because without long-term selfishness, you don’t have full selfishness), doing your best to dovetail with the long-term selfishness of others, then you will rarely find any conflict between your selfishness and the selfishness of others. In this world of mutual selfishness both (all) sides win at the same time.

  2. In contrast, altruism means that your primary concern is for others and that you are willing to give up taking care of yourself (that is, sacrifice yourself) for another when a conflict between taking care of yourself and taking care of another arises that you don’t know how to resolve. Having worked with thousands of clients over the past 33 years, most of them have suffered deeply because of the internal battles they’ve felt between taking care of themselves and taking care of others (as an obligation, as a duty, as wanting to be a “good person.”) These conflicts arise because much of the teachings in our cultures (including the Chinese culture, which is even more altruistic than the American and European cultures) that have said we should sacrifice ourselves for others, at the expense of our own wellbeing.

P.S. See the OOI toolkit for ways to resolve any conflicts that may arise between taking care of oneself and taking care of others.