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"Selfish" redirects here. For other uses, see Selfish (disambiguation).

Selfishness is being concerned, sometimes excessively or exclusively, for oneself or one's own advantage, pleasure, or welfare, regardless of others.[1][2]

Selfishness is the opposite of altruism or selflessness; and has also been contrasted (as by C. S. Lewis) with self-centeredness.[3]

Divergent views

The implications of selfishness have inspired divergent views within religious, philosophical, psychological, economic and evolutionary contexts.


Aristotle joined a perceived majority of his countrymen in condemning those who sought only to profit themselves; but he approved the man of reason who sought to gain for himself the greatest share of that which deserved social praise.[4]

Seneca proposed a cultivation of the self within a wider community - a care for the self which he opposed to mere selfishness in a theme that would later be taken up by Foucault.[5]


Selfishness was viewed in the Western Christian tradition as a central vice – as standing at the roots of the Seven deadly sins in the form of pride.[6]

Francis Bacon carried forward this tradition when he characterised “Wisdom for a man's self...[a]s the wisdom of rats”.[7]


With the emergence of a commercial society, Bernard Mandeville proposed the paradox that social and economic advance depended on private vices – on what he called the sordidness of selfishness.[8]

Adam Smith with the concept of the invisible hand saw the economic system as usefully channelling selfish self-interest to wider ends;[9] while John Locke based society upon the solitary individual, arguably opening the door for later thinkers like Ayn Rand to argue for selfishness as a social virtue and the root of social progress.[10]

Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain opposed the latter view by way of the Aristotelian argument that framing the fundamental question of politics as a choice between altruism and selfishness is a basic and harmful mistake of modern states. Rather, cooperation ought to be the norm: human beings are by nature social animals, and so individual persons can only find their full good in and through pursuing the good of the community.[11]


Lack of empathy has been seen as one of the roots of selfishness, extending as far as the cold manipulation of the psychopath.[12]

The contrast between self-affirmation and selfishness has become a conflictual arena in which the respective claims of individual/community is often played out – between parents and children[13] or men and women, for example.[14]

Psychoanalysts favor the development of a genuine sense of self, and may even speak of a healthy selfishness,[15] as opposed to the self-occlusion[16] of what Anna Freud called 'emotional surrender'.[17]


Self-centeredness was marked as a key feature in a phenomenological theory of criminality named "The Criminal Spin" model. Accordingly, in most criminal behaviors there is an heightened state of self-centeredness, that differently manifests itself in different situations and in different forms of criminality.[18]

See also


  1. "Selfish", Merriam-Webster Dictionary, accessed on 23 August 2014
  2. Selfishness - meaning,, accessed on 23 April 2012
  3. C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (1988) p. 116-7
  4. Aristotle, Ethics (1976) p. 301-3
  5. G. Gutting ed., The Cambridge Companion to Foucault (2003) p. 138-30
  6. Dante, Purgatorio (1971) p. 65
  7. Francis Bacon, The Essays (1985) p. 131
  8. Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (1970) p. 410 and p. 81-3
  9. M. Skousen, The Big Three in Economics (2007) p. 29
  10. P. L. Nevins, The Politics of Selfishness (2010) p. xii-iii
  11. Maritain, Jacques (1973). The Person and the Common Good. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. ISBN 978-0268002046. 
  12. D. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1996) p. 104-10
  13. R. D. Laing, Self and Others (1969) p. 142-3
  14. What is Selfish?
  15. N. Symington, Narcissism (1993) p. 8
  16. Terence Real, I Don't Want to Talk About It (1997) p. 203-5
  17. Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (1994) p. 98
  18. Ronel, N. (2011). Criminal behavior, criminal mind: Being caught in a criminal spin. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 55(8), 1208 - 1233

Further reading

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (1990), second edition—includes two chapters about the evolution of cooperation, ISBN 0-19-286092-5

External links