The Virtue of Selfishness in Brazil

According to Webster's dictionary, the adjective 'selfish' means 'too much concerned with one's own welfare or interest and having little or no concern for others.'  The following composite image is quite typical: selfish people are brutish people who are oblivious to the negative consequences of their actions for their friends and loved ones and who abuse the patience, trust, and good will of all comers to satisfy their petty whims.  As such, selfishness is an anti-social vice and the word 'self' becomes a 'four-letter' word.

There is another approach to selfishness based upon the objectivist philosophy of the late author Ayn Rand.  Here is a explanation from the Objectivist Center:

Ayn Rand rejects altruism, the view that self-sacrifice is the moral ideal. She argues that the ultimate moral value, for each human individual, is his or her own well-being. Since selfishness (as she understands it) is serious, rational, principled concern with one's own well-being, it turns out to be a prerequisite for the attainment of the ultimate moral value. For this reason, Rand believes that selfishness is a virtue.

In the introduction to her collection of essays on ethical philosophy, The Virtue of Selfishness (VOS), Rand writes that the "exact meaning" of selfishness is "concern with one's own interests" (VOS, vii). In that work, Rand argues that a virtue is an action by which one secures and protects one's rational values—ultimately, one's life and happiness. Since a concern with one's own interests is a character trait that, when translated into action, enables one to achieve and guard one's own well-being, it follows that selfishness is a virtue. One must manifest a serious concern for one's own interests if one is to lead a healthy, purposeful, fulfilling life.

... Rand argues that the conventional understanding of selfishness implies an altruistic framework for thinking about ethics. Within this framework, the question, "Who is the beneficiary of this act?" is the most important moral question: right acts are acts undertaken for the "benefit" of others and wrong acts are acts undertaken for one's own "benefit." Rand believes that this approach passes over the crucial ethical questions: "What are values?" and "What is the nature of the right and the good?" In addition, the altruist framework suggests a dichotomy between actions that promote the interests of others to one's own detriment and actions that promote ones own interests to the detriment of others. Rand rejects this dichotomy and affirms the harmony of human interests (cf. "The 'Conflicts' of Men's Interests," VOS 57-65).

... For her, the truly selfish person is a self-respecting, self-supporting human being who neither sacrifices others to himself nor sacrifices himself to others.

We recognize that selfishness is a nuanced and complex behavior.  Not all 'selfish' people act selfishly all of the time in everything that they do.  Conversely, not all 'selfless' people act altruistically all of the time in everything that they do.  In fact, it may be impossible to classify the world into 'selfish' and 'unselfish' people in any consistent and meaningful manner.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Brasil study.  This is a survey of 5.312 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old who were interviewed during the first half of 2002.  During the survey, the respondents were presented with the statement 'I worry about myself first before others.'  According to the survey results, 15.0% of the respondents said that they completely agreed with the statement.

In the chart below, we show the breakdown of the responses separately by age/sex group.  By gender, the incidences are higher among males than females across all age groups.  The highest incidence occurs among men 55-64.

A much more interesting breakdown occurs in the next chart.  Contrary to the image of the greedy exploitative capitalist, the incidence decreases up the socio-economic scale.  Of course, this is just a sad statement that when one lives below the poverty line, any suggestion that one should worry about others first is an obscene idea.

The incidence also decreases with more education.  Since education is positively correlated with socio-economic level, this is expected.  However, there is a trickier issue involved here, since we are taught in school that selfishness is a socially unacceptable behavior.  It may be that what we have here are the socially desirable responses that have been conditioned by specific types of schooling. 

(posted by Roland Soong, 11/07/2002)

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