On Selfishness



Human beings are inherently selfish – or so the usual adage goes. A common paradigm amongst the ideologues of the contemporary social psyche – capitalism, neo-liberalism, and moral subjectivism amongst others. Here I argue that this “enlightened” claim regarding human nature has no ground, for it misunderstands ideas involving meaning, language, and the self.

Argument from Tautology

Consider the general, wide-ranging definition of selfishness

Selfishness: the property of acting, ultimately, for oneself.

I claim that the former constitutes a meaningless proposition. The works of 20th century analytic philosopher, namely Frege and Wittgenstein, show how tautologies compose meaningless sentences1. Similarly, the former reduces into a tautology.

The subjective nature of the individual, axiomatically, requires them to act for themselves. Thus, this particular definition captures the set of all human individuals, precisely by the fundamental axiom implicit in its construction. The tautological nature of said proposition renders it meaningless. Hence, the question remains – What does it mean to be selfish?

Grounding Selfishness

Other claims on human nature, oftentimes, accompany selfishness. Particularly, one marking the optimal end of human life – the pursuit of happiness. When assertions about selfishness are raised, the former presupposition deems itself necessary. Hence, the definition of selfishness changes into – the property of acting, ultimately, for one’s happiness (or pleasure).

Then it becomes easy to reject the claim in question. In the words of Zizek – If there is a point in psychoanalysis, it is that people do not want or desire happiness. For a rigorous treatment of the subject, refer to Antithetical Nature of Emotions2

Transactional Nature of Relationships

Transactionality in relationships is oftentimes elicited as evidence of our selfish nature. However, this also falls into fallacious reasoning. The Problem of Consent: Why Yes Means No?3 would be recommended for complete context of the following definition.

Transactionality of Relationships: Two, or more, agents engage in a relationship, setting certain conditions, ideally pertaining to their true nature – as to ensure complete freedom

The contention raised often involves identifying that relationships fail due to unmet needs or crossed boundaries. In transactionality, need and boundaries, ideally, represent those that align with individual nature4. Using conditions that are assumed by the system, transactionality, as an argument for selfishness, while within it, is contradictory. Therefore, the fallacy reveals itself.

  1. Consider the sentence – Either John is or John isn’t
  2. Antithetical Nature of Emotions. Niranjan Krishna. (2023, March 13). Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://niranjankrishna.in/2023/03/13/antithetical-nature-of-emotions/
  3. The Problem of Consent: Why Yes Means No? Niranjan Krishna. (2023, March 25). Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://niranjankrishna.in/2023/03/25/the-problem-of-consent-why-yes-means-no/
  4. Meaning and Meta-Goals. Niranjan Krishna. (2023, March 7). Retrieved March 28, 2023, from https://niranjankrishna.in/2023/03/07/meaning-and-meta-goals/

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