Reconstructing the Morality and Ethics of Selfishness


We all have perceptions of how we're seen by other people. For some of us, those perceptions weigh more heavily on our minds than they do for others. And sometimes, the seemingly negative perceptions that other people have might actually, in their own way, hold at least partially true.

For me, that perception has long been of a virtue-signalling, holier-than-thou slacktivist who is fuelled by a need to feel morally superior to other people. The "White Knight" riding in to save the day, if you will.

It's the assumption that this very venture that I've founded exists entirely to make me feel better about myself.

First off, for anyone reading who is surprised to learn that I'm acutely aware of these perceptions, we have to do away with the notion that people don't have any idea of what we think of them. Of course they do, and sometimes it hurts.

For quite some time, that perception was something that hurt me and I resented. I have always cared greatly about what other people think about me, and this always made me feel gross, because even though I knew my work to be firmly situated in my personal experiences with mental illness and emotional trauma growing up, the more you hear something, the easier it becomes to doubt what was once unquestionably true in your head.

I got into this debilitating habit of forcing myself to engage with the people who thought these things about me, believing that if they just sat down and talked to me about these things, they'd understand who I really am and what I'm really about.

Shocking to exactly no one, those efforts have thus far been futile, and have done nothing other than drain me of my energy to keep pushing ahead.

But as I've continued to reflect on this and learn more about my relationship to the things I care most about (this work that I do and the issues they focus on), I've come to realize that one part of that perception is genuinely 100% accurate:

I do this work because it makes me feel good.

At this point, we could launch into a deeply philosophical analysis of Ayn Rand's theory of Egoism and decide where we come out on the debate between selfishness and altruism. The problem with that debate is I don't think it's the right one to be having.

There are two things I believe about human nature to be true:

  1. We will always make decisions and act in ways that make us feel good. We are, in this way, inherently self-interested creatures, and there isn't much agency to be exercised here.

  2. We do, however, have control over the values system that informs what makes us feel good and what does not (though this does not account for restrictive forces, such as various illnesses or an array of socially precarious living contexts).

For example, if you're someone who above all else values compassion, empathy, and helping others feel happy, comfortable, and safe, doing things that support the mission outlined by these values will make you feel good.

In my own case, this is how I've come to do the work I do. Breaking down broken institutions, toxic ways of thinking, and systemic forms of oppression are things I think are more valuable than most other things. Thus, working as often and as best I can to make progress in these areas is an entirely selfish act that makes me feel good.

If we understand acting out of self-interest to operate in this way, and if we understand the determining and nurturing of our internal values as the place to exercise our critical thinking and agency, we can move forward into the world with less shame about doing things that make us happy.

We'll also hopefully spend more time thinking long and hard about what it is that we stand for.

Your selfishness won't look like mine. If you're someone who problematizes my values system, you might even see my selfishness as a form of evil, toxicity, or regression, and you'll challenge me because of it. Moreover, if your values involve ways of acting, thinking, or speaking that I interpret as contributing to forms of oppression and discrimination that I seek to dismantle, you can be sure that I'll challenge you, too.

This realization has also allowed me more clarity when it comes to having debates with other people.

Based on how I see humans fundamentally operating, I cannot ever hope to stop you from aligning with your values, and convincing you that my values are better established or ranked than yours will be nearly impossible.

This is where I start to feel sad and discouraged.

Within this model, and unfortunately backed up by almost every experience like this I've had, we will really only convince folks of things if we show them how our point of view fits in to their often very different values.

In other words, if you're someone like me who is more honed in on the socio-political benefits of a program you'd like to see funded, and you're talking to someone who places a higher value on financial sustainability and lower fees or taxes, we live in a frustrating reality where making the longterm financial case for the program — "we will save x amount of dollars over time if we invest in training on sexual harassment due to a decrease in payouts to our employees in settlements down the line" — instead of making what feels like the more pressing case for how it will make your workplace safer, will likely give you your best odds.

It's time that we came to accept that we will act 'selfishly' and start to become more accountable to the values that inform that selfishness.

Now, to those of you who, like me, have long been governed by how other people view you, please know this:

If you've taken the time and care required to overcome your challenges, grow through your life experiences, and establish a set of values you firmly believe in, then those who wish you failure have neglected to become acquainted with what makes you strong, human, and special.

That's on them.

You do not owe anyone justification in the form of explaining any trauma or personal experiences that have led you down your path.

You do not deserve shame for doing things that keep you afloat or make you feel energized.

You do not have to apologize for paving the path that makes sense to you.

Keep paving it, and perhaps one day they will find themselves walking it, and maybe then they will understand who you are.