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Selfishness is behavior that is directed at furthering one's own interests, without regard to, or even at the expense of, others'. A selfish person might, for example, eat all of his cookies rather than offering one to a friend, if he has no reason to believe that friend will reciprocate. Economists generally distinguish between selfishness and rational self-interest. A person can engage in unselfish behavior out of rational self-interest because he believes he can gain greater satisfaction from devoting a given resource to improving others' circumstances than to improving his own circumstances.[1] In any event, even if individuals are selfish, this does not mean that by pursuing their selfish ends, they necessarily harm society, or that government intervention would produce a better result than the outcome of people's selfishness.[2]

Distinction between true altruism and participation in a gift economy

A selfish person may still behave in ways that could benefit others, if he believes that the benefits of doing so will outweigh the costs. For example, if he thinks that giving a cookie to his friend will lead to his friend returning the favor with interest later, he might share the cookie. Due to the law of diminishing marginal utility, he might be inclined to share his tenth chocolate chip cookie if he thinks that his friend will give him one oatmeal cookie later. Such situations may reflect more of a gift economy than true altruism, however.

Meritoriousness, or lack thereof, of selfish behavior

Ayn Rand, author of The Virtue of Selfishness, claimed that altruism was harmful; she argues:

Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.

Libertarians would generally agree that the actions of the bank robber and the tyrannical dictator are unethical, because they violate the non-aggression principle. Not all libertarians would agree that the young man has a moral duty to put a career ahead of supporting his parents. It could be argued that the choice is for him to make; after all, he would not choose to remain a grocery clerk if he did not feel that helping his parents would make him happier than pursuing a different path in life. The acceptability of making personal sacrifices to help one's family is described in The Market for Liberty, a book inspired by both Rand and Murray Rothbard, among others:[3]

If a mother goes without a new dress to buy a coat for her child whom she loves, that is not a sacrifice but a gain — her child's comfort was of more value to her than the dress. But if she deprives herself and the child by giving the money to the local charity drive so that people won't think she's 'selfish,' that is a sacrifice.

The Tannehills argue that sacrifice (the act of giving up a greater value for a lesser value) is destructive of the life and well-being of the sacrificing individual and can never benefit anyone because "It demoralizes both the giver, who has diminished his total store of value, and the recipient, who feels guilty about accepting the sacrifice and resentful because he feels he is morally bound to return the 'favor' by sacrificing some value of his own." This is similar to the sentiment expressed by Ludwig von Mises that charity "is a system that corrupts both givers and receivers. It makes the former self-righteous and the latter submissive and cringing."[2]

However, returning to the example of the mother who deprives herself and her child in order to give money to a local charity, it is worth considering why she would do that. It could be that she is so concerned about others' opinions that she wants to do what will ingratiate herself with them, even if it means that she and her child will experience more discomfort in other ways. She apparently deems the discomfort of social disapproval to be worse than the discomfort of not having the dress she wants, or the discomfort of seeing her child go without a coat. Is it not her choice to make, given that it is her money? Does her child have any claim to that money? Rothbardians would argue that the child does not.[4]


  1. Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action. "If action is primarily directed toward the improvement of other people's conditions and is therefore commonly called altruistic, the uneasiness the actor wants to remove is his own present dissatisfaction with the expected state of other people's affairs in various periods of the future. In taking care of other people he aims at alleviating his own dissatisfaction." 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Mises, Ludwig von. "The Welfare Principle Versus the Market Principle". Human Action. "The welfare propagandist, it is true, raises two objections. First, that the individual's motive is selfishness, while the government is imbued with good intentions. Let us admit for the sake of argument that individuals are devilish and rulers angelic. But what counts in life and reality is — whatever Kant may have said — not good intentions, but accomplishments. What makes the existence and the evolution of society possible is precisely the fact that peaceful cooperation under the social division of labor in the long run best serves the selfish concerns of all individuals." 
  3. Tannehill, Morris and Linda. "Man and Society". The Market for Liberty. pp. 9. 
  4. "Children and Rights". The Ethics of Liberty. "should a parent have the right to allow a deformed baby to die (e.g., by not feeding it)? The answer is of course yes, following a fortiori from the larger right to allow any baby, whether deformed or not, to die." 

See also