Why Are Some People Selfish And Others Selfless?

Woman holding designer bags

Our biggest problems and main source of stress comes from other people. Every day we see people acting thoughtlessly or without care for others. Parents who seem to give little thoughts to their children. Drivers that endanger others. Workers that take all the credit for other people’s ideas. Financial Speculators that cut jobs and ruin lives and businesses to make a quick buck. And so we often ask ourselves…

Why do they have to be selfish?

In our minds we often divide people into good and bad. Or selfish and caring. Yet the truth is that we are neither one or the other. We can all be selfless and selfish. I often think of people as being like computers. What they do just depends on the program they have running in their head.

It is natural to be selfish.

We are contained in one body, that can only feel biochemical sensations as a result of our own thoughts.  Therefore it’s a biological fact that we are, by nature, selfish.

Which can be a great thing.  It means that everyone has someone looking out for them.

Where it does become a problem is when people become so short-sighted that they don’t see that grabbing all they can now, will hurt them and others in the longer term.

So we have fishermen that want to catch everything they can now, leaving no chance of restocking our waters.

Rainforests being demolished at too rapid a rate to replenish and many of our natural resources being dangerously harvested.  Bankers that recklessly run up debts for others to pay.

Why Are Some People Relentlessly Selfless?

Yet we also have examples where people act nobly against their own self interest.

There’s parents that risk their lives to save their kids.

Family members that donate a kidney to save a loved one’s life.

Then there’s people like Mother Theresa, many who most of the world will never know about, but give their life to making a better world for other people or animals.

History is filled with tales of people such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King who devote their lives to something they wholeheartedly believe in.

Take Craig Kielburger for example, who at the age of 12 read about the murder of a child slave and has since worked tirelessly to eradicate child slavery.


“I won’t give up until the exploitation of all children has ended and all children have their rights.”
Craig Kielburger

Or Pumla Gobodo-Madikizelan who has sought to create a peaceful future in South Africa by facilitating forgiveness and peace between those who tortured and were tortured under apartheid.


Or Rachel Corrie who died as a Human Shield trying to save a refugee camp in Gaza.


The Importance Of Honour

You might not agree with their causes, but you have to be inspired by people who give their life to something greater than greed and self-interest.  When I watch a film I would much rather identify with the character that is true and steadfast to his (or her) beliefs, than the selfish git who is only looking out for themselves.  Films that come to mind are 300 where the Spartan king would rather die in glory than compromise what it is to be a Spartan.


Or the philosophy behind the way of life for the last of a dying breed captured in The Last Samurai.


In contrast who watches Troy and hopes that they will be as weak and self-centred as Paris, who is happy to endanger his family and nation out of his selfish desire and fear.


Psychologists have come up with a number of explanations in an attempt to explain why people act altruistically.  Perhaps it’s because to empathise with someone else’s pain causes us discomfort and so we are motivated to reduce that discomfort.  Or maybe it’s to do with game theory, where eventually co-operating like a good citizen is more profitable than more purely selfish motivations.

I think there is something deeper and a little more complex behind this though and I’d like to share my view with you to get your opinion on this.

Are We All Just An Avatar?

I’m going to hijack a concept from another film to explain it.  In Avatar, the main character enters another world by putting his personality and consciousness inside a body made for that world.  I believe that we do much the same here on our planet.  We are something bigger, something more than calculated consumers, trained responses and biochemical reactions.  We hold aspirations and principles that are greater than the mere survival of us as a hairy, bag of water.

I think our bodies and our physical identity is merely an earthly Avatar that enables us to translate abstract ideas into concrete live things.

angelina-AVATAR - comparacion
Creative Commons License photo credit: balt-arts

Emotionally and spiritually we can develop a clarity of what concepts we truly value, care about and identify with.  It is in refining and deepening stronger bonds to this idealised sense of what we aspire to become that creates a path ahead, which leads to a more evolved philosophy of life.

Those that do not develop such a refined and mature emotional identity operate out of fear, savagery and opportunism.

Selfishness is natural.  It is impossible and unnatural to not be selfish.  The problem we have with others that are selfish is really about not caring about others.  An overwhelming obsession with themselves and their well-being at the expense of others.  Which is really petty thinking.  It’s thinking of yourself as being isolated.  As being something small, feeble, weak and of little value who must fight for what he or she wants over others.

We are all selfish.  What differentiates the characters Paris from King Leonidas and his 299 fellow warriors was that Paris cared only for his own (and perhaps his lover’s) interests.  While the 300 warriors saw the strength and purity of their nation’s ideals as being their interest.  People like Craig Kielburger see their interest as being inextricably tied to ideals such as fairness and equal opportunity and wellbeing for all.

It isn’t that one person is selfish and therefore bad.  As humans we are all equal in our ability for greatness or for evil.  What makes us think and act differently comes down to what we see our identity as being.  The more expansive our sense of identity is, the more people who we will see as being part of our sense of self.

The physical world, with it’s many divisions and barriers, causes a very limited definition of self.  We gain a more evolved and expanded sense of self from our emotional and spiritual worlds. These are the aspirations and ideals we hold without the limitations placed on us in the physical world.

Honour = Congruence With A Personal Code Of Conduct

It is a mark of maturity to develop your aspirations of what you wish to become.  Selfishness, as we often see it,  is simply an undeveloped emotional or spiritual sense of identity.  To mature is to be in this world, but not of it.  To travel to the world without limitations in order to  transcend  those physical limitations.

The problem is not a personal character deficiency, but a poverty of aspirations.

I believe that there is a formula for happiness.  That is that by having a dream that excites you to strive for and by resolving stress along the way, you will be happy.  The extent to which you can do that determines just how good your life will be.

The Formula for Happiness

Having a dream is about more than something that you want.  Wanting to be a Rock Star or WAG is not enough to live a passionate life.  You need a complete spiritual, cognitive and emotional structure, from which you form a philosophy that supports your pursuit of your goal.  Real maturity is not about achieving a goal, the goal becomes secondary and transitory.  There are always more goals.  What is key is the philosophy of how you live your life.  It’s not what you get that’s important, but your conduct in how you go about getting it.

Life Without Honour = Relentless Grasping

So many people have never developed a sense of honour.  A philosophy with a code of conduct that guides them as to what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.  Without any sense of this personal guidance, life becomes a series of calculated transactions.

“What’s in it for me?”

“I won’t get out of bed for less than…”

“It’s ok, everyone else does it…”

“Why not?  Who will ever find out?”

This is why people who succeed wildly and get to live the life everyone dreams of, find that the dream’s not all that and become disillusioned.  Think Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, Britney Spears, Elvis Presley and Robbie Williams.  When you have a personal code, a philosophy that you truly believe in, it doesn’t matter as much whether you actually get the goal or not, because you have something meaningful to live for anyway.

People who behave selfishly have to grab all they can because they have nothing else to hold onto.  Nothing that they gather will satisfy them.  They are like a child that feels they have to eat all the sweets today or lose out forever.  It is not a basis for any stable form of happiness and so it is best to think of them in the same way you would a grasping three year old.  That’s not an excuse, just a fact of life.


5 thoughts on “Why Are Some People Selfish And Others Selfless?”

  1. Great post. My experience is that people do not have a choice in whether they act in this way. My take is that people are just where they are at and realising that we can live life in a peacefully – meaning altruistic in our current language – which you describe eloquently – is a shift that we can ‘work on’ when we realise it is possible – this realisation is there in all of us but does not necessarily come to the surface. What I now know and the reason I feel work such as yours is so important is that the more hurmans recognise the shift is possible – the easier it is for other humans to recognise that possibility – the shift happens because of the way people conduct themselves and is gathering momentum. Unfortunately so is the other mode of living (not a judgement here) and this is more obvious – watch the news – read the newspapers.

  2. I lost you with your liberal talking points about rain forests, fisherman, and evil bankers. Liberals are the most self absorbed, arrogant lot I have known in my 56 years. Everyone needs to pay so teachers can make more and more, never mind there isn’t the money, so we cut teachers, hurt the kids, so they can have higher salaries.
    The most selfish thing we can do is run up our national debt, and destroy the economy, while more people are on welfare than ever in history.
    I feel sorry for others that have had hard times, or don’t have a family to help them.
    My father, and myself, have helped a lot of them, out of our own pockets, without receiving a trophy or write up in the paper as incentive.
    Those people were helping themselves, not whining about those who made it through hard work and stress, or blaming their plight on others greed.
    When you can leave politics out of it, I will pay attention, otherwise, it is just another self absorbed, arrogant lefty, blaming it on big business, the greedy industrialists (who create all the jobs, by the way), and the evil banking sector (everyone should buy a house they can’t afford, instead, through the government)etc.
    No doubt, you can follow up with a cute comeback, but I am right. People need to pay their own way. Take care of their own kids, and stop blaming big business, and whining about our forests, while tens of thousands lose jobs that help those kids grow up, all for the typical liberal “save the animals” mentality.
    The same liberals who care nothing for human life. And no I am not a christian, pro life nut. It just doesn’t make sense people that are so worried about owls and whales and baby seals…or rain forests…could care less about millions of babies are torn limb from limb every year.
    That’s about as selfish as it gets, boss.
    Done, thanks.

  3. We are born selfish. We don’t have to stay that way. I think we make excuses for people’s poor behaviors and they don’t learn to care about others. Selfishness may be natural, yet we can choose to look outside ourselves.

  4. As a professional economist (i.e. the dismal science) I encounter many who rationalize and even strive to internalize self-interest. After taking a personality test, I was told that I was quite the opposite of this. However, I see people around me as greedy, which is painful for me; I think that I should value myself as much as others but find this way of being to be unfulfilling.
    I hope that we, as a species can learn (realize?) that self-interest will not lead to the utopia that many seem to strive towards.

    • I agree, William. I think that our self-interest is actually deeply wrapped up in having something bigger than our self-interest. I think we find ourselves, counter-intuitively when we lose ourselves in service to others.


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