Fake Selfishness

Once upon a time, I met some­one who pro­claimed him­self to be purely self­ish, and told me that I should be purely self­ish as well. I was feel­ing mischievous(*) that day, so I said, “I’ve ob­served that with most re­li­gious peo­ple, at least the ones I meet, it doesn’t mat­ter much what their re­li­gion says, be­cause what­ever they want to do, they can find a re­li­gious rea­son for it. Their re­li­gion says they should stone un­be­liev­ers, but they want to be nice to peo­ple, so they find a re­li­gious jus­tifi­ca­tion for that in­stead. It looks to me like when peo­ple es­pouse a philos­o­phy of self­ish­ness, it has no effect on their be­hav­ior, be­cause when­ever they want to be nice to peo­ple, they can ra­tio­nal­ize it in self­ish terms.”

And the one said, “I don’t think that’s true.”

I said, “If you’re gen­uinely self­ish, then why do you want me to be self­ish too? Doesn’t that make you con­cerned for my welfare? Shouldn’t you be try­ing to per­suade me to be more al­tru­is­tic, so you can ex­ploit me?”

The one replied: “Well, if you be­come self­ish, then you’ll re­al­ize that it’s in your ra­tio­nal self-in­ter­est to play a pro­duc­tive role in the econ­omy, in­stead of, for ex­am­ple, pass­ing laws that in­fringe on my pri­vate prop­erty.”

And I said, “But I’m a small-L liber­tar­ian already, so I’m not go­ing to sup­port those laws. And since I con­ceive of my­self as an al­tru­ist, I’ve taken a job that I ex­pect to benefit a lot of peo­ple, in­clud­ing you, in­stead of a job that pays more. Would you re­ally benefit more from me if I be­came self­ish? Be­sides, is try­ing to per­suade me to be self­ish the most self­ish thing you could be do­ing? Aren’t there other things you could do with your time that would bring much more di­rect benefits? But what I re­ally want to know is this: Did you start out by think­ing that you wanted to be self­ish, and then de­cide this was the most self­ish thing you could pos­si­bly do? Or did you start out by want­ing to con­vert oth­ers to self­ish­ness, then look for ways to ra­tio­nal­ize that as self-benefit­ing?”

And the one said, “You may be right about that last part,” so I marked him down as in­tel­li­gent.

(*) Other mischievous ques­tions to ask self-pro­claimed Selfishes: “Would you sac­ri­fice your own life to save the en­tire hu­man species?” (If they no­tice that their own life is strictly in­cluded within the hu­man species, you can spec­ify that they can choose be­tween dy­ing im­me­di­ately to save the Earth, or liv­ing in com­fort for one more year and then dy­ing along with Earth.) Or, tak­ing into ac­count that scope in­sen­si­tivity leads many peo­ple to be more con­cerned over one life than the Earth, “If you had to choose one event or the other, would you rather that you stubbed your toe, or that the stranger stand­ing near the wall there gets hor­ribly tor­tured for fifty years?” (If they say that they’d be emo­tion­ally dis­turbed by know­ing, spec­ify that they won’t know about the tor­ture.) “Would you steal a thou­sand dol­lars from Bill Gates if you could be guaran­teed that nei­ther he nor any­one else would ever find out about it?” (Selfish liber­tar­i­ans only.)