Is selfishness a virtue? Depends on how you define it, I suppose.
A few months ago, I re-picked up a life coaching podcast that had been helpful to me last year. While browsing through the list of episodes one title caught my attention: “Because I Want To.”
It sounded so empowering. “Do what you want because you want to. Don’t worry about everyone else’s opinions or feelings about your actions. Take control of your destiny and define your life on your terms.”
After listening to the episode I just felt sad for the host and everyone else in her life. My sadness was increased even more after listening to another one of her episodes on the virtues of selfishness. The message of the podcasts was essentially “screw everyone else, because you aren’t responsible for them, do what you want. Be selfish, it’s virtuous.”
Maybe it wasn’t quite that harsh. She did define selfishness as “taking care of your own needs so you can better care for the needs of others.” But this definition conflates selfishness with self-care. I don’t disagree with the concept of self-care at all, but there is a fine line between self-care and selfish narcissism.
What happens when you take care of your own needs just because you only care about yourself? There is a blurry boundary between (bad) selfishness and (good) self-care. It is one thing entirely to say “I’m going to take a break to recharge my batteries so I can be better at taking care of my responsibilities.” It is quite another to say “I’m going to walk away from my responsibilities because I want to.”
The entire ethos of the host is basically “I do what I want because I want to. I don’t care how it makes others feel (after all, I’m not responsible for their feelings, they are). My selfishness is a virtue.”
But what if everyone lived like that? She has a rather optimistic view of humanity. Like so many humanists today, the host believes that most of us deep down really want to care for others. It is common to believe that most people are intrinsically good.
However, It doesn’t take much time among the general population to see this just isn’t true. Most people are looking out for themselves. They live her ethos every day. People are naturally selfish and inclined to look out only for number one.
The result is that most of us live in misery.
Podcasts teaching people that selfishness is virtuous only serve to validate narcissists, not that a narcissist needs much to validate himself. By his very nature a narcissist believes he is always right. He looks out always and only for himself. He makes himself an island and declares himself king. He does what he wants because he wants to, no one can require anything from him.
This is all fine and dandy until relationships get involved. Narcissists are incapable of mutually beneficial relationships. They only want relationships that “serve them.” If anything is required of them they immediately shut down the relationship.
Depending on the type of narcissist, they may require something physical or emotional from the other person, or they may pretend to require nothing (whatever “serves them”). Either way, they themselves contribute nothing, unless it’s begrudgingly.
Everyone is familiar with the overt kind of narcissist. This one is a noisy leech, the overt narcissist demands the world revolve around him and takes takes takes.
The lesser known kind of narcissist is the kind who requires nothing of those around him. This one is a bit more insidious. He gives nothing and validates himself by saying that he requires nothing in return. They put on airs of self-sufficiency and generally take care of their own needs. In their mind they are completely independent. They project this independence on everyone else. If they can be an island, so should everyone else.
Worse yet, when they do have needs they don’t express them, preferring to play a “victim” of the “selfishness” of others.
But needs are a bit more complex than simple air, water, and food. Humans require emotional support and affection as well. We are social animals. This is why we form mutually beneficial bonds in marriage or friendships. We give and we get in return.
As I mentioned before, narcs aren’t capable of mutually beneficial bonds. Not only are they not capable of such bonds, they thrive on destroying such bonds. Narcissists feed on chaos and controlling the emotions of others. So when some respected podcaster tells them that they should do whatever “serves” them, they naturally gravitate towards destructive behaviors. They can walk all over others and claim it’s healthy behavior because after all, selfishness is virtuous.