Food for Thought: Selfish v. Selfless

By Jason Buchanan

The coronavirus pandemic has brought on a whole host of new ethical questions. Am I selfish for going outside? Is shopping at a local business that’s open a show of support or is it really putting workers at risk? Should I keep a mask on at all times or not? How do we balance trying to take care of ourselves versus caring for others? How can we strive to act more selflessly, instead of being selfish? 

This topic has received much attention from various commentators. Mac Aljancic draws from sports to explain how humans are inherently selfish and how training to play for a team builds our abilities to be more selfless. In the face of this pandemic, we should be thinking about building this sense of team spirit, about working together to raise each other up, and about giving something up for the greater good.  

Domen Bajde discusses consumer responsibilization or “how consumers come to accept – or reject – personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions.” An impetus has been placed upon us as individuals to act responsibly. In some senses, we are unruly children being told to “behave.” Perhaps it is then natural that some among us have a natural reaction to rebel, to act selfishly. Below is a set of directives to help us reconsider what it means to act selflessly and what it means to act selfishly in these trying times.

  • Think of the collective, instead of the individual. Especially in the United States, we are constantly reinforcing our various freedoms, our liberty to do as we please. No one really likes to be told what to do. Yet we have to recognize how our individual actions cannot supersede our collective needs. As Bajde reminds us, “as responsible citizens, we have been told that our lives must change dramatically. To continue our old ways is to endanger ourselves and those who are vulnerable.” For many of us, this might be a big demand that may be difficult to fulfill.
  • Understand that our information and our feelings both affect our actions. Bajde continues to write that our choice to act responsibly is influenced by both what we know (What information are we consuming? Do we know the facts? Do we trust what the government is telling us?) and also by how we feel (Do we feel safe? Am I frightened about the prospect of getting sick or being unable to find employment?). 
  • Our sense of hope, shame, and pride contribute to how we respond. We might tell ourselves: I practice social distancing because I hope this will help flatten the curve. I wear a face mask because I want other people to know I’m doing my part, that I’m taking this seriously. I’m proud to live in a community where people are committed to reducing the number of cases and where we are supporting one another. These sentiments (or lack thereof) lead us to another set of questions posed by Bajde: “Do we feel responsible? Do we feel that our actions can make a real difference? Are we ashamed when we fail to act responsibly?”
  • Our sense of personal responsibility is grounded on our relations with others. Through empathy and our connections with others we take on a greater sense of responsibility. While we are asked to self-isolate and practice social distancing, it’s only natural that our selfishness should make slight inroads. Yet we should learn to practice empathy. How are others affected? How can I change my behavior to act more responsibly?

Amal Cheema, writing an opinion piece for NPR, calls upon other youth to act more altruistically. She argues the current pandemic offers youth an opportunity to demonstrate selflessness. “If there has ever been a time for altruism, for self-sacrifice, this is it. Our communities and countries need us in overcoming one of the biggest crises of our lives.” And, as we are constantly reminded on social media, staying home and sitting on your couch is a pretty simple thing to do. There are, of course, other examples of how to help and how the global community has rallied to support one another.  

We are being  asked to do something–to take responsibility and to act more selflessly. These directives are relatively simple, but achieving them in the wake of the current pandemic makes them much more difficult. It has become harder to toe the line between self-care (which everyone is entitled to) and selfishness. And it is also natural that we might struggle with these distinctions. Behaving selfishly might seem like it will make us feel good. Sometimes, selfish behavior might be unintentional. F. Diane Barth writing in Psychology Today offers a list of ways to deal with selfish people. While some of these suggestions may appear obvious, a critical look at your own behavior is key.

  • We may have differing ideas about what selfish behavior looks like. Barth provides the example of a couple reacting differently to new stories about the pandemic. One person may feel that the incessant news coverage causes them to feel anxious; the other may feel like understanding the latest gives them a sense of control. We should engage in conversations with those around us when we find ourselves in these situations in order to find a common ground.
  • Recognize your own selfish behavior. Everyone may have momentary lapses and exhibit selfish behavior. Barth even writes that selfishness in the service of self-perseverance can even be healthy. Yet when in doubt, we should all examine our motives for our actions.

There is also some interesting data that suggests being more “other-oriented” as opposed to being “self-focused” will make us feel better in the long run. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University, says in an interview with the Washington Post that: “the simple act of doing something nice for others, whether it’s spending money on others or spending your time on other people, can boost your well-being more than if you spent that money or time on yourself.”  

Santos also makes reference to the concept of post-traumatic growth as opposed to post-traumatic stress. According to Scientific American, PTG is “the idea that…traumatic events and experiences…can have beneficial effects.” This might seem rather counterintuitive, and it is pretty difficult to be optimistic about much during the current pandemic. Yet consider the possibility: after the pain and shock have started to dissipate, “people report feeling more appreciative of their lives” and sense “a new inner strength and confidence.” 

If there is one thing we may have learned from this experience, it is that what we value has become clear. We have put more work into maintaining relationships. While the possibility of growth may still feel unattainable on a personal level, we need to remember that that’s also okay. Santos reminds us that “It’s okay to feel crappy. Give yourself and your family members more self-compassion and more of a benefit of the doubt than you usually would.” But let us try to foster this energy–this clarity on what we value–beyond the immediate future. So much of the world is in the process of remaking itself, and we can play a part in its reinvention.