In popular rhetoric, selfishness and self-interest are used almost interchangeably. If you say you did something out of self-interest, you will be vilified for a selfish ingrate. Yet, self-interest is written into the foundations of this country as an essential component to our inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
So what is the difference?
The selfishness that our kindergarten teachers, parents, preachers, and government warns us about is, for simplicity’s sake, any self-fulfilling action a person takes that harms another person’s individual rights.
Example: Susie takes Johnny’s toy truck. Susie might be happy that she now has the truck, but taking the truck would have been a selfish action because the truck belonged to Johnny and Susie took it without permission. Easy enough, right?
On the other hand, self-interested actions are those that bring us benefit while not harming another person’s individual rights.
Example: Maggie buys a new dress with money she earned from her job. Maggie is happy and no person’s rights were harmed in the process. Again, pretty simple.
So, why the difficulty? Why the confusion of these two words in popular rhetoric? I think there are a couple of overlapping reasons that can be summed up quickly: we’ve been conditioned to reject the self. Recriminations for being selfish start when we are very young and continue throughout our lives. And, while we hear condemnations for selfishness, self-sacrifice (either for God, for Society, or for the State) is heralded as virtuous. We get the double-whammy lesson every day of our lives. And, much like putting our hand on a lit stove–we may do it once, but thereafter we become instinctively wary of lit stoves.
It is important to differentiate these two words and to re-examine their true meaning because self-interest is a motivating force in each of us–motivating us to get up and work towards our own happiness. This is the secret that the Founding Fathers recognized as essential for society. For if each individual is allowed to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit (without harming the rights of another), he will likely be more motivated, more productive, and happier. And even though it is a secondary consideration, if each and every man acts in this way, society as a whole can only benefit.