Is Selfishness Unavoidable ?

Those who criticize Libertarian views on the grounds that they are selfish are on shaky ground.

Empirically it is a fact that so far all those who condemn selfishness have failed the coffee test and thereby demonstrated that in their own lives they consistently chose their own trivial pleasures ahead of the greatest needs of others (saving their lives).

It is hypocritical to reject others views on the grounds that they are selfish, if you clearly live an enormously selfish life yourself.

However, just because people (even those who espouse selflessness) are demonstrably selfish does not shed any light on the moral position of selflessness.

Perhaps it can still be argued that it is morally correct to be selfless. We “should” always put the needs of others before our own. The fact that we don’t in reality just shows that we often fail to live as morally as we should.

Perhaps a truly selfless socialist class will emerge in the future and pass the coffee test and any similar challenge with flying colours!

But what if it could be shown that to even argue for selflessness was a complete logical contradiction? Not an all to human short fall in behaviour, but logical nonsense?

Axiomatic (or undeniable) truths are demonstrably true without reference to anything other than themselves and thus cannot be refuted.

Examples of such undeniable truths would include Descartes argument for the existence of doubt. I.e. To doubt the existence of doubt is the very act of doubting. You affirm the existence of doubt in the very act of trying to deny it.

Another example would be Aristotle’s law of non contradiction. I.e. That a thing cannot be both true and false at the same time. It is not possible to argue against this (i.e. argue that it is false) without relying on the fact that false means only false and not both true and false at the same time.

So how does this apply to selflessness ?

Firstly we must define what we mean by selflessness:
“Putting the needs/wants/desires of others before your own.”

Now let us examine the nature of an argument for selflessness.
Imagine the argument takes place between Mother Teresa and Ayn Rand.

Teresa argues that people should be selfless, that is her view and that is what she wants to convince Rand to believe. Rand’s view is that people should not be selfless and that is what she wants Teresa to believe.

However, for Teresa to act in accordance with her belief in selflessness, she must put the wants/needs/desires of others before her own. This includes the want/need/desire of Rand for her to abandon her belief in selflessness.

She must therefore either reject selflessness with her actions and treat her own desire as more important than the wants/needs/desires of another or she must put Rand’s wants/needs/desires first and reject selflessness as a belief.

She is selfish if she disagrees and selfish if she agrees!

The non-existence of pure selflessness is thus an axiomatic truth that cannot be denied.

Once we have shown that it is impossible to be selfless then the moral position that selfishness is inherently wrong also falls. No acceptable system of normative ethics could require us to do the impossible.

So our opponents are left with saying that selfishness, whilst not inherently bad, has a limit of acceptability and that Libertarianism crosses that limit for them.

However, given the enormity of their personal selfishness, as demonstrated to them by the coffee test even that becomes a difficult position to defend.

Words by Murray Rothbard

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