Joseph Cotto, 12/11/2014 [Archive]

Is Being Selfish Really Such a Bad Thing?

By Joseph Cotto

Well over two years ago, a local public figure encouraged folks to give blood because it was the selfless thing to do.

"Selflessness" is an odd notion. Of course it is a wonderful idea to donate blood if one is physically able and free of disease. But if it were truly selfless, how many would do it?

The man promoting blood donation talked about self-sacrifice, but if there is no personal benefit involved, or even hope of a possible benefit, is self-sacrifice rational?

Sacrifice is the, relinquishing of something at less than its presumed value. If giving blood is truly a sacrifice, it is counterproductive to the donor. People being what they are, "sacrifice" has to be compensated somehow, if only with a warm glow and a pat on the back.

Perhaps a better way to describe voluntary charity is this: rational self-interest.

While some might find it unseemly, the primary motivator for aiding those around us is personal gratification. Seeing positive developments in our society makes us feel good not only about ourselves, but the future. Therefore, so long as one consciously and freely chooses to, lending a helping hand can be a very self-sustaining course of action.

Living with others in a society involves a constant series of compromises, doing things for others that we'd rather not do. In return, people do things for us. Charity can be seen as a form of insurance, or as a means of earning credit with others that will buy us a better position in society.

It thus becomes neither a chore nor a mindless burden. Rather, it fulfills important social needs and is beneficial for all parties involved. Realizing this is the key to motivating increased public participation in charitable causes, and awareness regarding important social matters.

Simply put, people will not do things which immediately inconvenience them if they aren't convinced that these acts will have some ultimate benefits. This happens especially when we care about the cause we support. Self interest has a stunning track record of trumping all else.

When people are given concrete reasons to take the time and effort to do something "selfless," we get a lot more civic minded behavior.

Neglecting to acknowledge the importance of self interest may be the worst mistake that is made during any charitable campaign. Moral virtue and wholesome self-sacrifice may do nicely in front of the congregation on Sunday morning (and aren't even they often offered the carrot of salvation and eternal joy with God?), but elsewhere, overt appeals to self interest can be powerful incentives to be good and be charitable.

This is a lesson, and not solely for the sake of charity, best learned early on. Rational self-interest is a key component of life, not a character defect that deserves shame and derision. Maybe most will own up to this glaring reality someday.

We should hope, anyhow.


Copyright 2014 Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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