Selfish or Self-Centred

It just occurred to me that it might be helpful to make a distinction between selfishness and self-centredness. There are two different ideas that I habitually refer to by the same word, as selfishness, but they really deserve to be distinguished for the sake of clear thinking.

Selfishness means taking the best things for oneself before offering them to others. This is a rare and praiseworthy thing in the intellectual or spiritual aspect, but on the material level it is something that should most often be avoided, or at least moderated.

There’s another thing that I often want to call selfishness but which is perhaps better called self-centredness, although even this term leaves something to be desired. This other thing is a distortion of reality. Plato has Socrates describe this somewhere — in the Meno, I want to say. Let me explain.

In the physical world, perspective distorts reality. A tree nearby looks larger than a tree in the distance, even if the distant tree might in fact be much larger.

In our moral and intellectual reasoning, a similar thing happens, against which it can be very difficult to compensate in order to arrive at a balanced and fair assessment of reality.

A future pleasure is less enticing than an immediate pleasure, and a future pain is less fearsome than an immediate pain. A hurting friend seems more important than a hurting stranger, and a hurting self seems far more important than a hurting friend. This is everywhere, and it is a real challenge to resist it.

Our self-centredness distorts the world, and if we don’t consciously fight it then the distortion can easily lead us to unjust and unwise acts.

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