What is selfishness? It is generally defined as putting our own needs before the needs of others. It is the opposite of altruism, and agreed by many to be an undesirable trait. The paradox of selfishness is that, although it supposedly means putting ourselves first, selfish people are generally the least happy of us all. It is actually the practise of unselfishness that benefits us the most. So we should really try to be unselfish if we want to become happier…but isn’t that just another form of selfishness?
The paradox arises because selfishness is the wrong issue to focus on. The quality that distinguishes happy and altruistic people from their unhappy and self-centred counterparts is not one of selfishness, but one of awareness. Awareness is the understanding that helping others is actually beneficial both for them and for us. If people realized this truth, then they would never be selfish, for it would be senseless. Thus, selfish people are those who are unaware.
It may seem lenient to describe selfish people as simply “unaware”. We might prefer to vilify them as evil and immoral. However, describing them as “unaware” is not lenient, it’s just the plain truth. Noone knowingly acts in a way that causes harm both to others and to themselves, and so when we see someone doing this, we can assume that they lack understanding. This does not mean that murderers should be allowed to roam free. However, we should not lock them away to punish them for evil, but rather to help them understand the effects of their actions (and also to protect the rest of society).
A nice analogy is to compare humanity to a human body, with each person being an individual cell. Cells in our body want to survive. The best way for them to survive is for them to work together so that the body as a whole survives. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, multiply uncontrollably. This benefits them in the short-term, but the end result is that the body dies, and thus all cells – the cancerous ones included – die. So are the cancerous cells selfish? Probably. But their real problem is not selfishness but a lack of awareness. They fail to understand that their multiplication will destroy the whole body, including themselves. If they developed awareness, everyone would benefit.
Hence, instead of passing moral judgements on selfishness and unselfishness, we should focus on awareness and a lack of awareness. Because it is through developing awareness that we come to understand the true importance of love and compassion. When we have this understanding, questions of selfishness and unselfishness are no longer relevant.