In Defense of Selfishness Summary and Review

by Peter Schwartz
Has In Defense of Selfishness by Peter Schwartz been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. Has there ever been a point in your life where you’ve given something up to let someone else have it, even though it was something you really wanted? Sure you have. But have you ever considered what it was that prompted you to do so? Why is it that you gave up something you wanted to make sure someone else got what they wanted? Was it because it felt good to do so? Because it would give good karma? This kind of self-sacrifice might seem innocuous enough, but, as this book summary will show you, the idea of altruism, while considered as being the morally correct thing to do, is not only false, but is actually quite irrational and dangerous. A society based on altruism can turn into one based on totalitarianism and therefore, the loss of the only freedom that counts: the freedom of individuality. So what’s the alternative? Selfishness! This doesn’t mean succumbing to the amoral and predatory behavior displayed by criminals such as Bernie Madoff, but means changing how you live your life to be based on your principles, honesty, and self-respect, thus creating a life where no one party has to sacrifice themselves. You’ll learn in greater detail throughout this book summary what selfishness truly is, and why it’s better than altruism. In this book summary, you’ll learn:
  • why discrimination can be a good thing;
  • why altruism is irrational; and
  • how altruism can lead to a society where no one is thinking for themselves.

In Defense of Selfishness Key Idea #1: Altruism is a harmful idea that promotes self-sacrifice and subordination.

Can altruism ultimately lead to honesty and integrity? Can it bring us closer to equality and social harmony? If you answered yes to either of those questions, you're actually incorrect! Most people would agree that it’s more moral to put others before yourself; even the most unethical people would probably agree that altruism is the most harmonious way of life. However, there are real consequences to altruism that are hardly ever investigated. Altruism is about subordinating one’s self, and this is due to the fact that it is based on servitude rather than benevolence. Altruism says that being generous toward a victim of misfortune is not enough, but rather, this doctrine of self-sacrifice claims that you owe an unchosen debt to said victim, to which they’re morally entitled. The idea of altruism is based on the prevalence of other people’s needs over your own, suggesting that you cannot morally exist just for your own sake. So, what it means to be altruistic, is that you must be willing to sacrifice the things most important to you, including your money, goals, and interests. In other words, altruism can lead to you giving up everything from your possessions, wealth, time, and possibly even your life. Altruism would mean that these things no longer belong to you, they’re now the belongings of the larger group or society. It would mean a self-sacrifice of yourself for the overall good of the group, meaning you now serve those people who are less fortunate than you. This is illustrated well in a recent proposal regarding airline safety in the United States. Many airlines do not allow blind people to sit in seats next to an emergency exit, however, this policy, was challenged by the New York chapter of the National Federation of the Blind as discriminatory. The NFB was fighting for blind people to be allowed to sit in these rows. This proposal was eventually turned into a Senate bill, however, it could endanger everyone on the plane for the sake of equality, also known as altruism. In the world of altruism, there are only two kinds of people: those who have needs and those who can ensure that those needs are met. This is the reason behind the government constantly taking money from people who are able to provide and giving it to those who aren’t so privileged. For example, this is also the reason governments often subsidize transportation and farming. These things are universally accepted because people are naturally altruistic, not because they morally think these practices are right.

In Defense of Selfishness Key Idea #2:While it is founded on the ideas of benefiting the public interest, altruism doesn’t necessarily benefit the general public.

Many people have had the conversation at some point in their lives about whether, in the name of the public interest, it would be best to lessen one’s own value. But is this true? No. The concept of public interest is a myth. The basic idea of altruism says that society gains from personal sacrifice, but this idea is actually false. Why would it be in the interest of the public to build a park, rather than a shopping mall? People who favor the park would argue that the government will fund it, simply due to the fact that it doesn’t have an entry fee, however, someone still has to pay for it. No matter what they’re in favor of, all citizens end up paying for the park with their taxes, regardless of if they were actually in favor of building the shopping mall instead. The concept of altruism ultimately leads to collectivism. An example of this is how modern states are founded on the Hegelian idea that the state should have supreme rights, meaning that the collective nature of the society you’re a part of should become part of your identity, since ultimately, your identity should come from the fact that you are part of a certain group. Really, this type of collectivism ends up making you feel dependent on that society, which effectively renders you helpless on your own. People who accept their position as nothing but a small piece of a collective society, they’re more likely to blindly follow orders. In the worst case scenario, collectivism can lead to totalitarianism. States care for citizens in the same way that farmers care for their chickens or pigs. Farmers tend to their animals because of the products the farmer can take from the animal, in the benefit the farmer. You serve the same function for the state: each person is a way for the state to make money. The state makes a profit from expending your labor, your time, or even your life.

In Defense of Selfishness Key Idea #3: Altruism forces you to give up your own thoughts.

The one thing that belongs to you, no matter what, is your thoughts, right? Wrong – if you adhere to altruism! The altruistic doctrine does more than tell you what should be considered moral — it also tells you what to hold as truth. Someone whose life revolves around selflessness can no longer hold their own convictions. Altruism preaches that disagreement is bad and that it's not only your actions that make you a member of the group, but you have to obey with your thoughts, too. This leads to people who conform to this idea believing what they’re told, no matter what. Two times two, in such societies, doesn’t necessarily have to equal four! In fact, Hermann Goering, the founder of the Nazi Gestapo, defended Hitler's unusual economic policy by saying, “I tell you, if the Führer wishes it, then two times two is five.” This means that people might start to believe that even their lives should belong to the group. Selflessness isn't merely a means to an end – it can be an end in and of itself. This is the mentality that motivates suicide bombers to sacrifice their lives. Giving yourself up in this way can also take away your ability to love. It’s impossible to love someone without your own identity, and altruism robs you of that. The basic idea of altruism is that you shouldn’t see yourself as important, and love isn’t a selfless act! The concepts of selflessness and public interest can also lead to societies valuing the redistribution of goods and money, meaning that the best parts of society would be watered down to be equal with the worst. If some people aren't beautiful, no one can be beautiful. The end goal to altruism is for there to be a complete lack of selfishness. The irony of altruism is that it doesn't even directly help those it sets out to help, and rather, it makes them dependent on others and ends up conditioning them into paternalism.

In Defense of Selfishness Key Idea #4: The widespread acceptance of altruism comes from a misunderstanding of selfishness.

Even adversaries of altruism probably wouldn’t consider “selfishness” to be a viable alternative. Selfishness is bad, right? Well, not exactly – selfishness is not, by definition, inherently harmful or immoral. We only assume its worst because society has a misunderstanding of the concept of selfishness itself. Selfishness has long been demonized. Most people associate the worst with selfishness: a man cheating on his wife or a thief robbing a house as these are moral personifications of selfishness. However, this is not the real meaning of selfishness. Proponents of altruism say that selfishness is, by definition, harmful to others. This idea comes from Nietzsche, who described selfishness as rude and impulsive. However, selfishness is more than simply an untroubled attempt at satisfaction. After all, some people only want to take drugs or commit serial murders. True selfishness, in contrast, is founded on reason. Humans use reason – rationality and logic – to determine what the best thing for them is. Animals, on the other hand, are merely in survival mode, tending to each need they have as it comes. Simply acting with animal-like instincts can’t properly be called selfishness. Selfishness is a rational act. It doesn't push us to hurt others – it makes more logical sense to treat them well. For example, trading would be much better for you than robbing, because robbing someone might get you killed. Your selfish desire to stay alive would naturally motivate you to work peacefully with others. So, it’s actually selfishness that pushes people to work in this nearly symbiotic way with others, so that both parties walk away happy. Selfish people see their individual values, life, and interests as precious. These things should be protected, not surrendered, and one should stay loyal to themself at all costs. It should also not be expected that anyone give anything up for you. Even love is selfish. People form relationships with the people who are the most important to them. It wouldn’t make sense, nor would it be healthy, for someone to be in a relationship with someone else just because it made the other person happy. An altruist might call this type of relationship virtuous, whereas a selfish person would simply call it irrational. So, to avoid falling captive to the needs of everyone else, selfishness, really, is the best way to go.

In Defense of Selfishness Key Idea #5: Being selfish is to fully commit yourself to a rational, life-affirming way of thinking.

How likely do you think it is for you to live a good and prosperous life while constantly making sacrifices for others? Well, the reality is, it’s not too likely. Long-term happiness and survival won’t manifest if you’re living your life altruistically. The only true way to achieve those things is through being selfish. Imagine, for example, that you’re severely dehydrated and someone offers you a poisonous drink. Would you still drink it to quench your thirst? Obviously the answer is no. The drink is poisonous and there’s nothing you can do to change that. This isn’t some sort of puzzle you’d be able to use logic to get yourself out of – you’d have to accept that the drink is a threat. A selfish person, valuing survival, would smash the drink into the ground. A middle ground between selfishness and altruism doesn’t really exist. Selfishness is founded on a commitment to rational thinking, so there’s no way to be selectively selfish. It’s a lifestyle and a way of thinking you need to adapt to. There’s no need to feel guilty for being selfish. Really, you should be proud of the fact that you’ve committed yourself to a belief system that’s life-affirming. Altruism, on the other hand, neglects life. For example, if you donate your kidney to a stranger, you might be preventing your own child from getting it at some point down the line. Being selfish in a situation like this would be guaranteeing the health of your family. Altruists don’t judge people for their true character. They show mercy to those who might not return the favor. Altruism isn’t founded on fact – it’s founded on compassion, but compassion alone is neither rational nor life-affirming. Ultimately, because altruism isn’t based on personal concerns, it shouldn’t be a guidebook for how you live your life. Selfishness is the more logical route. But what would a society founded on selfishness actually look like?

In Defense of Selfishness Key Idea #6: While selfishness can lead to functional capitalism, altruism can lead to unproductive slavery.

What do you think of when you think of the word “capitalism?” What about “freedom?” Both of these ideas are based on ideas of selfishness — not altruism. While freedom is a fundamental concept, the idea of a government who grants true freedom is simply incompatible with the ideas of altruism. Freedom and reason are inextricably linked. This is why the foundation of the United States lies in the idea that humans are rational beings. When individuals and their rights are valued within a society, there isn’t room for masters or servants, and therefore, there isn’t room for altruism. Capitalism regards the rights of the individual as absolute. Nobody can take away the property of any one individual for the collective good. A free and capitalist society requires a republic, rather than a democratic government. The Founding Fathers wanted to ensure freedom, so they envisioned a United States based on limited states rights, rather than majority rule. Democracy can be dangerous. After all, is what lead to Hitler rising to power. Most people would agree that it’s dangerous for any government to have as much control over its people as Nazi Germany once had. In a truly capitalist society, things like public transportation, parks, and libraries wouldn’t be public and owned by the government. Such institutions would be private, ensuring that only those who want to use them have to pay for them. An altruistic society would only lead to unproductivity, and could even, in the worst case, lead to slavery. In an altruistic view, all humans are interchangeable. Centering your life around this kind of mindset could be dangerous. An altruistic country would result in every citizen becoming dependent on welfare programs and would only lead to people being robbed of their independence and free thought. A society like this is founded on paternalism and control, and is therefore unconcerned with productivity. The only societies that can be truly productive in the world are those founded on ideals of selfishness. In Review: In Defense of Selfishness The key message in this book: Most people wouldn’t think twice about what altruism truly is, however, it can lead to dangerous outcomes when it reaches the point where it robs people of their own identities, individualism, livelihoods, and thoughts. Selfishness, on the other hand, can ensure our happiness, safety, well-being, and the functionality of our state. While it comes with many negative connotations, selfishness is not something to be ashamed of – it’s a rational mode of thought that praises reason, good will, and even love. Actionable advice: Praise the players, not the team. The next time your favorite sports team secures a victory, it’s important to pay attention to the individuals that lead to that win. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “It’s the team that wins, not the star,” but in reality, the team wouldn’t have won without the few people who especially did well during that game. There’s nothing immoral about giving credit where credit’s due. Suggested further reading: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt The Righteous Mind explores how moral decisions are made, stating that judgments of morality come from intuition, rather than logic. The author then draws on his background in social psychology and his 25 years of groundbreaking research, both of which explain how morality not only binds us but also divides us, and how groups such as religious affiliations and political parties can create conflicting ideas of shared morality.