Behaving selfishly is never a good thing. If it is, it is called self-interest.
These two behaviors are normally confused in our society, as intentions are lost in a mirage of denial, service & guilt. Self-interest is usually thought of as selfishness in a culture today that only has the attention span to tweet, scroll, channel-surf and expose itself to its cafeteria selection of news, music, sports and entertainment. But self-interest is much different and is a characteristic that should not be ignored in the shadow of guilt. It is not the same as narcissism.
Recently, a colleague challenged me when I said that deferring to another was not always healthy. When I proposed that selfishness and self-interest are different, it was insisted that I distinguish between the two. What came to mind in that moment was that self-interest knows when to say no — whether it be for the sake of the one asking the question or for the benefit of the hearers. When an adult son asks for money for the hundredth time because he continues to live an entitled lifestyle that cannot be sustained by his own earnings, saying no can be liberating. This is not selfishness — it is self-interest (the money will no longer be wasted) but it also doubles as tough love.
Self-interest is the awareness of having deferred your own desires to the point of suffering personally as a result. When you fly on a commercial airline, a portion of the rote spiel repeated before each flight advises that, in the case of a loss in cabin air pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above, and that you are to put on your mask before you help anyone around you who might be struggling to put on their mask. This is self-interest. It might be thought of as selfish, that is until this situation is your own and you can be of no help to others until you get oxygen.
Selfishness is about me. It is the microwave oven of emotion. It wants what it wants now. There might be some hesitation, as the instigator considers the psychological hurdles that prevent an all out assault on the situation. But when the hurdle is jumped, me wins to the detriment of others. This can be something as frivolous as always choosing your favorite restaurant despite the groans of family members in the car or something more serious such as straying when you are in a committed relationship. But the fruit of the situation helps us to know the difference: sour & rotten (nagging shame, regret, promising to do better) or fresh & ripe (emotionally & mentally rested, relaxation, knowing the correct choice was made).
My first exposure to this as an adult was in a college-age group that regularly gathered to study a holy book. One particular evening the ringleader posed this question to the rest of us: if there were warning signs of a major calamity coming upon the world and you, personally, had prepared for it, though most other people had not, would you, with only enough supplies for your family, welcome anyone else who knocked on your door with food/water/shelter? In the present world of sanitized Judeo-Christianity and cultural post-morality that relies on being good 1, how could anyone with a smidgen of rooted ethics deny such a request? But then he posed the text of Matthew 25, where five people were prepared and five were not. Understanding the lessons of this sacred Scripture, one finds a delineation between self-interest vs selfishness.
The preservation of self (personal survival) is not necessarily the barometer by which we are to judge between the two. Some situations blur the lines between behaving selfishly or behaving in one’s self-interest (for instance, in war). But for the most part, giving yourself for the sake of others is a noble goal that we should always strive for — sacrificing emotions, desires, money and time when possible. However, your tank must be refilled somewhere. Sometimes the oxygen mask must be put on before you can help others.
Selfishness is putting your own desires ahead of others. Self-interest is loving others as yourself 2.
1. The problem with this, of course, is that the definition of being good changes with each generation — probably more often now with the instant, interconnected world that exists.
2. Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:28-32