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I am known to make the assertion that I’m selfish. I’m not a different person around Christmas, and Christmas is widely considered an occasion to be selfless. Could I, as a selfish person, celebrate a selfless holiday without being a hypocrite? I think so.

Being selfish means that I commit acts for the direct and conscious purpose of benefiting myself, potentially to the exclusion of benefit for others. Were I selfless person, I would act for the direct and conscious goal of benefiting others than myself, potentially excluding benefits to me.

An example of a selfless act would be if I felt hunger, but gave the only food in my possession to someone else to sate their hunger with no food left over. A simple and similar example of a selfish act would be if there were a plate bearing a free slice of cake at my office and though it could be taken by anyone, I chose to take it for myself. Neither example is particular significant in scope or consequence but both are still illustrative. As a selfish person, I would rarely do the first act and would often do the second act listed.

Context is always important for practical considerations of philosophical positions. There are some instances where I could still be selfish and choose to do the first example and not the second one listed above. Let’s say that I were taken by some wild compulsion to go hiking up a snow covered mountain with a sherpa and during that hike we were struck by an avalanche. The catastrophe leaves the sherpa and me sharing an air pocket together with our own resources, buried under the snow, hundreds of feet below the surface. I imagine that we would begin trying to tunnel out together. If that task were so difficult that we had to keep taking breaks and eating and drinking what few consumables we carried with us, days could pass to the point when the mountaineer had no such resources left but I still had half a sandwich and some water. At this point, we don’t know how close to the surface we are and we’re both wasting away. I’m sure I would see that the sherpa had a better chance of digging through to the surface than I did, so I would give him whatever food and water he needed to keep going strong, even if that meant that I started to suffer malnourishment. In that case, the context of surviving our disaster would supersede (in my selfish view) my immediate desire for food.

I can give a much more likely circumstance where I might choose to act selflessly for the second example I gave: If I’m up for a peer review at work… That’s pretty much it. It would benefit me more not to take the free bit of food at work and be seen as a “team player” than to take the food and satisfy my sweet tooth.

There are numerous examples in philosophy, economics, politics, biology, and psychology wherein normally selfish subjects have viable reasons to act in otherwise selfless patterns. One of my favorites is the game theory situation called Prisoners’ Dilemma or PD: Two suspects of a crime are captured by police and although both see each other getting captured, they are immediately separated and kept insurmountably apart. They are both given the exact same offer by the police and told that the other prisoner is being given it, too: If you testify that the other suspect did it and the other suspect doesn’t say anything, then the other guy will get 10 years in prison and you can go free. If you both testify against each other, then you’ll both get 6 years in prison. If neither one of you says anything…well then we probably can’t hold you for more than a few months based on the circumstantial evidence. If suspect A testifies against the suspect B, then suspect A will either go free or get 6 years. If suspect A doesn’t testify, then he’ll either get 10 years or a few months. The only way for suspect A to get free is to testify — but that will only work if suspect B doesn’t testify against him. An outside observer could potentially convince both suspects to keep quiet so that they’ll both get off relatively easy which would be the best overall result for both suspects combined. But in most cases, the suspects are both going to make the selfish choice. In some real world experiments on PD (see wikipedia), apparently 40% of participants acted selflessly in tandem.

My point is that you can reap benefits from acting selflessly if you look at a situation in the right way. I could very well choose to act selfishly throughout most of the year, recognizing that most factors in my environment will likewise be “acting selfishly” and thus succeed well that way. But I could recognize that in the context of the Christmas season, more people are likely to act selflessly so we could all benefit each other by doing the same. Maybe by being kind and generous to others at this time of year, I could simply ensure that I would receive more kindness and generosity in return. That would certainly be a selfish motivation.


Except that I’m not really doing that. The only thing I seek to gain from acting the way I act at Christmas is a warm, fuzzy feeling. Despite what knee-jerk egoists might claim, that doesn’t really make me selfish — just human. It’s part of our nature to experience some happy internal combustion whenever we contribute to the overall positive state of our community and culture. As grumpy and misanthropic as I might be, I’m still a social animal. At this time of year, I give in to that side. Sure, I don’t end up with as much money in my bank account or as many presents under my tree as I could otherwise, but I get that Feeling. I get that festive, giddy, sing without reason Feeling that tells me that my holiday is turning out happy.

So, here’s your permission to be as selfish as possible for the next 15 days or more: don’t let anything stop you from getting your Merry Christmas!

About Paul Roth

A vegetarian, agnostic, lindy-hopping, dog-loving tv-watcher who likes to read his own words.
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