Calling People 'Selfish' Is Undermining Our Pandemic Response

If you tell people that self-interest is evil, they will tend to conclude that evil is in their self-interest.

You’ve probably heard this dozens of times since the pandemic began, and I guarantee you will hear it dozens more times before we stumble across to the other side: how “selfish” it is to ignore pandemic precautions.

Whether it’s a large family gathering, or crowding into bars, or talking loudly on a phone on the subway without wearing a mask, this behavior will be denounced as a “pandemic of selfishness.” Don’t you know that there is no “I” in “mask”?

But this casually pejorative use of “selfish” is undermining our response to the pandemic and to a great many other things. This reckless use of language has a real and significant cost. If you tell people that refusing to take the pandemic seriously is something that promotes their own personal well-being, the problem is that they just might believe you.

This is a wider moral conundrum that goes far beyond the pandemic. If you tell people that self-interest is evil, they will tend to conclude that evil is in their self-interest.

The problem is summed up in the title of one denunciation of “selfishness” I came across: “Selfish Behavior Is Only Going To Prolong The Pandemic.” It’s true that some people are thoughtlessly showing a lack of consideration for the well-being of others—but it doesn’t follow that they are somehow benefiting themselves. Why would it be in anyone’s self-interest to prolong the pandemic, or to make it more intense? What could you possibly have to gain by spreading a deadly disease among the people with whom you work, travel, and live?

By the same token, what is self-sacrificial about wearing a mask? If there is one precaution that the average person can take with no significant cost to himself, this is it. To be sure, there is some scientific debate about how much cloth masks help. But even if the benefit is relatively small compared to other precautions, it’s worth it if the cost is essentially nothing.

So the term “selfish” is being used here in an unthinking way, as a reflexive epithet for anything someone thinks is bad. That’s how we get Paul Krugman, the man who put the knee jerk back into liberalism, blaming Ayn Rand for the pandemic. She was an advocate of self-interest, you see, so therefore she’s responsible for people refusing to wear masks.

It’s appropriate that Krugman brought Rand into this, because she pointed to precisely this problem with the common use of “selfishness.” When people “[grow] up to believe that moral laws bear no relation to the job of living, except as an impediment and threat,” she wrote, they will “come to believe that actual evils are the practical means of existence.” Those who are taught that “pleasure cannot be moral” will come to associate immorality with pleasure.

It’s an assumption so old and widespread that it is a common trope. It’s how Las Vegas got the nickname “Sin City.” Or take a recent horror film, in which Satan tempts a young woman into witchcraft with the offer that she can “live deliciously.”

The real warning in that last example is that she takes him up on the offer. You may think that by denouncing certain evils as selfish, you are going to convince people to stamp out self-interest. But what if they don’t? What if they can’t bring themselves to renounce all concern for their own well-being, for their personal flourishing, for the enjoyment of life? And why would they? So instead, you’ll just convince them that everything you think is bad is precisely what they should do if they want to enjoy life. It’s not the moral lesson you might have been aiming for.

For some people, this is almost certainly an inducement to shrug off pandemic precautions, dismissing them as artificial restrictions imposed by puritanical scolds who just want to suck the joy out of life.

But this is a phenomenon far broader than the pandemic. It is certainly a major part of the appeal of Trumpism, which argues that universal norms and principles and standards of civility are all for suckers. Trumpism accepts, in effect, that some combination of vices—racism, tribalism, short-term smash-and-grab politics—is in our interests. The basic proposition of Trumpism is that it’s better to be a morally compromised winner than a priggishly upright loser.

This is also the appeal of movements like the Proud Boys or the alt-right. The word “proud” says it all. They seek out young men who are desperate for some sense of self-assertion, some assurance that it is OK to defend their own interests, and then promote to them the worst, crudest caricature of what their “interests” are: dogmatic chauvinism and brawling.

This approach is a favorite of the new cottage industry of preening conservative tough guys, who project a kind of tediously chest-thumping masculinity. (These are the same guys who swear that they will suffocate to death if they have to put a thin strip of cloth over their mouths, so take the tough-guy act with a grain of salt.) One central aspect of masculinity is self-assertion, and that is going to be affected by our concept of what there is in the self to assert.

That’s another part of the cautionary tale here. Rail too long against “toxic masculinity,” and you might convince young men to stop trying to be masculine. More likely, though, you will convince them that to be masculine, they need to be toxic.

Self-interest is a crucial moral concept that has been disastrously and deliberately neglected. “Selfishness” is used as pejorative to designate a bad form of self-interest. But note the absence of any commonly used term to describe a good form of self-interest. This was not always the case.

Jonathan Mayhew, a leading Boston preacher in the years leading up to the American Revolution, expressed the then-common ideas of an Enlightenment-era “natural religion” philosophy in which happiness is the purpose and justification of morality.

[I]t being proposed, that there is some particular course or method of acting, which tends to promote our happiness upon the whole; and that a contrary conduct tends to our misery (which by the way are not bare suppositions, but plain facts), a fitness of the former course of action, in opposition to the latter, necessarily follows. For happiness being itself a good, and misery an evil, it is in itself right and reasonable to pursue the former, and to avoid the latter. … Virtue, then, is what we are under obligation to practice, without the consideration of the being of a God, or of a future state [after death], barely from its apparent tendency to make mankind happy at present.

Many decades later, in the 1830s, Tocqueville wrote about finding this concept of “self-interest rightly understood” to be an everyday commonplace in America.

The doctrine of interest rightly understood is not, then, new, but amongst the Americans of our time it finds universal acceptance: it has become popular there; you may trace it at the bottom of all their actions, you will remark it in all they say. It is as often to be met with on the lips of the poor man as of the rich…. The Americans…are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of interest rightly understood.

It’s not a coincidence that the Founders put “the pursuit of happiness”—a selfish goal if ever there was one—into the Declaration of Independence. The goal of morality, in this view, is not to expunge self-interest but to guide it, showing how our best interests are served over the long term by voluntary compliance with the rules of a civilized, free, and just society.

You might object that the word “selfish” is meant specifically to refer to the opposite of this, not just to self-interest but specifically to a conspicuous disregard for others. But that kind of begs the question, assuming that one's own interests require or are consistent with trampling the legitimate interests of others. That was the point of “self-interest rightly understood”—that your own selfish interests often require a regard for other people: for the individuals closest to you, like friends and family, and to some extent for humanity in general. Tocqueville describes with some exasperation how the Americans would insist on explaining acts of generosity and patriotism by reference to self-interest.

Ayn Rand falls under this general tradition. She is well known, of course, as an advocate of “the virtue of selfishness.” But she was also an advocate of virtuous selfishness, the idea that actually achieving your own interests requires long-term thinking and self-discipline. She was an advocate of rational self-interest.

This is a largely unheeded lesson. Where “self-interest rightly understood” was once commonplace, we have replaced it with the abuse of “selfish” as a pejorative tacked onto anything you think is bad to make it sound even worse—without much regard to what people’s actual interests are, or what the consequences of this message will be.

Yet think of how much more beneficial and effective it would be, in response to a pandemic or any other issue, if instead of shaming people for their alleged selfishness, we appealed to their rational self-interest. This is, after all, the actual scientific case for masks, social distancing, and all the rest: that we will all be better off in the long run if we help protect each other from infection.

If “selfishness” means anything coherent, it means the desire to be happy, prosperous, and successful, to achieve one’s goals and enjoy life. It seems strange, even monstrous, to shame people for that desire rather than to help everyone understand the best, most constructive means to achieve it.

The pandemic has shown us the consequences of a perverse message in which we repeatedly assure people that reckless behavior is in their self-interest, and it makes the case for this reconsideration of morality all the more compelling.