Weasel Words: Altruism, Greed, and Selfishness

rand sacrifice

By Mike Cronin

I went to a Catholic high school that subscribed to the motto “A Man for Others.”  A high school whose mission is to produce young gentlemen who put other people ahead of themselves sounds pretty good right? Similarly, the motto of the US Air Force’s Pararescue corps, whose specialty is rescuing downed pilots from behind enemy lines, is “So that Others May Live.”  Pararescue men, or “PJ’s,” often serve in Special Operations alongside Green Berets and Navy SEALs.  They are some of the most highly trained, dedicated, and respected troops in the US military.

Both mottos speak to putting other people before oneself. This is slippery territory. According to http://dictionary.reference.com, altruism is “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others.” We are meant to hold altruism as one of our highest virtues, and to consider selfishness a negative trait.  The same site defines “selfish” as “devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one’s own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.”

Enter the weasels.

Without selfishness, there would be little or no human advancement. We advance as a species because selfish people discover, invent, or produce the things that have helped us travel to the moon, communicate around the globe instantaneously, or live active, comfortable lives into our seventies and eighties. In exchange, they desire just compensation. Selfish people demand fair trade and produce wealth and abundance. With their wealth, selfish people often do productive things, such as expand their business and hire employees. With their abundance, selfish people often do generous things, such as donating time or money to charities.

The weasels have corrupted our language to the point that selfishness and greed are used interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. Greed is a ravenous desire for the unearned. Wherever you hear the loudest calls for altruism, i.e. for self-sacrifice, you will find weasels and tyrants great and small, from ghetto muggers to Hitlers, who mean to collect your offering. Taken to its logical extreme, altruism demands one sacrifice himself to those who merit only contempt. Truly greedy people demand and take from others yet produce nothing but decay and misery.

I admire PJs and other warriors for their dedication, courage, and skill.  Many have indeed given their lives so that others could live.  Was that altruistic of them?  Consider this: there is a great deal of camaraderie that comes with serving voluntarily in the US military, and a great deal of prestige in serving among the most elite warriors America has.  When a PJ gives his life for others, it is often a trade for equal or greater value: a highly trained and capable warrior exchanging his life so that another warrior, or many other warriors like him can live to fight or be brought back to safety to continue the campaign. The PJ is exchanging one life for many; in essence, he is creating or maintaining a form of wealth.  While the PJ serves, he understands all too well the risks he takes, but he also trades his services and risk-taking for many forms of tangible and intangible compensation. If he dies in the line of duty, he is a producer of the first order, a genuine hero.  Those who send such men to war without extreme justification, while managing to remain safe and comfortable themselves, earn no such merit.

So ask yourself who is truly greedy: The inventor or entrepreneur or CEO who wants to keep what he has earned, or those who call him greedy for daring to feel he deserves the fruits of his own labor while they take it from him using the coercive power of government?

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