I use the term selfish to describe an attitude, intention, or action that serves the interests of the self at the expense of another or others. My definition of self-interest is an attitude, intention, or action that serves the interests of the self without consequence to another or others.
The on-line dictionaries I consulted define self-interest first as having a regard for one’s own interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others or without regard for the consequences for others. Another definition of self-interest describes it as personal interest or advantage, suggesting by the term “advantage” that there is someone who must be disadvantaged by the transaction. Some definitions of self-interest use the terms “opportunism” and “egoism” as synonyms for the term self-interest. Only one dictionary defined self-interest as “a concern for one’s well-being,” however it, too, spoke of advantage, implying that someone gains and someone else, presumably, winds up being less well-off in the transaction.
I was struck by the fact that virtually every definition of “self-interest” was much closer to my definition of “selfish” and that the differences between the definitions of the two terms were hardly different from one another! This might explain, in part, why so many people seem confused about these terms and, as a result, use them interchangeably…and, indistinguishably.
The problem, as I see it, is this: Many people make decisions or choices in their lives guided by a wish to not be perceived – by themselves or by others – as selfish. As a result, they often may not act in their own healthy and positive self-interest in order to avoid the label “selfish.”
What do you think?