Am I selfish if I choose not, or do not want, to help others?

Example: A friend asked me write a piece of code, ignoring everything else. I did not want to do it. We were not competing and there was no apparent benefit or self- interest violation if I did write the code. The only benefit I would get is to choose what I want to do with the time required to write friend's code. I asked myself am I being selfish? I could not answer.

So does selfish mean not considering other's interests or does it mean taking care of one's own interest at the cost of other's interests?

Thanks in advance.

  • 1
    As worded, the answer would be primarily opinion based. The primary contemporary term in philosophy for this is the "altruism debate" which asks whether you can do actions truly for the sake of others. another relevant term is "agape" here referring to the possibility of a truly self-sacrificing love.
    – virmaior
    Mar 31, 2017 at 11:04
  • but then who is selfish, I understand you suggest that it might be subjective. But what is the minimal qualification for being selfish?
    – Salik
    Mar 31, 2017 at 11:08
  • 1
    Er, that's the content of the altruism debate and also the agapic love debate. In other words, there's no agreed up on answer.
    – virmaior
    Mar 31, 2017 at 13:05
  • Some people use 'selfish' to mean acting on any impulse or desire, which renders the term close to meaningless. All voluntary actions would be selfish. I think it's more sensible to use a definition of selfish closer to 'acting for one's own benefit'. In that case, you may have been selfish, but that is not in any way a condemnation. Was your friend selfish for asking your help? Mar 31, 2017 at 17:57
  • 1
    See Rational egoism : " the principle that an action is rational if and only if it maximizes one's self-interest" and Egoism. Apr 1, 2017 at 10:18

2 Answers 2


One position would be that everyone is selfish, as anything we do is ultimately to sate some desire within ourselves. Someone adhering to this position would say that helping others makes us feel good, and so that is selfish. Helping ourselves sates other desires, and so that is also selfish. Regardless of the choices we make in life, those choices are made according to our own priorities, and are therefore centered on the self - i.e. selfish.

The negative connotations that go along with this generally stem from people's own selfish natures, and how from their perspective 'selfish' people are going against their internal desires.

From this perspective, the best you can do is to do what you feel is right, and disregard any claim that you are being selfish, as anyone accusing you of this is being selfish themselves.

The fact that you yourself are questioning whether you're being selfish means that you feel guilt for not helping, which implies some sort of empathy - which is good. I wouldn't beat yourself up over it though, you prioritised your time for yourself, which is not unreasonable, otherwise where do you draw the line? At what point does it go from selfishness to pragmatism?

If you had agreed to write the code, it would probably have been to ensure that your friend did not get upset with you, and that would also have been selfish as you would have been acting in your best interests once again, so no matter what you picked you would be considered selfish - by me, at least.

  • I got the answer, so I was selfish to not write the code. However, it is as selfish as it would have been if I took a different decision. I guess this answers temporarily at least.
    – Salik
    Apr 3, 2017 at 3:23
  • Well, of course, this is just one point of view. It would be good if you could include some references for further reading, and rewrite your answer to make it objective (i.e., not state that this is the truth but only present it as one possibility). Thanks.
    – user2953
    Apr 3, 2017 at 10:57
  • @Keelan I don't read philosophical works, it's just common sense from my perspective, so somebody else will have to provide any literature they think is relevant. As for objectivity, it's clearly just my opinion, as I wrote it, and so I shall leave it as it is. Apr 3, 2017 at 11:08
  • OK, I have edited for you this time. Please follow our guidelines next time.
    – user2953
    Apr 3, 2017 at 11:14
  • Muchos gracias, I'm sure if I fail to meet the guidelines you'll help out next time too. Apr 3, 2017 at 11:17

The word 'selfish' as it is commonly used mashes together two ideas that don't belong together. One of those ideas is being concerned with your own interests. The other is being willing to rip people off, steal, kill, treat people badly and so on. There is no opposition between acting in your own interests and acting morally since it is not in your self interest to abuse others. If somebody doesn't consent to doing something with or for you, then you should be willing to let them go on their way. You might be wrong about what you want to do, or that person might just not be a good person to cooperate with, e.g. - he might be unenthusiastic. See 'The virtue of selfishness' by Ayn Rand

As for whether you should have written the code I can't answer that and nor can anyone else. But you might want to consider the following issues. Suppose you write the code and it does some particular task X. Task X might be a special case of some more general thing your friend will want later. Or the code might not handle some corner case. So then your friend might want the code changed and you end up doing more work for free because you set the precedent of doing work for free. In addition, since this is not paying work, you're losing money you could be making every second you spend on his code. So do you sacrifice a lot of time and money to write high quality code, which involves not just writing code, but thinking about what problem you should be solving, how to make the code extensible and so on? Or do you half ass it and write bad code? How much bad code can you write before you corrupt your standards of code quality? Is your friend going to keep wanting your code and keep respecting you and wanting to deal with you if you write bad code? Your default position should be that you don't write code for free. If somebody wants you to write code, then you charge him. If somebody wants you to work for free and you want to continue to deal with him, you should explain the problems with that arrangement, and the broader context I pointed out above.

  • Understood, but what I wanted to ask was, was i being selfish by refusing to write the code? because that was in the interest of my friend while it did consume one of my resources (time). does being selfless always require you to sacrifice? and in this particular example was i selfish not to write the code?
    – Salik
    Mar 31, 2017 at 11:42
  • 2
    Being selfless requires sacrifice. If you are selfish you won't sacrifice your values. If you are selfless you will sacrifice any value for other people.
    – alanf
    Mar 31, 2017 at 15:43

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