Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Selfishness and Integrity

Sometimes people have encouraged me to be more "selfish." But whenever anyone says this, I resist. When pushed, I grudgingly admit that we do have some responsibility to take care of ourselves. But still, when I am in situations in which I have to choose between some kind of self-care and what someone else wants from me, I have a strong tendency to act in favor of what someone else wants from me, thereby sacrificing or postponing self-care. Only when pushed to situations of utter desperation will I finally say, "I just can't" to someone else, and even so, I still feel bad about it.

But today, I finally realized something. When people challenge me to adopt a more positive attitude towards "selfishness," I think they are really trying to say something about integrity. There's an important relationship between integrity and self. The opposite of integrity is being a divided self, or an ill-defined self. Integrity is about wholeness, and integration. Having integrity includes knowing who you really are, and having a clear sense of your moral boundaries. Integrity is tied to self-care, and self-respect. It includes not being easily manipulated by others. And so a person who has a hard time taking care of herself or himself, and always wants to please others, can actually be a person of questionable integrity!

I prize integrity immensely. So it is a bit of a surprise to me to realize that I am not as much as person of integrity as I really want to be. My habit of putting others' requests ahead of my own sense of what I feel called to do betrays my own integrity. I have generally been pretty good at not letting others pressure me to do things that I know are outright wrong -- and I implicitly thought that that was all that integrity requires! But until recently I thought that letting people pressure me to do things that I know are "good" (even if doing so undermines or postpones what I really feel called to do) is okay, maybe even nobly self-sacrificial. Now I understand that doing this is actually a violation of integrity too.

I remain uneasy about the word "selfishness," however. It still seems to me that this was a word coined to express the negative extreme of a person who is in the habit of not giving others enough consideration.

But it is good for me to consider the value of attending to self, and to acknowledge that recognizing one's own inherent value is at the core of the concept of integrity.

If we want to bring our best selves more fully into the world, which is what integrity is all about, this requires attending to self to some extent. I think that is what wise people in my life have been trying to tell me lately!


  1. Hi, Contemplative Scholar. I enjoyed this post, and it really struck a chord with me for several reasons. One is that while I wish to be the type of person to put others first, I more often selfishly defend my own time and resources. Yet I do so not to make my self more whole, to increase my integrity, but simply to indulge the usual unhelpful behaviours or to work on other projects which likewise do not contribute to my wholeness. There are two meanings of selfishness here, as you suggest, and it's hard to tease them apart even though we may know how each feels.

    I also liked your notion of integrity as a literal integrity of intentions, of morals, and so on. But I would like to ask whether you really think that integrity requires "knowing who you really are". Perhaps you could expand upon this. I often feel like I am always learning (and sometimes surprised by) who I am, but it seems like a person might have strong moral boundaries and a consistent approach to exploring themselves - integrity - without a complete self-knowledge.

  2. Thanks for writing, Phil. I do think that self-knowledge is part of integrity, but I also agree with you that complete self-knowledge is not required (and is probably not possible anyway). As you point out, self-knowledge is an ongoing process.

    The reason that I believe that a basic self-knowledge is part of integrity is because the more we understand who we are, and what our strengths and weaknesses are, the less vulnerable we become to being manipulated by others.

    There's more to say about this of course -- I think I will follow up in a further posting...

    By the way, I looked at your web pages, and I love the "lecturisms" that you have assembled on your Teaching page. I am teaching elementary logic right now, and sometimes find myself saying similar kinds of things! Yesterday I taught about the Sheffer stroke and found myself encouraging my students to stop using "and," "or," "not," and "if...then," when reasoning, but instead reduce their logical vocabulary down to just "nand," ("not both"), since it can do all the logical work of those other terms.

    Fortunately, my students laughed instead of just walking out of the room and never coming back!

  3. Hehe, yes, it's certainly a lesson in self-knowledge to hear the nonsense one can say when dropped in front of a class. I haven't included in that list any of my own lecturisms, because the list is long enough as it is!

    Thanks for your response, I'm enoying your blog.