There is no better time to be selfish | Sunday Observer

There is no better time to be selfish

2 May, 2021

“A man is called selfish not for pursuing his own good, but for neglecting his neighbour’s” – Richard Whately

If someone says, “you are being selfish” or “don’t be selfish”, there will not be any doubt in the minds of people who hear it, that you have just been criticised for something you have done thinking only about yourself and not anyone else.

From our early childhood we have been taught that Selfishness is immoral and a good child will always think of sharing with others first.


We have been hearing statements such as: “it is more blessed to give than to receive” or “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” throughout our lives.

All the religions describe the merit that can be accumulated through selfless acts and also the demerits of being selfish. Some experts say that the selfishness is not only considered immoral by many but also has a negative effect on one’s own psychological well-being.

Harry S. Truman once said: “selfishness and greed, individual or national, cause most of our troubles”. As you have already experienced, there is no shortage in statements, stories, books, movies and all kinds of other forms of expression glorifying the selflessness and demonising the selfishness.

Then there is another camp of experts who promote taking care of oneself before one thinks about others as the best way to sustain the ability to help others, if and when one gets to it, at least.

Prioritising one’s own physical health and psychological and emotional well-being by engaging in good eating habits, regular exercise, healthy sleep patterns and meditation.


As flight attendants’, during their instructions to the passengers in the plane, used to say: “if you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your own oxygen mask first and then assist the other person”, the self-help gurus say that if one doesn’t take care of oneself first one will not be well enough to take care of anyone else.

Therefore, paying attention to one’s own self before thinking about the others doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing, after all.

Can anyone categorise selfishness as good or bad? May be not. Perhaps one may want to ask: “For whom (or for what) is the selfishness good (or bad)?” or “When is selfishness a good thing?” In the efforts of answering such questions one might come to the realisation that every human activity is originated by desire. Though some may feel that it is possible to resist desire in the interest of duty and moral principle, that feeling would quickly disappear when they realise that the sense of duty and/or the urge to act on moral principles wouldn’t pop into one’s mind if one doesn’t desire to be dutiful or to stand on moral high-grounds.


Therefore, in analysing whether one’s selfishness is good or bad, not only the material circumstances but also the whole system of desires and their relative strengths and weaknesses, individually or collectively, have to be analysed.

Food, shelter and clothing would be at the top of everyone’s list of desires and people can even resort to violence in their efforts of securing those needs.

Even though health usually takes a lower rank in the average person’s list of desires, pandemics like Covid-19 warrant changes to our normal behaviour.

As in any other process of solving problems we will have to use our knowledge from the past, analyse the current situation and identify the problem in the proper perspective and then choose the most efficient way of solving the problem minimising possible negative effects on our future that may arise from that particular solution.


What is evident is that we have not paid enough attention to the type of destruction bacteria and viruses can inflict upon humans, animals and plants.

That may be the reason most people cannot comprehend why we were not better prepared for such an inevitable situation.

People in countries such as India and Brazil may not have even dreamt of the situations they are facing today.

Another aspect to look at is the way the world economy recovered after each of those pandemics in the past. Again, the mechanics are different in the global-economy we are living in today, but the basics would still be similar.

Globalisation has proven to be a double-edged sword where the benefits outweigh the costs. While we should actively participate in the global community we should not put our guards down against the harm that can come our way, irrespective of the country of origin.

Therefore, it is extremely important to have an honest self-evaluation as a nation and find out where we went wrong after successfully controlling the spread of the virus by the end of the year 2020.

Perhaps we put our guards down too soon and allowed people from other countries enter without proper health protocols. May be we didn’t continue with protective measures such as social distancing and/or hand washing and wearing masks. We should probably have continued with rigorous testing and contact tracing for few more months.

Perhaps we should not have travelled freely around the country and allowed large gatherings during holidays. This is where a strong political will, focused on the well-being of the nation, becomes the most important factor. No other activity such as elections, national exams, parliamentary debates and/or Supreme Court appointments should take priority over timely actions in preventing citizens from being attacked by a deadly virus.


It is extremely important to prepare for the future while we learn from the past. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that, every year, there will be about two to three pandemics of this nature. Some may even be more aggressive than Covid-19.

Another aspect, we should be concerned about is the long term effects of Covid-19 in the human body.

As we know there are viruses that can stay in the human body continuously without showing any symptoms of illnesses. Can they become active again? There are some viruses that can get in to good cells and make them cancerous. There are others which can make certain organs of the human body more prone to cancer.

There have been reported cases of memory loss after recovering from Covid-19. Would this virus affect the brain functions even after recovering from it? These are some of many different aspects we have to look into collectively as global citizens. Where does “selfishness” fit in among all this? Well, in the collective struggle against Covid-19, even if we are not in a position to think about others’ wellbeing, we should at least be selfish enough to take care of our own health.

Minimise our contacts, maintain social distancing, wear a mask and continue with hand washing.


If one protects oneself from the virus then one has automatically reduced the number of virus spreaders by one and that is, as economists would say, a positive externality of one’s selfishness. At the same time the selfishness of the authorities who are responsible for making effective, informed decisions at the right time and then implementing them swiftly should not in any way make the citizens lose their battle against the virus. As the American writer Hugh Prather said: “selfishness is neither good nor bad – it depends on the way we are selfish as to whether it nourishes or injures”.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]