Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Psychology of Selfishness - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3
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The Psychology of Selfishness - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1981, vol. 4, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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The Psychology of Selfishness
“The Social Psychology of Selfishness.” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 18 (1) 1981):82–92.
The undesirability of selfishness is one of the most commonly held judgments of ordinary morality. Generally speaking, the term “selfish” is an invective hurled at perceived self-seekers by their supposed victims. The accustion occurs whenever the self-seekers seem to pursue their own welfare at the expense of or in disregard for those victims. While Prof. Stebbins admits the existence of more subtle philosophical views on the pursuit of self-interest (as in the work of Ayn Rand), he chooses to concentrate in this article on the popular connotation of “exploitative unfairness.” With this sense of the term in mind, he seeks to arrive at a more precise understanding of the characteristics that comprise adult selfishness, as well as to examine its manifestations in social interaction.
In social interaction, a conscious, goal-oriented act of selfishness communicates to the potential victim the selfish person's image of him as powerless, inferior, blind to exploitation, or unworthy of fair treatment. The resulting resentment on the part of the victim arises quite naturally from this assumed estimation of his character on the part of the self-seeker.
In “justifiable selfishness” the self-seeker is aware that his present or future actions may be unfavorably re garded. To neutralize any unfavorable impression, he prepares a defense of his activities. He may claim, for instance, that anyone would act in the same way if given the opportunity.
After deciding that one is the object of unfair behavior, a victim is motivated to confront the exploiter in order to redress the injustice or prevent its recurrence. Confrontation, however, can be a risky process, possibly endangering a relationship the victim may consider important. At the same time, not confronting the self-seeker may also threaten the stability and even the existence of a relationship. At the very least, loss of respect for the self-seeker will jeopardize warmth and trust for that person.
Acts of selfishness may be understood as an expression of the power that self-seekers believe they have over their victims, since they are arrogating scarce values to themselves at the expense of others. Such power-motivated behavior abounds in both primary and secondary relationships. The person who has the least interest in continuing the relationship normally possesses the greater power and is most liable to resort to exploitative behavior.
As to the origins of consistently selfish behavior, Prof. Stebbins finds the Marxist-Christian hypothesis most com patible with modern social psychological theory. According to this view, selfishness is learned in childhood with the development of the self and then is gradually unlearned to a greater or lesser degree with socialization and ap proaching maturity. In a tiny minority of people, learning unselfishness continues to an exceptional degree. In Lawrence Kohlberg's moral development framework, they have reached “stage six.” Here they are oriented by such abstract and universal moral principles as justice, reciprocity and equality of human rights, and respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons. These few who outgrow their initial selfishness to an uncommon degree are counterbalanced, on the other end of the spectrum, by the few who fail conspicuously to lose this childhood orientation.