Is Self-Development Selfish?

Recently I was engaged in a conversation with someone who wanted to understand my motivation for studying philosophy. When I said it was for my personal growth their first reaction was that it is pretty selfish to focus on self-development without offering something to others. A mutual shock moment followed. I was particularly stunned because I know how much value that person places on continuous self improvement in general. And now it’s selfish?

Personal Experience 

Given my pretty radical shift away from a 15-year long career in insurance with previous education in finance and law, I understand the surprise and cautious curiosity about my change-of-life-course decision. Even among those who know me well. 

However, what I am rapidly learning from such conversations is that sometimes underneath the surprise and curiosity there looms a silent, unspoken value judgement with the related expectation that I justify my decision. 

In addition, my justification is implicitly expected to satisfy the interlocutor’s wish to make sense of my decision by placing it within their worldview. And so, I try to find the right words with the right meaning that would fit onto that person’s mental map.  

Perhaps naively, I usually engage in such discussions assuming the other person’s genuine interest to understand me. Instead, I repeatedly end up doing my best to relieve their growing uncertainty by offering justifications for my decision that would bring them clarity and, thus, calm them down. 

Admittedly, I do not go to such great lengths for everyone. Nevertheless, it feels even more disappointing with close people whose support and understanding you want to count on. 

However, if I care about these people and want their understanding, then that is what I should give them first – patience and acceptance. I gradually realised this as I embarked on my philosophical journey. It is one of the fruits of the self development endeavour. 

Sometimes when you hope to receive something from others, you first have to offer the same to them, even without any guarantee of reciprocity. 

Respect, trust, acceptance, understanding, love. All these and many other essential elements of human life cannot be simply taken or demanded from others. No matter how badly I want my closest people to understand and accept me, I cannot force them. I can only offer my understanding and acceptance and be patient. As the lyrics in one of Drake’s songs say: “You give but you cannot take love”.

Unpacking Selfishness

The selfishness of self-development accusation that I encountered is based on several tacit assumptions. Philosophy can help shine a light on some of them. 

First, I am happy to admit that self development is selfish in a purely technical, value-free sense of the term. As the word states, it is a development of one’s self. The orientation is inwards. However, this is not what we usually mean when we say someone is selfish. 

If I make breakfast for myself, it is an action directed towards my person, yet we do not consider it selfish. If I prepare and eat my breakfast using up the last food in the house full of hungry children, then the (technically) same action is evaluated as selfish. It is a value judgement, not merely an assessment of an action’s direction.

The focus on actions is important. Usually, we characterise someone as selfish or generous based on their behaviour. However, there is a twist. Our motivation matters. 

If I help an old lady cross a street out of genuine compassion, I am regarded as a good person. If I do it to show off and draw attention to how nice I am, then the same action immediately feels fake and I am judged as selfish. 

What this reveals is that we focus on conduct when characterising someone as selfish or not, but we also implicitly link actions with motivations. I need to believe that your intentions behind outwardly generous behaviour are equally pure.

Different cultures

Depending on our cultural background, we are ready to accept more or less self-focused motivation driving an action before we judge it as selfish. These differences are sometimes grouped into theoretical categories that describe cultures as individualistic or collectivist

Individualistic cultures tend to place a higher value on the needs of an individual while collectivist cultures tend to prioritise group harmony and cohesion over individual flourishing. This results in different social norms and practices of behaviour explanation and evaluation. Although useful and informative, it is important to keep in mind that these categories are conceptual generalisations. 

In her 2018 book, The Social Mind: a philosophical introduction, Jane Suilin Lavelle cites research on the differences in behaviour explanation practices in what she calls holistic (collectivist, e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Korean) and analytic (individualistic, e.g., European, American) cultures.

“Michael Morris and Kaiping Peng (1994) have argued that this is reflected in the explanatory frameworks preferred by each group when it comes to explaining another’s behaviour, with collectivist groups preferring to explain other people’s behaviours by reference to situational factors, e.g. that person’s role in society, or how they relate to other people in that situation; and more analytic groups preferring explanations which emphasise the actor’s individual character traits or inner psychological states.”

Lavelle, p. 136

Different cultural practices of explaining behaviour offer valuable insights into underlying assumptions about how actions are evaluated, what is acceptable and what counts as good justification. 

For instance, my personal experience example described earlier is a case of a (mild) culture clash. Although I know that my interlocutor values self-development, their priority is to contribute to society’s flourishing. Personal growth is a means to a more group-focused end. Therefore, my explanation for deciding to study philosophy as a self-development project, an end in itself, is a somewhat questionable justification according to the more collectivist cultural norms. 

I can understand this partly because my background is a peculiar mix of individualistic and collectivist cultures that contributes to an inner tension of values. Something I am only beginning to realise and navigate.

There are, of course, more extreme cases of cultural differences in explaining and justifying behaviour. For example, Lavelle writes that “there are Pacific Island cultures where talking about mental states is taboo and informally punished through social exclusion” (p. 136). 

While discussing what we and others want, hope for, miss or regret is a common pastime in many Western societies, considered acceptable (even expected) to interpret and justify behaviour, this is not a universal practice. 

Less emphasis on psychological states as explanations of actions can reflect a broadly different cultural attitude, “namely that they take less precedence as explanations or justifications of behaviours than other factors (e.g., strict societal rules)” (Lavelle, pp. 136-137). 

In such cultures, my decision to leave a well-respected career to study philosophy for the sake of personal growth would probably be judged as extremely selfish, no matter how desperately I try to justify this decision by referring to my individual psychological needs. Here, the broader cultural attitude prioritises group interests, and acceptable behaviour explanation has to fit into this framework. Context matters. 

Final Note

Regardless of our cultural background, the common human factor is the idea that our actions are not disconnected from who we are. Who we are influences what and how we do.

Our personalities, worldviews, values, priorities, bodies, sensations, feelings and thoughts (collectively ‘life maps’) are crucial in determining our behaviour and interaction with others. 

This interaction, in turn, influences and shapes our life maps reinforcing or updating the interpretation of actions. We can change our minds, see old things in a new light, or fortify our existing beliefs. 

In philosophy, the circular movement of meaning creation is called a hermeneutic circle. Indeed, we can become less selfish and more patient, generous, and accepting by consciously guiding our self-development along this circle of (re)interpreting the world and ourselves in it. 

Stay tuned for more about the hermeneutic circle in upcoming articles.   

keep exploring!

Image credit: Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Is Self-Development Selfish?

  1. Pingback: Spreading the Word: Fable of the Bees – humanfactor

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