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The thing is, I am confused whether the word selfish itself can be used without expressing a negative connotation. I am a bit biased about it since I believe that by using this word it automatically implies that a third party will be affected by the action.

The thesaurus provides self-interested, self-seeking, egoistic; illiberal, parsimonious, and stingy as its synonyms; and I am aware that some can be used in a positive manner. For example self-seeking doesn't necessarily mean I am affecting someone else.

In other words, will everyone who hears selfish automatically perceive a negative meaning for the preceding action?

Could there be a better word that could express a similar meaning without being negative?

  • No, just because you're "selfish" doesn't necessarily mean others will be adversely affected by anything you do. You may also be timid, for example, and afraid to take even what you're rightfully entitled to, for fear that you might be wrongly perceived as having taken too much (you might be frightened of having to deal with even unjustified opprobrium). Selfishness defines an attitude of mind, not necessarily reflected in action. – FumbleFingers Jul 16 '13 at 4:31
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    ...there's normally nothing wrong with having a healthy survival instinct, for example. – FumbleFingers Jul 16 '13 at 4:33
  • well yes, but you are confusing my question. Regardless of being good or bad, I am refering to how it is perceived when the word is used. Like, I selfishly ate the sandwitch, went to the store, bought a console. It implies someone was affected by it doesn't it? And yeah totally get how being selfish doesnt mean affecting others, but does doing something selfish do? – Pochi Jul 16 '13 at 4:37
  • And as you described, it defines an attitude of mind, but regardless of the outcome of the action, can it be said that it was done with a "bad" attitude? hence confirming that it is not possible to do something selfishly without looking bad? – Pochi Jul 16 '13 at 4:39
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    The Bible provides us with some guidance in this regard. Jesus summarized the second-most-important commandment in the Old Testament scriptures when he said, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Self-love, some suggest, comes relatively naturally and easily to most or all of us. Balancing self-love with love for neighbor, however, is not so natural and easy. Selfishness, indeed, has a justly negative connotation. While some folks are more self-centered than others in, say, introversion, selfishness is common to all of us, and our neighbors are almost always harmed by it. – rhetorician Jul 17 '13 at 17:48
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Ayn Rand wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness.

As an Objectivist, she espouses rational selfishness.

That page says

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.

The connotations of selfishness outweigh its denotation. To express yourself without a lot of hand-waving, try qualifying it with rational selfishness, enlightened self-interest, or simply self-interest.

  • There is also a flavor of selfishness in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, where Smith spoke of "enlightened self-interest" -- that people acting for purely selfish reasons can advance the economy as a whole (so long as monopolies are avoided, et al). – Hot Licks Apr 25 '15 at 4:29
  • Good point. The invisible hand of enlightened self-interest will cause one to price his goods and services so as to maximize his revenue. While it can have a negative connotation of personal selfishness, it also bears the positive connotation of increasing societal good. – rajah9 Apr 26 '15 at 17:26
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I think if you use the phrase 'self-focused' you might be able to get away with it. It doesn't sound quite as bad as the other examples you have provided.

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Self-preservation

Self-preservation is the first responsibility — Margaret Anderson

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My mileage varies from that of the OP. For me, "self-seeking" is always negative, morally worse than "selfish". It implies actively doing something against the welfare of someone else, not just having a bad attitude deep inside.

Although I am absolutely not a Randian, I have possibly congruent issues with the word "selfish" from my own experience: having suffered from the sort of person who would say, "You're being very selfish for not bringing me a cup of tea (before I ask for one!)" To me, "selfishness" may mean doing what I want and am entitled to in place of doing what you want and are not entitled to. People use accusations of selfishness to be selfish! Abusus non tollit usum, of course, but still.

As for "self-centered", I have always had problems understanding it. I live (even am trapped) in my body, how can I possibly be centered anywhere else? One is surely self-centered in the sense that one is necessarily the centre of one's own universe but one may still act according to the Categorical Imperative or whatever other ethical system floats one's boat. IOW, being "self-centered" doesn't mean that you have to be nasty.

My own preferred term for what the bad guys do is predation. They are treating us as food.

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There certainly is potential for selfishness to be positive but it is complicated and more about context than semantics or philosophy! I work with the very elderly, in the cohort of 28 I work with I have 3 centenarians, 6 who might be centenarians in 2020, a few youngsters paddling around in sub 90 zone and the rest all nonagenarians. That is a bloody long time to have to be grateful to people and their support of your physical and/or mental frailty.

I gallop elders off on trips to/ rendezvous with family/friends at, art galleries, museums, sporting venues, cafes, woods, farms, pubs, restaurants, rural shows, concerts, trails etc. In response to their thanks I claim to be using them to have an excuse to have a good time myself and get out of of my work place and their home, 'totally selfish really'. In the normal home based routine I claim (and actually do have) a very low boredom threshold - we do not get stuck into a bingo / sing song rut. Instead I work on the basis that if I am bored, my crew will be bored too.

At this point we become collaborators, they do not have to feel 'grateful', I am no longer a do-gooder, they know they provide the excuse and I provide the imagination and drive, between us we subvert the status quo and have a rollicking good time! My 'selfishness' empowers people to no longer just be lovingly carried burdens but people with the power to gift me and us pleasure.

Selfish in the right, possibly ironic context can be good. Which then opens the whole subject of irony and the British v American sense of humour?

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Ambition is related and can be positive, but it's not quite the same thing, and in the wrong context it could be seen negatively.

ambition - an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power

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