We can clearly define concepts like egoism, selfishness, and selfless altruism when we look at our everyday decisions from a game-theoretic perspective. Think of every possible interaction between people as a game where each party can either win or lose. This gives us the following grid with four possible outcomes:
1. Win-Win (Effectiveness)
In a win-win situation, both you and the other group or person benefit from the interaction, and with your plus added to the other’s plus, you get a positive sum (Σ>0), a successful cooperation. A positive-sum game is the ideal situation to aim for when making decisions. Any outcome we can honestly frame as win-win is objectively good, and so is every action that leads to a win-win outcome. Unfortunately, our egos tend to prevent us from adopting such an abundance mindset, prevent us from seeing that there often is plenty to gain for everyone.
2. Win-Lose (Selfishness)
Selfishness is a zero-sum game where your gain is the other’s loss: your plus added to the other’s minus equals zero (Σ=0). In common parlance, this is also called being an asshole. In the short term, being an asshole usually pays off because when you take advantage of others, there’s, well, an advantage for you. Consider the stereotypical sleazy car salesman who sells broken cars in order to maximize his commission: he certainly benefits in the short term. However, he will not be able to build a sustainable customer base. In the long run, any win-lose strategy will collapse into lose-lose because the more selfish you are, the less people will cooperate with you. Eventually, you too will lose like those whose trust you have betrayed, approaching a negative sum (Σ<0). Thus, it is objectively bad to make win-lose decisions, that is, to be selfish.
(If you want to leave this page now because you have read too much Rand, Stirner, or Nietzsche, please continue reading below at #5 on egoism, which I distinguish from selfishness.)
3. Lose-Win (Selfless Altruism)
We commonly venerate those who put themselves into lose-win situations as being good people by virtue of their altruism. However, selfless altruism is a zero-sum game (Σ=0) and thus objectively not good. Although single altruistic actions might appear noble, if we consider radical actions or long sequences of many such games (i.e., thinking long-term), a lose-win strategy is unstable and will at some point even collapse into a lose-zero situation—a dysfunctional, self-defeating form of altruism. This is because any real loss on your side diminishes your power to act.
When you sacrifice your life for your children, you can no longer care for and protect them. When you get into dept to help a friend out of financial troubles, you’ll be the one in need and unable to give any more financial support. When you are in a toxic relationship and you acquire a mental disorder from trying to cure your partner, you will yourself need therapy and no longer be able to provide it. You can only help so much.
After lavish self-sacrifice, your action capacity will be depleted or destroyed to such an extent that you cannot help any longer. Then the other party can win no more either and you get lose-zero outcomes, which produces a negative sum (Σ<0) that is objectively bad. (Or, to catastrophize a little further, you cannot even play games anymore because you are dead).
But what if it is a wrong assumption to frame altruism as lose-win or lose-zero? Couldn’t a billionaire who donates a minor part of his wealth to people in need be seen as pursuing a zero-win strategy? The answer is no, because nobody would ever be motivated to pursue a goal with a neutral outcome for themselves. All we can sensibly expect is that donating money for a good cause pays a reward in terms of positive, prosocial emotions and a philanthropic sense of purpose. However, such a healthy form of altruism is really to be located in the win-win quadrant.
4. Lose-Lose (Psychopathology)
Due to its negative sum outcome (Σ<0), nobody would ever deliberately play a lose-lose game. Still, people frequently do play such games, namely, when they are mentally ill. Examples include the suicide terrorist, the alcoholic who destroys her family while she destroys herself, or the untreated borderline whose impulsive anger makes himself and everybody around him miserable. Psychopathological lose-lose situations also have a tragic stability over time: they are both short- and long-term disasters.
5. Win-Zero (Egoism)
Missing from the table above is the special case of win-zero situations: you win while the other is unaffected. This is egoism—pursuing your own self-interest, though not at the cost of someone else. Whenever you spend time doing things that are good only for yourself, you are being egoistical. Egoism is objectively good because win-zero outcomes have a positive sum (Σ>0).1
To an extent, of course, taking care of yourself is often a win-win action: when you work out, walk in the woods, cook yourself a fine meal, and read a book, you will become stronger, happier, healthier, and more knowledgeable and thus have a greater capacity to do good for others. However, the more time you spend doing things that are good for yourself, the more the returns for others diminish: spending an entire weekend at home reading a book usually doesn’t make you more valuable to others than if you had only read for a few hours and then spent time with them. Doing what you want is egoistical and good, albeit not quite as good as a win-win situation where you would share your joy with others (assuming unaltered levels of joy, of course, which may not always be possible, especially for introverts).
Another example would be when you have become wealthy through hard and fair work, but you are unwilling to donate a dime for a good cause because you enjoy being wealthy. Again, this makes you an egoistical and objectively good person, even though subjectively you might not be seen as good by some people.2 Nonetheless, a philanthropic turn towards win-win would likely yield an even greater positive sum.
We want to be effective people who play positive-sum games that are objectively good. When there is no viable win-win option, we are best advised to do what we want, acting as rational egoists. By contrast, selfishness and selfless altruism are not good, even bad in the long term, and psychopathology produces the worst possible interactions, which is why it is critical for us to foster our mental health and to have minds that are cool.
(1) My binary or ternary discussion in terms of win/lose or win/lose/zero obviously oversimplifies the complexity of real-world problems where gains and losses are values on a continuum. (2) The measurement of these values is far from trivial, especially when different quantities such as emotions, assets, opportunities, etc. are weighed against each other. (3) Even the same quantity (say, money) can be of different value to different people: for example, ten thousand dollars will mean a whole lot more to a poor person that to a millionaire.
- Two Pitfalls of Enlightened Egoism
- Egoism, Tribalism, and Utilitarianism
- Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (affiliate link)
- My definition of egoism rests on the assumption that win-zero situations are possible and realistic. One could argue against this assumption that every win-zero is really win-lose because choosing not to do good for others is an implicit loss for them. However, this would extend every man’s scope of responsibility from being responsible for himself to being responsible for all humans if not all living things. A more sensible assumption is that a person’s set of possible win-zero scenarios depends on his personal scope of responsibility that may encompass his own self, his children, his family and friends, his business and leadership relationships, and (depending on the individual) potentially even more, but typically not all life on earth and beyond. Moreover, taking care of people within your personal scope of responsibility is usually rewarded with positive prosocial emotions as well as the promise of reciprocity and is thus a win-win situation.
- For those who must blame, I guess it is more expedient to focus on the game rather than the positive-sum player.