Quotations about   selfishness

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Some people think that evolutionary psychology claims to have discovered that human nature is selfish and wicked. But they are flattering the researchers and anyone who would claim to have discovered the opposite. No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it’s all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
How the Mind Works, ch. 7 (1997)
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Added on 9-Jun-21 | Last updated 9-Jun-21
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The selfish man believes that by closing his heart against his fellows, and centering in self every thought and feeling, he escapes much suffering. But his egotistical calculations are invariably defeated; for his contracted sympathies being all directed to one focus, he so aggravates the ills he endures, that he expends on self along more painful pity than the most enthusiastic philanthropist devotes to mankind.

Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington (1789-1849) Irish novelist [Lady Blessington, b. Margaret Power]
Desultory Thoughts and Reflections (1839)
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Added on 8-Jun-21 | Last updated 8-Jun-21
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It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.

John von Neumann (1903-1957) Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, inventor, polymath [János "Johann" Lajos Neumann]
(Attributed)
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More in Eugene Wigner, "John von Neumann (1903-1957)," Yearbook of the American Philosophical Society (1958); later collected in Wigner's Symmetries and Reflections.
Added on 1-Jun-21 | Last updated 1-Jun-21
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And the great danger facing us today is not so much the atomic bomb that was created by physical science. Not so much that atomic bomb that you can put in an aeroplane and drop on the heads of hundreds and thousands of people — as dangerous as that is. But the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness — that’s the atomic bomb that we’ve got to fear today. Problem is with the men. Within the heart and the souls of men. That is the real basis of our problem.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
“Rediscovering Lost Values,” Sermon, Second Baptist Church, Detroit (28 Feb 1954)
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Added on 21-Apr-17 | Last updated 21-Apr-17
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The moral of it is, that if we would build on a sure foundation in friendship, we must love our friends for THEIR sakes rather than OUR OWN; we must look at their truth to THEMSELVES, full as much as their truth to US. In the latter case, every wound to self-love would be a cause of coldness; in the former, only some painful change in the friend’s character and disposition — some frightful breach in his allegiance to his better self — could alienate the heart.

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855) British novelist [pseud. Currer Bell]
Letter to W S. Williams (21 Jul 1851)
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Added on 7-Apr-17 | Last updated 7-Apr-17
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It’s okay if you don’t want to feed the hungry, or heal the sick, or house the homeless. Just don’t say you’re doing it for their own good. Don’t say you’d like to help people, but your hands are tied, because if you did it would cause a “culture of dependency,” or “go against the Bible,” or, worst of all, “rob them of their freedom” to be sick and hungry. Just admit you’re selfish, and based on how little your beliefs mirror the actual teachings of Jesus you might as well be worshiping Despicable Me.

William "Bill" Maher (b. 1956) American comedian, political commentator, critic, television host.
Real Time with Bill Maher (8 Nov 2013)
Added on 15-Jun-16 | Last updated 16-Jun-16
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Of great riches there is no real use, except it be in the distribution; the rest is but conceit.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, scientist, author, statesman
“Of Riches,” Essays, No. 34 (1625)
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Added on 9-Jun-16 | Last updated 9-Jun-16
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Behind this attitude lurks a rejection of ethics and a rejection of God. Ethics has come to be viewed with a certain scornful derision. It is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. In effect, ethics leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace. When these latter are absolutized, God can only be seen as uncontrollable, unmanageable, even dangerous, since he calls human beings to their full realization and to freedom from all forms of enslavement. Ethics — a non-ideological ethics — would make it possible to bring about balance and a more humane social order. With this in mind, I encourage financial experts and political leaders to ponder the words of one of the sages of antiquity: “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.”

Francis I (b. 1936) Argentinian Catholic Pope (2013- ) [b. Jorge Mario Bergoglio]
Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 57 (24 Nov 2013)
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Quoting St. John Chrysostom, De Lazaro Concio, II, 6
Added on 16-Jul-14 | Last updated 16-Jul-14
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Self-interest sets in motion virtues and vices of all kinds.

François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) French epigrammist, memoirist, noble
Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales [Maxims], #263 (1665-1678) [tr. Tancock (1959)]
Added on 4-Feb-14 | Last updated 31-May-19
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Too many people don’t care what happens so long as it doesn’t happen to them.

William Howard Taft (1857-1930) US President (1909-13) and Chief Justice (1921-1930)
(Attributed)
Added on 17-Jan-14 | Last updated 17-Jan-14
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We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small-hearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity. The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspire men to be more I-centered than thou-centered.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? (1967)
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Added on 22-Jun-12 | Last updated 9-Nov-20
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The modern conservative is not even especially modern. He is engaged, on the contrary, in one of man’s oldest, best financed, most applauded, and, on the whole, least successful exercises in moral philosophy. That is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. It is an exercise which always involves a certain number of internal contradictions and even a few absurdities. The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character-building value of privation for the poor. The man who has struck it rich in minerals, oil, or other bounties of nature is found explaining the debilitating effect of unearned income from the state. The corporate executive who is a superlative success as an organization man weighs in on the evils of bureaucracy. Federal aid to education is feared by those who live in suburbs that could easily forgo this danger, and by people whose children are in public schools. Socialized medicine is condemned by men emerging from Walter Reed Hospital. Social Security is viewed with alarm by those who have the comfortable cushion of an inherited income. Those who are immediately threatened by public efforts to meet their needs — whether widows, small farmers, hospitalized veterans, or the unemployed — are almost always oblivious to the danger.

Galbraith - selfishness - wist_info

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) Canadian-American economist, diplomat, author
“Wealth and Poverty,” speech, National Policy Committee on Pockets of Poverty (13 Dec 1963)

Galbraith used variations on this quote over the years.
  • The above quotation was from a speech given, that was then entered into the Congressional Record, Vol. 109, Senate (18 Dec 1963).
  • This material was reworked into an article "Let us begin: An invitation to action on poverty," in Harper's (March 1964), which was in turn again entered into the Congressional Record, Vol. 110 (1964).
  • One of the last is most often cited: "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy, that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness. It is an exercise which always involves a certain number of internal contradictions and even a few absurdities. The conspicuously wealthy turn up urging the character-building value of privation for the poor." ["Stop the Madness," Interview with Rupert Cornwell, Toronto Globe and Mail (6 Jul 2002)]
Added on 19-May-09 | Last updated 20-Nov-15
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The chief difference between free capitalism and State socialism seems to be this: that under the former a man pursues his own advantage openly, frankly, and honestly, whereas under the latter he does so hypocritically and under false pretences.

H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) American writer and journalist [Henry Lewis Mencken]
Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks, #397 (1956)
Added on 15-Jan-09 | Last updated 2-May-16
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By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man’s, I mean.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Following the Equator, ch. 39, epigraph (1897)
Added on 27-May-08 | Last updated 26-Jan-19
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Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up save in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
The Four Loves
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 12-Dec-17
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