The Distinctive Difference between Selfishness and Self-Preservation

By Lauren Bulla.

In my early twenties, I came across a conversation presenting the idea that everything we do is rooted back to individual selfish purposes. I never really considered this before undergrad, but egoism is the theory that sets out the notion that everything we do is inherently based on a deeper self interest (Shaver, 2023). I find this interesting in reference to the distinction between selfishness and self-preservation. There is a clear difference between outright selfishness and choosing to be self-preserving. 

Choosing to behave in accordance with your own desire, even if that desire operates in the way of cancelling plans you don’t feel up to, leaving halfway through a date because you weren’t having fun, or choosing not to attend an emotionally exhausting work event – often, we’re doing so out of self-preservation. Though each of these instances could easily overlap into selfishness, it’s important to question in the vein of egoism – if everything we do is inherently selfish anyway, then why not act out of self preservation?

We’ve all been there, made plans a few weeks in advance and thought to ourselves the night of,  I’d rather just have a chilled night to myself – I don’t feel like socialising. We are faced with a decision; do we begrudgingly go for the (selfish) sake of saving face or do we choose to be (selfishly) self-preserving and cancel. Either option can be tied back to a self-vested interest. Forcing yourself to attend an event you don’t want to for the sake of maintaining a positive perception of yourself could be considered selfish. Though this is true, the same goes for cancelling last minute and shifting group dynamics at the drop of a dime. In the instance of being caught between such a predicament we might as well choose the option that prioritises our mental and/or physical health.

Community is not built by people who force themselves to be present, at least not in a meaningful or sustainable way. Rather this comes from the shared desire to put our best foot forward. This is the active decision to make connections while also tending to our own needs. Self-preserving decision making is the stepping stone that allows us to prioritise our own inclinations but also aid the development of our interpersonal relationships and community ties. Specifically in the sense that when we are taking care of ourselves, we are better able to take care of others. There’s a reason why the safety protocols on an aircraft insist that we put an oxygen mask over ourselves first – before we help anyone else with theirs. 

This is not to say that there aren’t social contracts and expectations that accompany the myriad of relationships we hold. In order to have ongoing connections we have to show up for others, as much as we do ourselves. It’s important to consider that if all acts are inherently selfish – we can feel liberated in our ability to follow our hearts more freely. Many of us struggle with people-pleasing tendencies that hinge on the need to contradict one’s anxiety-provoked fear of being unlikeable. Specifically if we are choosing to isolate certain parts of our identities for fear of judgement which is an inherently self-serving practice – why not be self-preserving and put these elements of ourselves openly on display. 

According to John Whittaker, every human is born with needs and desires, but these alone are not what make us inherently selfish or not. Whittaker claims that true selfishness is unwavering desire and the prioritisation of such that forces us to steamroll the needs or interests of others for personal benefit. (Whittaker, 152, 1980). When we prioritise ourselves though selfish at the root, this is not the same as ignoring or overtaking other people’s needs, hopes, or ideas. Rather there is a line to be distinguished when it comes to maintaining a sense of our own self-worth while also acknowledging the value of others in our shared spaces. What makes us truly selfish in the most negative sense, is the inability to empathise or understand others around us. When we choose self-preservation we understand we are operating within a framework of self-empathy. That of which we can translate into our interpersonal connections and development of our communities. 

I believe that the truer we are to our own desires, inclinations, and personalities, the more actively we can participate in our interpersonal connections. This ultimately allows us to be better community members as we are able to unabashedly embrace the fullness of ourselves and therefore others. If we are going to be more empathetic of our own needs and desires, this also must be understood within others’ ability to act on the same inclinations of self-preservation. While the relationships we lead with others can be of equal importance, we must prioritise taking care of ourselves in order to be active participants in the lives of our loved ones and strangers alike. 

Self preservation is like selfishness’ more mature cousin – it operates similarly but the outcome is much more balanced for all of those involved. If we are not taking care of ourselves, we run the risk of burnout and inadvertently negatively impacting our loved ones and community spaces. In light of egoism – if everything we do is selfish anyway, why not choose to be self-preserving. 


Glasgow, W. D. (1976). Psychological Egoism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 13(1), 75–79.

Shaver, TR. (2023). Egoism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Zalta, E. N. & Nodelman, U. (eds.).

Whittaker, J. H. (1980). Selfishness, Self-Concern and Happiness. The Journal of Religious Ethics

8(1), 149–159.

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