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The Throwaway Concession: Selfishness and the Trojan Horse

·468 words·3 mins

A reader made an excellent observation about my earlier piece “How to Know if You’re Selfish.”

I’m looking at your criterion for selfishness at the end and, to be honest, it feels incomplete.

Specifically, it leaves a very important case unclear: What if someone offers you something (that you didn’t ask for), because they want to set up a situation where you’ll give the same back? Are you selfish if you take it without being comfortable about giving it back later? Are you selfish if you didn’t know there was an ulterior motive when you made the decision? Are you selfish if the other person lied about not having ulterior motives when they offer this?


In a nutshell, no. You would not be selfish to say no. And there are two major reasons why.

1. The Principle of Reciprocity Presumes Good Faith

The idea that it’s wrong for people to be selfish is based on cultural expectations of reciprocity. Social reciprocity is the understanding that, generally speaking, we should return kindnesses that others extend to us. If we invite someone to a party, we tend to expect that they will invite us to theirs. When they don’t, we often feel hurt by this. Or if we have that friend who always needs something and they never do anything nice back? Well, we’re likely to get a little salty after a while.

Now we don’t necessarily need the same exact favor returned to us. Instead, it’s that kindnesses are being exchanged, even if they take different forms.

The principle of reciprocity presumes good faith. It’s a funny thing. While we’re often hurt when we don’t receive the kindness in return, the initial gift or consideration ideally should be extended out of generosity and not in an attempt to manipulate the receiver into giving us something back.

Otherwise, it all falls apart. In this instance, it is not actually kindness but a form of control. And yes, selfishness.

We’re likely to feel used by this throwaway concession they’ve made, as a kind of Trojan horse. Hurt.

Perhaps we’ll rebel. If we do give in, we’re likely to find it a joyless proposition.

2. Selfishness Is a Pattern

And the second reason that it wouldn’t be selfish to say no in this situation is that selfishness is a pattern of behavior. A way of relating to others in which you are consistently unwilling to consider their needs.

And people who aren’t selfish themselves will understand the occasional, reasonable no. I wrote about this a bit in another piece I wrote, “ Getting to No You: Setting Boundaries Reveals People’s True Natures.”

One isolated incident of obstinance isn’t selfishness. It’s taking a stand on something important.


My book is out!

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory


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