Narcissism, Friendship, Egoism: Self-Interest is not Self-Welfare

Uploaded 12/1/2011, approx. 9 minute read

My name is Sam Vaknin, and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love, Narcissism Revisited.

Is narcissism the same as egoism?

Perhaps the best way to understand what is egoism is to study its ostensible opposites, altruistic friendship. What are friends for and how can a friendship be tested?

Friends behave altruistically is the most common answer. Friends are supposed to sacrifice their own interests in favor of their friends. Friendship implies the converse of egoism, both psychologically and ethically.

But is it truly so?

Consider the dog. The dog is a man's best friend. The dog is characterized by unconditional love, by unselfish behavior, by sacrifice when necessary.

Isn't this the epitome of friendship? The dog's friendship is clearly unaffected by long-term calculations of personal gain, of which the dog is allegedly incapable.

But what about calculations of a short-term nature? The dog owner, after all, takes care of the dog, looks after the dog, and is the primary source of the dog's subsistence and security.

So maybe the dog is not so unselfish. Maybe the dog is selfish after all. It clings and protects what it regards to be its territory and its property, including and especially so its owner.

Thus, the first condition that friends must be unselfish and act selflessly is seemingly not satisfied even by canine attachment.

Conclusion, friendship and selfishness are not a contradiction in terms. They are not mutually exclusive.

When we seek to characterize the relationship as friendship, there are three important conditions which do apply invariably.

First, a real friendship can exist only between conscious and intelligent entities possessed of mental states.

Second, friends must share identical mental states. A human being, for instance, cannot be friends with a tree, at least not in the fullest sense of the word. Tree-hugging is not considered by anyone as friendship.

But here we come across the narcissist. The narcissist is a partial human being. The narcissist is not full-fledged.

Narcissist lacks empathy. He has severe cognitive deficits. He perceives the world and other people so differently to normality, to normalcy, that the narcissist can easily be construed or considered to be an alien.

In other words, narcissists do not share the same number and extent of mental states with other people as do normal people.

Narcissists are intelligent and in some respects they are conscious, but cognitive deficits make them unaware and unself-aware.

So there is an open question whether narcissists can fully qualify as human beings.

I know that this is politically incorrect to say so, but it's psychologically very true. If they are not full-fledged human beings or if they are an alien race, a form of artificial intelligence made of flesh and blood, how can we be friends with them and how can narcissists be friends with us?

They do not satisfy the first and second conditions.

And then there's the third condition.

The friends' behavior must not be deterministic. Deterministic behavior is often interpreted as instinct driven. A conscious choice must be involved.

And this leads to a very surprising conclusion.

The more reliable, the more predictable a friend is, the less appreciated the friendship becomes.

Someone who reacts identically in similar situations. Someone who doesn't dedicate a first, let alone a second thought to what he does. Someone whose reactions, conduct and impulses are utterly predictable. We would say that his acts are automatic. We would depreciate such a person and say that his responses are meaningless.

For a pattern of behavior to be described as friendship, one needs to invest emotionally and cognitively in every single act.

So these four conditions must be met.

Diminished algorithm, conscious and intelligent agents, identical mental states allowing for the communication of the friendship and non-deterministic behavior, the result of constant decision making.

The narcissist fails the fourth criterion as well.

Narcissists are impulsive. Their impulse control is impaired. They are very predictable. Their personality is rigid. And they are in many respects automata or kind of robots.

As we test friendship by these four criteria, we must admit that the narcissist fails all four of them.

And this leads us back to the basic question.

People often confuse self-interest with self-welfare. A person may be urged on to act to satisfy his short-term self-interest, but his actions might be detrimental to his long-term self-welfare.

Some behaviors and actions can satisfy short-term desires, urges, wishes, or in short, self-interest. But these very actions may be self-destructive or otherwise adversely affect the individual's future welfare.

True egoism should therefore be redefined as the active pursuit of self-welfare, not of self-interest. An egoist is someone who caters in a balanced manner to both his present self-interest and his future self-welfare state. Someone who caters only to his immediate self-interest seeks instant gratification, tries to fulfill his desires, and disregards the future consequences of his actions and behavior. That's a narcissist, not an egoist.

But then, if all people are egoists, and if egoism is good, so good, what about altruism? Why do people contribute to humanitarian causes?

There is no self-interest involved.

Consider a rich, wealthy American. Consider Bill Gates. Bill Gates is unlikely to find himself starving in Somalia or affected by malaria or tuberculosis anywhere in the world. And yet, he had contributed tens of billions of dollars to mitigating hunger and disease, especially in Africa, where he is unlikely to set foot.

Why is he doing that?

According to Joseph Butler, the first-order desire of the perpetrators of good deeds is to avoid feelings of anxiety generated by a cognitive dissonance.

Let's try English. In the process of socialization, we are all exposed to altruistic messages which we internalize as our own. This is what we call the conscious.

We also witness punishments meted out to members of society who are not social enough. People who are unwilling to contribute beyond debt which is required to satisfy their self-interest. People who are selfish or egotistic. People who are non-conformist, too individualistic, too idiosyncratic, too eccentric and so on and so forth. They are usually penalized by society and we witness these penalties.

Avoiding altruism altogether, we are told, is bad and is such a cause for punishment. We are exposed to these messages when we are impressionable young kids.

As we grow up, this judgment, the penalties it entails, seem to emanate from inside ourselves. The opprobrium, the criticism, the reproach, the guilt, the punishment, all these are contained within us. This is what we call the superego or the conscious.

Whenever we break the rules by being overly selfish or insufficiently charitable, the impending punishment generates in us anxiety. To avoid this anxiety or to quell it, we engage in altruistic acts.

So altruism is the outcome of social conditioning and it's a kind of prozac for the soul.

To use the Butler scheme, our first degree desire is to avoid the agonies of cognitive dissonance and the resulting anxiety. This can be achieved by committing acts of altruism.

And the second degree desire is the self-interest to commit altruistic acts in order to satisfy the first degree desire, to avoid anxiety. So we contribute to the poor according to this scheme of things, not because we want to ameliorate their poverty.

We embark on famine relief, not because we do not want others to starve.

These apparently selfless activities are merely to allay our tormenting inner voices and to deflect the acute anxiety which accompanies them.

Altruism is the name that we give to successful indoctrination. The stronger the process of socialization, the stricter the education, the more severely broken up the individual, the grimmer and more constraining his superego and his conscience. And the more of an altruist he is likely to be.

Independent people who really feel comfortable with their selves are less likely to exhibit these altruistic behaviors.

This is the self-interest of society. Altruism enhances the overall level of welfare. Altruism redistributes resources more equitably. It tackles market failures more or less efficiently.

Progressive tax systems for instance are altruistic. Altruism reduces social pressures, it stabilizes both individuals and society.

So can we conclude that the self-interest of society is to make its members limit the pursuit of their own self-interest?

Not so fast. There are three schools of thought. There are those who see an inverse relation between the two.

The more satisfied the self-interest of the individuals comprising a society, the worse of their society is.

Many religions and strands of moral absolutism espouse this view.

And then there are those who believe that the more satisfied the self-interest of the individuals comprising a society, the better off that society is.

And these are the hidden hand theorists, the utilitarians.

Individuals which strive nearly to maximize their utility, their happiness, their returns, their profits mysteriously and inadvertently find themselves engaged in a colossal endeavor to better their society.

This is mostly achieved through the dual mechanisms of market and price.

And Adam Smith is of course a quintessential philosopher to have espoused such thinking.

Those who believe that a delicate balance must exist between the two types of self-interest comprise the third school.

They believe that private and public must be in harmonious balance.

While most individuals would be unable to obtain the full satisfaction of their self-interest, it is still conceivable that they will attain most of their self-interest.

On the other hand, society must not fully tread on individuals' rights of self-fulfillment, wealth accumulation and the pursuit of happiness.

So society must accept less than maximum satisfaction of its self-interest and so should individuals.

The optimal mix exists and is probably of the minimax type.

This is not a zero-sum game. The society and the individuals comprising it can maximize their outcomes.

The French are the same. Good bookkeeping makes for good friendship.

Self-interest, altruism and the interests of society at large are not necessarily incompatible.

And this is where the narcissist fails. He fails to understand others because of his lack of empathy. He cannot optimize his behavior. He seeks to maximize, not to optimize. He seeks to attain and achieve and accomplish at the expense of others. He is incapable of consensus, incapable of teamwork, incapable of collaboration, of seeing the larger picture and of contributing to it.

In attaining his goals, the narcissist believes that he has the upper hand. In effect, he is only burying himself deeper and deeper until he is doubtful, imminent and inevitable.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like the following:

Old-age Narcissist

Narcissists age without grace, unable to accept their fallibility and mortality. They suffer from mental progeria, aging prematurely and finding themselves in a time warp. The longer they live, the more average they become, and the wider the gulf between their pretensions and accomplishments. Few narcissists save for rainy days, and those who succeed in their vocation end up bitterly alone, having squandered the love of family, offspring, and mates.

Narcissist's Constant Midlife Crisis

The midlife crisis is a much-discussed but little understood phenomenon. There is no link between physiological and hormonal developments and the mythical midlife crisis. The narcissist is best equipped to tackle this problem as they suffer from mental progeria and are in a constant mid-life crisis. The narcissist's personality is rigid, but their life is not. It is changeable, mutable, and tumultuous. The narcissist does not go through a midlife crisis because they are forever the child, forever dreaming and fantasizing, forever enamored with themselves.

Raging Narcissist: Merely Pissed-off?

Narcissistic rage is a phenomenon that occurs when a narcissist is frustrated in their pursuit of narcissistic supply, causing narcissistic injury. The narcissist then projects a bad object onto the source of their frustration and rages against a perceived evil entity that has injured and frustrated them. Narcissistic rage is not the same as normal anger and has two forms: explosive and pernicious or passive-aggressive. People with personality disorders are in a constant state of anger, which is effectively suppressed most of the time, and they are afraid to show that they are angry to meaningful others because they are afraid to lose them.

Women Narcissists

Male and female narcissists differ in the way they manifest their narcissism, with women focusing on their body and traditional gender roles. However, both genders are chauvinistic and conservative, as they depend on the opinions of those around them to maintain their false self. Women are more likely to seek therapy and use their children as a source of narcissistic supply, while men may view their children as a nuisance. Ultimately, there is no psychodynamic difference between male and female narcissists, as they both choose different sources of supply but are otherwise identical.

Narcissist Hates Happy People and Holidays

Holidays and birthdays are a difficult time for narcissists, as they provoke a stream of pathological envy. The narcissist is jealous of others for having a family, being able to celebrate lavishly, or being in the right mood. They hate humans because they are unable to be one and want to spoil it for those who can enjoy. Holidays remind the narcissist of their childhood, the supportive and loving family they never had, and what could have been.

The Signs of the Narcissist

Narcissists are difficult to spot, but there are subtle signs that can be picked up on, such as entitlement markers, idealization and devaluation, and a lack of empathy. Narcissists are often perceived as anti-social and are unable to secure the sympathy of others. They are also prone to projecting a false self and using primitive defense mechanisms such as splitting, projection, projective identification, and intellectualization.

Narcissists: Homosexual and Transsexual

Research has found no significant difference between the psychological makeup of a narcissist with homosexual preferences and a heterosexual narcissist. However, the self-definition of homosexuals is often based on their sexual identity, which can lead to somatic narcissism. Homosexual relations are highly narcissistic and autoerotic affairs, with the somatic narcissist directing their libido at their own body. Transsexuals may also exhibit narcissistic tendencies, with some seeking sex reassignment due to an idealized overvaluation of themselves and a sense of entitlement.

Narcissism Myths: Suicide, Types, Crises

Narcissists come in different types, with cerebral and somatic being the most common. All narcissists share certain traits, such as pathological lying and lack of empathy. Narcissists are not interested in people as such, but they love to have an audience as long as they provide them with narcissistic supply. Narcissists rarely commit suicide, but they react with suicidal ideation and reactive psychosis to severe stress. Narcissists prefer to find alternative sources of supply, and they are creative in doing so.

Histrionic Woman's Guide to Men

Histrionic women respond differently to two types of men. The first type is men who openly desire the histrionic woman, but after a brief affair, they begin to bore her. The second type is men who are visibly attracted to the histrionic, but are very avoidant emotionally, or even absent emotionally. Histrionic women abhor intimacy and love, but they need mind games. With these men, there is always some game going on.

Narcissists Hate Children and Envy Them

Narcissists hate children because they envy them. Children's feigned innocence, manipulation, and lack of empathy are disarming in their directness. Narcissists see children as both mirrors and competitors, reflecting their constant need for adulation and attention. Children are loved by mothers, which makes narcissists jealous and infuriated by their deprivation. Narcissists hate children for being them.

Transcripts Copyright © Sam Vaknin 2010-2024, under license to William DeGraaf
Website Copyright © William DeGraaf 2022-2024
Get it on Google Play
Privacy policy