Aristotle urges that virtues are regularly “mean” behavior patterns — they are, in a vague sense, averages between extremes. The virtue of mildness, for instance, consists in getting angry the right amount, neither too little nor too much; the virtue of liberality consists in spending roughly what you have, neither pointlessly saving (he was writing before investment was a thing) nor indebting yourself. But he also makes some points about the distortions and tricks to which this fact lends itself.
Think about the trio of behaviors known as naivete, realism, and cynicism. The naif is irrationally sanguine about others’ honesty and good intentions; the cynic is irrationally pessimistic about the same matter; the realist knows that most people are usually trying to do the thing right but that trust should still be earned.
The naif can’t tell the difference between a realist and a cynic; he is likely to misidentify a realist as a cynic. He also can’t tell the difference between a naif and a realist; he is liable to mistake himself for a realist. Likewise in reverse for the cynic. This fact leads to such pointless arguments as, “You’re being cynical! — No, I’m being realistic. You’re being naive.”
That doesn’t imply that ‘cynical’ refers both to cynicism and to realism.
Now, consider a similar trio of behaviors, having to do with anger. Aristotle distinguishes between the vices of inirascibility — the inability to be angry when one should — mildness — being angry when and as appropriate — and irascibility — rising too quickly or too severely to anger. The pointless dialogue from the earlier trio will appear between inirascible and irascible people: “You didn’t need to fly off the handle like that. — That was totally reasonable; you let people walk all over you.” However, there is another factor. Which is more dangerous for me — to be around people who can’t get angry when they should, or to be around people who become angry when they shouldn’t? I’m in little danger, and no immediate danger, from people who are excessively calm. So even if I agree that both irascibility and inirascibility are vices, I’m much more likely to worry about irascibility than inirascibility. Even mild people will be inclined to see anger as excessive when it is actually appropriate. So the pointless dialogue isn’t symmetrical. It will often happen that the mild person is mistaken for irascible; it will rarely happen that the mild person is mistaken for inirascible.
That won’t, however, mean that ‘irascible’ refers both to irascibility and to mildness. The word isn’t ambiguous. It’s merely often wrongly applied by people who aren’t extremely refined and sensitive in their understanding of anger and its place in human life.
Take a glance back at cynicism. Now we might imagine that a cynical person is not likely to be a paragon of trustworthiness; after all, if he were himself trustworthy, he would recognize that trustworthiness is a realized human possibility, so he probably wouldn’t be cynical.
So imagine that a cynic is trying to take advantage of someone. It’s hard to take advantage of a cynic, and it’s easy to take advantage of a naif, but imagine that there are no naifs around to victimize. So the cynic has to target a realist. Unfortunately for the cynic, the realist, while open to trust, doesn’t immediately place his full confidence in everyone he meets, so the cynic will have to somehow win his trust. Here is a trick that could work for that: convince the realist that his totally reasonable concerns are in fact an expression of cynicism. So we would have the peculiar dialogue, “I’m just being realistic. — No, you’re being cynical.”
That won’t, however, mean that ‘cynical’ applies both to cynicism and to realism. The word isn’t ambiguous. It’s merely sometimes intentionally wrongly applied by cynics.
With ‘selfish’, we have all three of these effects at the same time.
Consider a couple of vices having to do with self-interest. The “selfish” person sacrifices others’ well-being for (what he thinks is) his own. The “schmoo” (we don’t have a word for this in English, sadly) sacrifices his own well-being for (what he thinks is) others’. There would be some virtue in the middle, for which, again, we lack a word in English; call it “legitimate self-interested action”.
The selfish person would have trouble distinguishing between the legitimately self-interested person and the schmoo; he would also have trouble distinguishing between himself and a legitimately self-interested person. Likewise in reverse for the schmoo. This fact would lead to such pointless arguments as, “You’re being selfish! — No, I’m acting in legitimate self-interest. You’re being a schmoo.”
Further, one is in more danger from selfish people than one is from schmoos. So there will be an asymmetry involved in mistaken uses of ‘selfish’ and ‘schmoo’.
Finally, selfish people want to confuse legitimately self-interested people into thinking that their legitimately self-interested behavior is in fact selfish. So there will be intentional misuses of ‘selfish’.
What this all adds up to is a word that will be so confusing, so connotation-laden, so often used to deceive, that it will almost never bring clarity to any issue or appear in any useful deliberation or advice.
Moreover, the people who are best-positioned to clear up the confusion aren’t motivated to do so. Legitimately self-interested people don’t think about self-interest. This is part of the theme of The Fountainhead: Roark only realizes what’s going on with the weird selfish people and schmoos around him because he’s basically forced to; in the ordinary course of things, he would have just focused his attention on buildings. [Roark(/Rand) doesn’t express his insights very well, I think, but he(/she) does have them.]
The rational thing to do with a word like that is to talk about how it is used, why it is useless, and consign it to the dustbin. (And that’s to say nothing of the nasty French neologism ‘altruism’ — as straightforwardly useless a word as one can find outside of the cult of the corporation.) One can also use this discussion to make some observations about the poverty of our language; we are so worried about selfishness that we forgot to coin a word for legitimate self-interest. I’m able to convey to my students what is recognizably Rand’s core thesis about so-called egoism, with perfect clarity — I know that this can be done. (And many Objectivists seem to have backed away from Rand’s misuses, too.)
A firmly irrational thing to do would be to try to redefine ‘selfish’ so that it refers to legitimate self-interest. If you’re interested in talking about reality, you won’t sacrifice clarity to a perverse linguistic hobby-horse.