It's interesting to me how a word moves over time from neutrality to pejorative or compliment (not to mention how the word came about at all). Think about it for a minute: tasty — being of taste as distinct from being, I suppose, touchy, smelly, heary, or seey.
If tasty moved from being of taste to tasting good, selfish went the other route: from being of the self to being a bad self. There is no ambiguity to the word: to be selfishness is to be a bad. You're never called selfish as a compliment or as part of a description: Oh, Daniel, that act is so you — you're so selfish!
As Nietzsche argued and Foucault fleshed out, the social has a tendency to keep the selfishness of selves at bay. It's much easier for the police state and corporations — the distinction is blurred — if people are more or less the same. It's more efficient. So it's not too surprising that selfishness got a bad rap, that acting as, with, and for yourself would warrant an insult.
Now, I was about to say that being selfish meant you were oblivious to the social hence the social's transformation of the word into a pejorative. After all, the social needs to keep you in check, keep your will to yourself subdued, as it yells, Be nice to us! Think about us! The irony, I hope, is not lost.
And yet what is often construed as selfish is, precisely and distinctly, social. A selfish prick is someone who is always jockeying for his own gain, all too willing to screw you over to get what he wants — money, sex, a faster latte, a raise. In this sense, to be selfish is not, in fact, to be selfish but to be awash in social expectations, social obligations — even if seeming to act against them. It is to have forgotten yourself in order to gain, to win, to be rich, to screw out the other dude to get what's yours! To be selfish is, alas, to be bereft of self.
There is, then, another mode of selfish: being your self above and beyond and next to and below and with and without the social. To be selfish is to affirm your distinction in the cosmos, not your needs in the social. Rather than screwing over a lover or co-worker, to be selfish is to be absolutely present to your friends, lovers, family, co-workers. Instead of diminishing yourself out of fear and loathing, you inhabit yourself as yourself. Here am I, says Abraham when God calls.
To be selfish is to participate in the world as yourself, as this piece of the universe happening as it happens. Just as that rock is that rock, that river is that river, that cloud is that cloud, you are you happening as you happen, an element within the cosmic teem, swirling with everything else but as this particular thing: as yourself. That Chris Bell line rings out each time I think this: Every night I tell myself, I am the cosmos. I am the wind. You go like this, a piece of the cosmos itself. To be selfish is not to be distinct from the world but connected to the world as a particular piece of the world. It is to be present when the universe calls.
Being selfish doesn't mean ignoring the social. It means acting with the social rather than for the social. William Burroughs always hated the question, What side are you on? He preferred, What side are you with? That is being selfish: moving with the world in the way you do (not the way you should). You are distinctive even if sharing many elements.
I was driving with my friend the other day over the Sonora pass in the Sierras. It’s a tough road, steep and narrow without a passing lane. She was becoming anxious, not for fear of imminent death were we to drive over the ledge (my fear!) but because trucks would ride her ass if she drove too slowly — which made her feel bad! So she’d speed up even though it made her even more anxious. So I told her: Drive at your own speed — not out of vengeance or maliciousness but because that’s how you need to flow right now. Stay inside yourself. Be selfish. And so she did and the ride was very nice, even if a truck or two got to their destination 20 minutes later.
So, yes, being selfish may mean being a dick from someone’s perspective. It means not smiling even if you're supposed to smile, not nodding along when you're supposed to nod along, not cheering when you're supposed to cheer. It means being willing to stand alone, to do alone, to feel and think things that others find reprehensible. It means not being tied to the banality of morality (which doesn't mean being unethical; it means not being tethered to a code). It means being honest about the things you like and dislike. It means driving more slowly over a mountain pass if you’re scared.
The point is this: to be selfish means not being excessively driven by social demands. Are we all necessarily social? Of course. Does acting out of self-interest lead down a slippery slope to rampant murder? Well, no: the slippery slope is a fallacy, a silly metaphor that justifies too much nonsense (a topic for another time). To be selfish is to operate as yourself amidst the fray.
Being selfish may make you less popular. And it may not make you happy. But being selfish will make you more you, necessarily.