There’s two ways you can be selfish. The first is the obvious kind: everything you do is self-serving and self-interested. The well-being of those around you doesn’t matter, whether they be family, friends, or strangers. Since it’s the obvious kind, this is also the kind that gets called out most often and is near universally condemned.
The second way is a more subtle kind of selfishness. This is when you do things for the benefit of those you feel close to, while being indifferent to or ruining the lives of those you don’t feel close to. Think Walter White in Breaking Bad who sells drugs to ensure his family’s financial future; think Michael Schofield in Prison Break who helps dangerous convicts escape to save his brother’s life; think Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars who turns to the dark side to try to save his lover’s life.
Or if you want real life examples, think of everyone who will do much for their family and friends, but won’t lift a finger to help the less fortunate and even work for industries that actively ruin economies, environments, or lives.
The second way of being selfish is arguably better than the first, but it’s also more rampant. There’s something of a fake moral complexity in there that gives people a pass, a question along the lines of “How can someone be selfish if they’re doing things for the benefit of people other than themselves?”
To answer that, let’s go through a couple of hypotheticals. Supposes you’re faced with two options: 1) Lose a leg and save a child’s life; or 2) Save 1000 children’s lives. It’s a sad scenario because either way at least one child will die, and for the decision maker, saving more lives means losing a leg. But it is clear that Option 2 is the selfless option to take and Option 1 is clearly selfish.
Now suppose you’re faced with these options instead: 1) Save your child’s life; or 2) Save 1000 children’s lives. This is almost identical to the first hypothetical: either way at least one child will die; the only difference is that this time, for the decision maker, saving more lives means losing a child instead of a leg. Again, Option 2 is the selfless option to take and Option 1 is selfish – but it’s less obvious now because you can say “It’s for my child!”
There are many who would proudly grandstand about taking the first option: they would say it’s what makes them a great parent and that those who wouldn’t are bad parents. They would say that it’s love that forces them to go with the first option – and this may even be true! But it’s the selfish option either way.