Aristotle joined a perceived majority of his countrymen in condemning those who sought only to profit themselves; but he approved the man of reason who sought to gain for himself the greatest share of that which deserved social praise.
Seneca proposed a cultivation of the self within a wider community - a care for the self which he opposed to mere selfishness in a theme that would later be taken up by Foucault.
Selfishness was viewed in the Western Christian tradition as a central vice – as standing at the roots of the Seven deadly sins in the form of pride.
Francis Bacon carried forward this tradition when he characterised “Wisdom for a man's self...[a]s the wisdom of rats”.
With the emergence of a commercial society, Bernard Mandeville proposed the paradox that social and economic advance depended on private vices – on what he called the sordidness of selfishness.
Adam Smith with the concept of the invisible hand saw the economic system as usefully channelling selfish self-interest to wider ends; while John Locke based society upon the solitary individual, arguably opening the door for later thinkers like Ayn Rand to argue for selfishness as a social virtue and the root of social progress.
Roman Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain opposed the latter view by way of the Aristotelian argument that framing the fundamental question of politics as a choice between altruism and selfishness is a basic and harmful mistake of modern states. Rather, cooperation ought to be the norm: human beings are by nature social animals, and so individual persons can only find their full good in and through pursuing the good of the community.
Lack of empathy has been seen as one of the roots of selfishness, extending as far as the cold manipulation of the psychopath.
The contrast between self-affirmation and selfishness has become a conflictual arena in which the respective claims of individual/community is often played out – between parents and children or men and women, for example.
Psychoanalysts favor the development of a genuine sense of self, and may even speak of a healthy selfishness, as opposed to the self-occlusion of what Anna Freud called 'emotional surrender'.