No Such Thing As A Selfless Act.

Objectified Morality

For those seeking answers series.

There is no such thing as a selfless act. Humans always do things for a reason, and it is usually thought of by definition as being a subjective reason. We get something out of it.  When we sell something or act in an obviously self serving way it is easy to see the acts are not selfless.

But what about the man or woman that runs into the burning building to save a person’s life? What about the person that gives to charities? What about people like Mother Theresa? What about a mother who saves her child from an oncoming car and knows she will likely lose her life in the process? What about the person who sacrifices their lives for others? They are all selfless people, right?

Wrong. They are not being selfless. They are what I call: being selfish in a positive way, as opposed to being  selfish in a negative way. An altruistic person gets something out of their altruism or they wouldn’t do it. Self satisfaction, feeling good about yourself, feeling sorry for someone, empathy, are all motivators for altruism. We can’t separate ourselves from our acts, good or bad.

Even in religion the idea is if you do good things, you receive good things. Even if a person doesn’t do it to feel good they do it because something inside them compels them to. If they didn’t do it they would feel diminished. They might hate themselves for it. Even if they just believe and feel it is the right thing to do, it’s all a personal gain, or it is done to prevent personal loss; which is a gain in and of itself.

The mother who saves her child at her risk is doing so, not selflessly, but because clearly she could not do otherwise. Mother Theresa couldn’t do otherwise. She was compelled to do what she did. There is no getting around it. All actions a person does be they negative or positive, they do with self interest or not at all.

The only act that qualifies as selfless is an accident. If one saves a life by accident, it is not a selfish act. But it is not the common definition of a selfless act either.

A negative act impacts others badly. If you take what does not belong to you, you not only cause problems for others, but if you keep doing it you will bring problems and conflicts upon yourself. The idea is to make your life better, not filled with more conflict.

Positive selfishness benefits others as well as yourself and can resolve conflicts. It can create win/win scenarios. Obviously a win/win scenario is better than any other because it is the least likely scenario to cause negative impacts later on down the road. There is no guarantee that it won’t, but there is a lower likelihood that it will.

Humans have enough on their plates without others trying to rip them off. So cultivating a morality that strives to have all individuals in the society on board helping each other is also the best possible scenario for the individual. It is freedom through order.

The religious will often tell us that one can not have a moral compass or a basis for morality without a god. This was the problem with traditional materialism, detailed with in period novels like the Portrait of Dorian Grey, Doctor Jackal and Mr. Hide, and of course Frankenstein. The general public thought materialism would lead to a complete lack of morality due to the idea that without a god there is no basis for it. 

Is morality required? If no one is there in the great beyond to enforce it, what is to stop us from acting exactly as we please guilt free? Who then decides what is moral? You or I?  But of course, the idea that there is no morality without a god is absurd.

Morality is not based in the idea of a god, it is based in survival.  Morality is subjective to a certain extent. But it is based on social problems, and their solutions, that are universal to all humans. They are not cultural issues, in other words. So within the human framework, they are objective solutions to objective problems. They really work to decrease conflict in the outside world if followed.

Theft causes untold suffering and hardship, and if a person gets caught people demand justice which is usually a punishment. The punishments are real. Being confined and treated like an animal is not imagination. Being beaten or killed are objective realities. So the solution is very simple. Do not become a thief and you avoid conflict. It is cause and effect in action.

Why should we not just do what we like? The answer is simple: If you live life doing what you like you likely will not live long. If you think morality is dependant on a god and you don’t need it because god doesn’t exist, you will get a great shock when cause and effect slap your face. Cause and effect demand morality from us. It creates the conditions for it. Our nature interacting with reality outside ourselves is what causes morality. A decreed morality such as from a god is not moral; it is decreed. You can decree a law but you can not make that law moral by decree. It is moral or it is not.

So there is an objective morality to live by. In simple terms it can be stated as: Do no intentional harm. Again, this not a decree, it is a formula for an objectively positive existence. In other words, doing intentional harm is both objectively and subjectively immoral. 

Obviously all humans want to be left in peace to live as they like. They want security and they want freedom. But for each of those there is a price to pay in individuality. We form societies to achieve those goals. Society behaves and is studied statistically in the same way quantum mechanics is a statistical study of the behaviour of atoms or particles.

But we form societies, ironically, because we have found that we as individuals have a better chance of achieving the goals of peace and security in a large group. The groups have gotten larger over time. It was the family and the tribe at first. Then we had city states and small countries, and now nations.

But they all run by rule of law. We give up the right to do what we want to a certain extent, by agreeing to be part of a society and benefiting from it. I’m not going to get into politics here. I am just giving an example that shows the mechanics of morality.

What we give up is the right to impinge on other’s rights. As a society we extend rights and freedoms. We demand them. We fight for them. If forced to we take them; which is why current politics in the West is democratic. But it hasn’t always been and people don’t necessarily want democracy. Countries like China, for instance, have no experience with it and don’t for the most part miss it. The histories of the east and the west have been different from the beginning. We don’t all fight for exactly the same freedoms or rights, but the things we want out of our societies are the same.

We all want jobs, food on the table, affordable housing, reasonable taxes and reasonable services for them. Well we don’t want taxes but we want the services. We want protection from the others out there who would threaten our way of life. We all want to live in peace and we all want what is best for our children.

So the human race, while diverse, has collective basic needs. Those needs have to be fulfilled or governments fall, or wars are fought, or revolutions are attempted.  Universal needs that are felt throughout the human race no matter what culture they are from, are objective needs because they do not come from culture or imagination, they come from the nature of the human being. Morality is a giving up of certain rights in order to better fulfill our needs, just like society is. Remember, acting morally is doing no intentional harm, in strictly pragmatic terms: because it produces less potential future backlash.

There are emotional considerations as well, of course. We act morally because we think it is right. We want to make others part of ourselves. But what I am trying to show is that not only are we moral because we feel we have to be, it turns out it is also the logical approach to living because it is the most beneficial for the individual.

Some have suggested that harm is subjective. Who decides what harm is? No one does. It is obvious what harm is. Harm is objective as well as subjective. Killing does obvious objective harm. Violence does obvious harm. Theft does obvious harm. There may be gray areas like in business, but we don’t call that morality, we call it ethics.

Humans began by making social contracts. At first it was as easy as making friends. Your friend will help you and isn’t as likely to hurt you as a stranger seems to be. But then we got into agreements as a tribe. You don’t hurt me and I promise not to hurt you. Then they became bound by tribal laws: Do not harm other members of the tribe under penalty.   Rules of law were simple at first but got progressively more complex until we all have hundreds if not thousands of laws to observe. Some laws are meant to enforce moral principals, some are ethically motivated, some safety motivated, some are economically motivated, etc.

Those laws didn’t come out of thin air. They are all in effect because they supposedly represent a solution to a real social problem. Some are hotly debated.

Now, if sleeping with someone else’s wife did not cause harm, it wouldn’t be an immoral act. The moral aspect is in the harm something actually causes. If people were not jealous, didn’t have low self esteem, didn’t expect fidelity, if infidelity did not potentially spread disease or unwanted pregnancies with social stigma attached, if no trust was broken, no lives shattered, no divorces result from it, it would not be immoral. While morality is objective as well as subjective, it is relative to specific conditions being present. 

These days some aspects or consequences of infidelity are more accepted than in the past. There is little to no stigma attached to fatherless children or their mothers. Unwanted pregnancies and diseases can be avoided. But if there is a personal contract between two people and one of them breaks it, it is still immoral as it causes intentional harm. By that I do not mean the person being “unfaithful” means to do harm, but they know in advance that if they are found out it will do harm.

So the seeker, in order to gain the freedom of peace of mind to be able to pursue their quest, is best served by bringing as little conflict upon them as possible. Set expectations. If the other person in the relationship knows what to expect from you and what you expect from them, things are a lot easier. I’m not talking specifically about sexual relationships, though that’s the example I used. The same pattern exists in every type of relationship. The same self interests are at stake.

Societies give us more freedoms than we can have going it alone. You have no freedom, or better put, no opportunity to do what you want at all if you have to constantly look over your shoulder to make sure your neighbour isn’t coming after you with a knife. Societies are more beneficial for the individual and more conducive to our individual survival then trying to live “every man for himself.” In fact, societies are the way we can live “every man for himself,’ and by helping others, help ourselves.

Morality is not about being selfless. It is about being as positively selfish as possible. We all love and want to be loved. We all want to fit in. To love is to extend your self. It is to be inclusive. It is in our best interest to make friends and show love and compassion. It is in our best interest on two levels. The first is the benefit we get in return from the other individual who we are kind to or show compassion for. The other is self worth and the fulfillment of our need for companionship, fellowship, and love. While we as humans fear and mistrust others we don’t know, (rationally or not) and feel we have to protect ourselves from them, we also need fellowship from those we do know. Logically then, if we knew the strangers we could make them part of our circle. The bigger the circle of friends one has: obviously the better for the individual who has them. In any case, the less people we see as a threat, the better.

Love in its absolute purest form is empathy. You make the other person part of you. It is inclusion into self.  Same pattern exists in all relationships we want to peruse to their fullest. We love our country when it is part of us and who we are. We love our job when it is part of us and who we are. Love is not just a set of chemical reactions. It isn’t just an indescribable un-provable feeling. It is the act of making something a part of you.

How selfish can you get?

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65 comments

Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

OK- you hooked me in by the title and I took the bait, LOL Interesting opinion here. Of course, it is debatable, but that is my opinion. I disagree about some points you make.

I feel that there are choices people make that are not ultruistic or coming from a place of egoic image-which implies that there is a pay off at some level.

Some people are at a level of embodiement of consciousness that their decisions are not coming from 'their minds'. Thanks for the interesting read.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks for reading Denise. ;) Where are their decisions coming from?


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

Meaning-not from an egoic mind of 'I' 'Me' 'Mine' But from a place of consciousness that is perhaps the soul...


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

Well I agree that we can make decisions not based consciously on what we get out of it. But by the same token, even when we see need and act to resolve it, we gain regardless of ego.

If you give love you get love. If you act with hate, you get hate back. If you see need and resolve it for someone, something must have driven you to it. That emotion of feeling a wrong, and righting it is reward in itself.

So be it the mind or a soul, it is still you doing the act from self, and if you didn't do it you would be diminished even to yourself.

The only way an act can separated from you is in an accident. In other words when your act has consequences you don't intend.

You may be responsible for someone else winning the lottery because you allowed them to buy the ticket that would have been yours by allowing them ahead of you in line.

In that case the reason you allowed them ahead of you in line caused them to win, but you probably didn't even consider the chances they would buy the ticket you were about to buy. Your act would be selfless by virtue of being accidental. Again, that's not what most people think of when they say selfless.

We may even be happy for the person in the end and gain anyway.

They mean without involving self in the act, which is not possible except as I say in an accident.

And even then we know that the acts you committed that created that accident were cause and effect acts so the accident can't be called an accident except in the context that you did not consciously decide to take a specific action with the specific outcome in mind.

So every time you consciously see a need and resolve it for someone, it is because you want to do it. It doesn't matter what the underlying reasons are. You wanting or needing to do it is the driving force of your act. So it is not selfless. And the act is usually the reward in and of itself.


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 5 years ago from North Carolina

Lots to chew on here...have to ponder a bit.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

denise handlon

Thanks for taking a look at it and commenting. ;)


topquark profile image

topquark 5 years ago from UK

I have to say I agree. People do good towards others or give to charity because they enjoy the feel good feeling of doing so. Not that the motivation diminishes the worthiness of the action in any way.

I heard an interesting podcast about altruism recently, and how it might have evolved. I think this is it: http://www.radiolab.org/2010/dec/14/


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks, Topquark. I'm sorry it took so long to find this reply. It seems hubpages is not always telling me when there is a new comment.

You got my point exactly. It doesn't matter that we gain from giving. In fact it wouldn't happen if we didn't. But that doesn't make it cheap unless we are doing it specifically for gain other than altruistic gain.

Thank you for the link you sent. I'll look in to it.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

Here is how I will put it Slarty. Interesting hub, and I like the thought it provokes.

I spent a year in Brasil doing things like teaching about God, helping people with personal problems, helping with yard-work/construction, etc... The entire point of this year was to see if I could act selflessly.

Yes, I got a feeling of satisfaction from helping people, but I can tell you that while I was engaged with people and helping them, I truly wasn't thinking of myself, in any way. I was able to get into that state of mind, partially because I didn't have to concern myself with money, food, or shelter. I could literally focus all my time on how to help people.

I would spend hours at night staring into the darkness trying to think of new ways to support an individual who was going through a personal problem. I got to know people more deeply than I ever have(with the exception of my family) since. It was an amazing experience that, if every human could experience, I think a lot of our problems would go away.

My point is, I've been there. I would literally go for days without a thought about myself, and that would usually be noticing that I need to shave, or something like that.

It's not easy, but I don't think we should dismiss it as a possibility, and I DO think we should all strive to do something for someone every day.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

Why did you do it? You had a reason and that reason is what it is all about. You were not being selfless. You fulfilled a need or desire you had.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

Why did I do what?

When I helped a family cut down and clear out the banana trees in their back yard, I helped so they would have a better backyard, and less dangerous snakes(especially dangerous to children).

When I helped another family pour the concrete for the upper level of their house and the roof, I helped so they would have shelter.

You're trying to define my motivations by what you think they are, but you have no logical or empirical means to do so.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

But it is not about you. It is about the principal behind how and why we act. That includes you, of course.

You obviously are proud of your time helping others. It feels good to have done that. And I applaud you. But you gained from the experience and you did it because you wanted to because you thought it was the right thing to do.

None of those are bad things. But they all show self. You did it from self. How can you separate self from the acts? You can't.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

I wouldn't say I'm proud of that time. I would say I am appreciative *for* that time. I didn't do it for me, you keep insisting that I did. I did it for those people, and I did it for God.

Really, I didn't do it for me. It was a sacrifice, rather than something I expected something for myself out of.

Just because you haven't had that type of experience, doesn't mean it is impossible.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

Why did you do it for god? And what are you appreciative for?

Again, you think I am trying to say you knowingly did it out of selfishness. Not at all. I am saying you gained from the experience.

self sacrifice has it's own rewards. That's even a tenet of Christianity for goodness sake.

I don't understand what you think is wrong with accepting he fact that you gained. If you didn't, what are appreciative of?

You don't expect anything out of it but you get something out of it and if you didn't you wouldn't do it.

You think you did it for god. Fine. Why? To please him? Why? If he is pleased does that please you?

Do you see what I mean? You did it all for a reason. What ever that reason it was dominant to any other concern. The fulfillment of that need or desire, what ever it was, is how you gained.

You don't do things at random without cause do you?


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

"You don't expect anything out of it but you get something out of it and if you didn't you wouldn't do it."

Why do you think you can define my motivations? Based off of your own introspection? It doesn't work that way, it's personal.

I expected NOTHING in return for me. I sacrificed and worked hard to be able to do it. My MOTIVATION was to help people.

I did it to thank God. I don't expect anything from thanking God.

The reason was to help people. You want more, so you will insist that there is more, even though there isn't.

Seriously, what makes you think you know my motivations?


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

I don't know your motivations but I know for a fact you have them. You said your motive was to help people. Then there is your answer. That was your need/desire. You fulfilled that desire or need.

Reaching a goal is the fulfillment of a desire or need. Nothing selfless about it. It's all self and you did gain.

This is not about you. Again, it is simply the way humans work. You are human and so you work the same way.

You would do zero, zip, nothing without stimulus or reason. Stimulus causes need. You itch you scratch. No itch, no need to scratch.

There is simply no such thing as a selfless act.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

Your argument is that I did it to fulfill my desire to help people. I didn't. I did it to help people.

You are trying to twist my words to fit the idea of your hub. Selfless is 'having no concern for self'. Having a motivation to help people fits that definition.

You can say that I was motivated, and yes I was, and yes that was *my* motivation, but my motivation had nothing to do with me.

You can only continue by twisting the meaning of selfless. To say someone does something for someone else to fulfill their own need is an assumption on your part.

As I've said before, there were days where I literally had *no* thoughts about myself. Just because you haven't experienced it doesn't mean it can't be experienced.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

Your motivation had nothing to do with you? ;) Really?


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

Not when my motivation is about other people. You are trying to twist the meaning of motivation.

Motivation is the reason for doing something. If my reason for doing something is to help someone else, you want to claim that it is selfish because it is *my* motivation.

However, this simply isn't the case. The question of selfish/selfless doesn't have to do with who the motivation belongs to, it only has to do with what the motivation is.

I already told you. Selfless is 'having no concern for self'. If *my* motivation is concerned 100% with other people, then it fits the requirements for selflessness, even though it belongs to me.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

I'm not twisting the word motivation at all. I am explaining that no act is without self interest. Even helping others and not thinking of self. You may not do it for a reward but your act brings reward regardless because the act fulfills a need or desire.

Perhaps it is the word selfish you don't like. Words are limited and full of baggage. I'm explaining a universal human principal of motivation and behavior.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

Are you using a different definition of 'No thought for self'?

Because, if we use that definition, then doing something and having 100% of your focus on that person fulfills the definition.

Again, you say it fills a need or desire, but you can't objectively say that about other people. You just have no way to know. I can tell you that I have experienced that.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

No thought for self is not the same as no self interest.


Chasuk 5 years ago

I agree with you, Slarty.

A sociopath has no empathy, thus no altruistic motivations. Most people grasp that straightaway: sociopaths are incapable of selfless acts.

Virtually everyone else -- who inhabit a sliding empathy scale from Ebenezer Scrooge to Mahatma Gandhi -- fail to comprehend that literally every aspect of life is filtered through ego, that part of the mind responsible for our sense of personal identity. Every choice that we make, whether it is made with avarice or with love, is channeled through our egos.

Every deliberate, voluntary action we perform with the self fully engaged. I would sacrifice my life for the lives of my wife or my children, but that it not selfless. I would sacrifice myself because, TO ME, my death would be a more acceptable outcome than the alternative.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

Slarty, I use the dictionary to understand what words mean. Selfless is 'having no thought for self' or 'having more concern for others than self'...

If you define it differently than that, then we are talking about different words.

And again, just because you haven't experienced it, doesn't mean it's impossible. Just because you view life in a certain way doesn't mean that's how it is for everyone. You cannot project your world-view into reality(at least, I've never seen anyone capable of doing so).


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

Chasuk

You got it exactly. ;)


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

Dictionaries give common usage of words. It doesn't mean the usage actually applies to reality. I'm not defining or redefining the word. I'm making the philosophical point that selflessness does not exist even in altruism.

Chasuk understands perfectly. He said: "I would sacrifice my life for the lives of my wife or my children, but that it not selfless. I would sacrifice myself because, TO ME, my death would be a more acceptable outcome than the alternative."

I'm trying to get at how people actually operate, not how they have been led to believe they operate.

All your choices are geared to your gain even if you sacrifice your life for others.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

I understand your position Slarty. I really do. What I am saying is, you have no way to objectively measure or define another person's motivations. Just because you operate in one way doesn't make that universal.

I'm speaking from experience, saying something is possible. You are speaking out of rational thought, saying it is impossible. No rational argument can convince me that something that happened to me didn't happen to me.

It wasn't an easy thing to do, to stop thinking about myself, but it happened. It was truly amazing, and it's difficult to describe, but there was no thought or action of self. Even the mundane things like eating and such faded as everything I was focused on the people I was working with.

I'm sure you won't accept it, but it happened. There is no way to logically explain away an experience.

All the 'reasons for altruism' that you gave in your hub don't apply to what I was doing. There was no gain for me. I don't remember if you are a religious person or not, but the easiest way I can describe it would be that I was a tool in the hand of God... it wasn't my will that did anything, it was his.


Chasuk 5 years ago

@emrldphx: If you were God's marionette, then it wouldn't be altruism, either.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

That's not necessarily true. Let me say first that being a tool in the hand of God isn't 'being God's marionette'.

If your will is one with the will of God, that doesn't mean it's not your will.

Either way, it is a mode of living and thinking that focuses 100% on helping other people.


Chasuk 5 years ago

If your will and God's will mutually coincided, then I agree that your will would, or could, still be your own. But that's not what you wrote. You referred to yourself as a manipulated device, "a tool in the hand of God."

Selflessness is a useful comparator, nothing more. I have friends who would do costly things for me that I wouldn't do for them, and vice versa. I use the word "selfless" when I am describing actions of charity that exceed mine to a degree that I find impossible or difficult to comprehend. I am applying the word "selfless" when I ask myself, "How, or why, did they make this sacrifice for me?"

I don't see that it has any other objective meaning, and it is objective meaning that Slarty was exploring.

Regardless of what you are doing, and regardless of what pain or inconvenience it causes you, it is -- if it is done voluntarily -- a selfish act. I'm not making a moral judgement. I'm describing part of the inescapable calculus of reality.

When I am doing something voluntarily to help other people, *I* am doing it. I am doing it because I CHOOSE to do it. if I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't. That's what makes it selfish. I am doing it because I choose to do it.

It's okay if you disagree, but I hope that you understand why I believe what I do. :-)


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

A 'tool in the hand of God' is a phrase from a religion whose teaching I greatly admire. You may think of it as surrendering all will, but that's not what it means to those people or to me. It simply means coinciding your will with God's.

I understand your belief, and I hope you understand mine. Unless we use an objective definition for the word, then the topic is 100% subjective. So when someone tells me 'I'm wrong' about my belief, I have a problem with that. If we leave belief as belief, then we're good :)


Chasuk 5 years ago

Not all beliefs are subjective. Sometimes, Chasuk is wrong and emrldphx is right. Sometimes, emrldphx is wrong and Chasuk is right.

As far as altruism is concerned, I believe that you are wrong, but I won't state categorically that you are objectively wrong. I'm willing to leave it at that, for now.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

"I understand your position Slarty. I really do. What I am saying is, you have no way to objectively measure or define another person's motivations."

You don't understand. I am telling you what your motives are, are irrelevant. You have them. And as long as you have them they are what determine your actions.

You are the one who constantly tries to make this subjective. I'm giving you the objective facts. There is no selfless act. Your motives, regardless of what they are, make what ever you do a subjective act, if you get my meaning. A subjective act is about you.

You make them for your own gain whether you intend to or not. You can't do anything else. Any intentional act is about you and how you feel and how you want the act to impact the world.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

"You make them for your own gain"

That's the part where you keep getting it wrong. You can try and say that having a motivation is selfish, but it's not.

When you use words, they have meaning. Maybe you need to clarify what you mean by 'selfless'. I consider a selfless action one that has nothing to do with self: self-less. Any action that you do for the sole purpose of someone else(not making yourself feel better by helping someone, but actually just doing it for them) is selfless.

I would submit that the common usage of the word fits like that.

Your argument that doing something means you chose to do it = selfish doesn't fit the meaning of the word selfish.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

By default, any act done by self is not selfless. Simple logic.


emrldphx profile image

emrldphx 5 years ago from USA

Only if you choose to define 'selfless' in a way different from the normal usage of the word.

It's gotten to the point of arguing semantics. There's no point in continuing.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 5 years ago from Canada Author

I accept your surrender. Lol..

Altruism is what most people mistakenly call selflessness. When people engage in helping others or putting others welfare above their own they are being altruistic. Altruism is something the church tells people to engage in, the good of all being the focus. Altruism brings a self satisfaction. The church tells us very clearly that we will gain from the experience and the acts. But of course we gain more if we expect nothing.

But altruism does not mean or imply that you are acting without self interest.

The point is not to try to define or redefine the word selfless; it is not a matter of semantics. My point is that there is no such thing as an act done deliberately by a human or any subjective creature that can be without self, or be without self interest. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t want to, unless are being coursed. In that case you are not being selfless either.

So you can keep the definition as it stands. I am saying the concept itself is wrong and impossible.

In almost any definition of selflessness you get the idea that you can give up your own interests for others, and that is not possible. You always act out of self interest even when acting on behalf of others against your own comfort or what have you.

You may hate what you are doing at the moment but you do it for a goal or purpose or ideal. If it is important to your philosophy of existence that you do things for others then you are fulfilling your philosophical needs by fulfilling the real objective needs of others.

In fact, that is why we are altruistic. We value altruism.

So if you insist, you can keep using the word selfless to mean altruistic. But it is better for communication that people know that selfless does not mean without self interest.

That part of the definition of selfless is impossible to achieve. It is also meaningless. Anything you set out to do is in some way in your own self interest. Whether it actually is or is not in your own self interest is another issue. But that is the intent.

If you are doing things with intent then you are doing them with self interest. There is no way to get around the obvious truth of this matter. Intention is self interest no matter what that intention is.

So if one wants to show that one can act without self interest, one would need a very convincing example or mechanism by which that could be achieved. So far I have seen no good argument for it.


Chasuk 5 years ago

One of the challenges in discussing difficult subjects is that there are not precise words available for every precise meaning. One-for-one correspondence between thought and dictionary definitions don't necessarily exist. This is why our vocabularies sometimes have to be customized. When this is done transparently, it shouldn't be a problem for any of the involved parties. For the record, Slarty, I think you have been transparent here.

Sometimes, the point can't be reached without arguing the semantics.


Rah128 profile image

Rah128 4 years ago from Southampton

Hi Slarty an All:

People can get hooked on helping others, as its like a feel good factor..

So is this still a selfless act?

In someways i would of thought no, its not a selfless act as ones getting a sort of gratification from helping others.

Thanks Rah :D


CJ 4 years ago

Slarty is correct. All action, unless involuntary, is selfish.


Nathan Orf profile image

Nathan Orf 4 years ago from Virginia

Good article, but you are not entirely correct, I think. It is one thing to say that selfishness is a trait that affects most people at some point in their lives, if not all people. To to say that selfishness is a trait that all people act upon at all times suspends belief.

I do not consider personal feelings of triumph or pride or happiness to be particularly important as a benefit of acting selflessly. I can volunteer personal time to work at an animal shelter or a clinic, and feel better about myself for having done so, and I can and do give money to charities. I made a sacrifice, however small, by sacrificing time or money or anything else of value. That is selflessness.

You appear to be trying to define selfishness and selflessness based on a cost/benefit analysis. But when some performs a selfless deed, they are not thinking about the feeling of reward that they will get. Some people really do acts of kindness just because they are the right thing to do. The positive feelings or "rewards" they accrue from those acts are irrelevant.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 4 years ago from Canada Author

True they are not thinking of the benefit or reward to themselves, but they get one or they wouldn't do what they do.

You say you sacrifice some time and money and as an aside you feel better about yourself. You may see a poor person and give them a helping hand because you feel for them.

You think it is right to help others, and it is. So doing right makes your world a little better,

Do you see what I am getting at? You are not being selfless, you want the world to be a little better and act on it. You are not selfless at all, you are acting on your beliefs and values which are important to you.

So you are being selfish, but in a positive way. In a way that not only benefits others but you as well.

What is the golden rule? Do unto others as you would they did unto you. It's all about you and how you feel.

You could walk past a beggar if you wanted to but you don't want to. It is that want or desire which makes it selfish.

We say selfless but it is not the right word. That's all I am saying. There is no such thing as selfless unless it is act done by accident. An accident has nothing to do with your desires or values.

A deliberately beneficial act is not a selfless act because you put your self into it. You may put love into it.

Again, you could walk past a dying man on the street if you have no feeling for him and no empathy. But if you feel empathy, you can't walk away and feel good about yourself. You will end up feeling guilt and some people end up hating themselves.

Some people are conflicted as to what to do. But they choose a path and have to live with it. Sometimes it is easier to give your last dollar than to keep it and feel bad that someone else will go hungry.

So the dominant side of the internal struggle wins no matter what the outcome.

So when the rewards are as you say, a feeling of self worth and or a feeling that you made the world just that much better than it was this morning, I'd hardly call that irrelevant, even though your conscious motivation was not those rewards.

We work on mainly subconscious feelings. Those feelings or emotions are what drive us to do, as they often need a resolution. That resolution is often an act.

So all deliberate acts are selfish, be they positive or negative.

Altruism is a better word than selfless. But altruism is from the self. Where else would it come from?


Nathan Orf profile image

Nathan Orf 4 years ago from Virginia

The definition of altruism (from the online version of Merriam Websters dictionary)

1: unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.

2 : behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.

I think it all depends on whether or not you believe that dictionary terms are accurate. The key terms in this definition are unselfish and not beneficial. Unselfish is the opposite of selfish. Perhaps a Thesaurus would help?

At any rate, I think it is clear, from what I understand of the term altruism, is that it is a synonym of the word selfless. Another way to put it would be that selfless and altruism are different words with the same meaning.

Also, I challenge your statement that we human beings act on mainly subconscious feelings. We know what we are feeling when we feel an emotion and can put together words to describe the feeling. That is one reason we are sentient beings. Feelings and emotions are not part of sub-conscience.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 4 years ago from Canada Author

We can dispense with the dictionary I think. The writers of dictionaries report common usage. They don't ask what usage makes sense and what doesn't. That is left to people like you and me to figure out.

I am not challenging the definition of words, I'm saying there is one word in the bunch which makes no sense. That word being selfless, in that no act we do consciously is without self. So selfless is a meaningless word.

I am saying that all acts are selfish. But one kind of behavior is positive and one is often negative.

You can change it to "unselfish" to mean not selfish in a negative way, or with self interest in a positive way that includes the well being of others besides just your own. But your own are always there, like it or not. For what ever reason you do something it is for your reasons, no one else's.

I prefer the definition of altruism as being a concern for others or doing good works. You don't have to add that these works or this concern is selfless. There is no reason to, except to make us feel good.

Feeling, by definition, comes from the subconscious. This is not my definition or interpretation alone, it's psychiatry,psychology and neuroscience's understanding of the brain.

You say that when we feel an emotion we can describe it in words. True. But that is two different things happening. Before language all there was was feeling. Emotions are called emotions because they emote or drive us to do something. You get them, you don't originate them in the conscious mind.

When you get them you are forced to act. How you act depends on a lot of things. You can deliberate on how you are going to act because you are a thinking being with language and symbols that can help you remember the past and act according to your conditioning, both genetic and taught.

Without language or the ability to form complex thoughts, your feelings would still be there. Flight or fight is the most basic response.

That has to be done from the subconscious. The conscious mind is too slow to act quickly and decisively. Ask any martial arts master.

The subconscious is educated by conscious deliberation. Without being educated it is a basic hard wired instinct. Educated, it can do brain surgery on automatic while the surgeon decides what she's making for dinner tonight while watching the proceedings from a third party perspective and making minor adjustments to her procedure from there.

Let me tell you, if her hands weren't on auto pilot she'd make mistakes.

Anything you do well like drive a car or bike or type or play a musical instrument, it all comes from the subconscious being trained in the skill.

Think of every breath, deliberate on every placement of the fingers, and you make mistakes, That's what beginners do.

But once the subconscious is educated, conscious thought is not required. In fact, it's detrimental.

So we do live most of lives from the subconscious. The conscious is there to educate the subconscious in the processes we want to become part of us: Automatic. Conscious deliberation and new understanding of things can change the way we end up feeling about things, to be sure. But the feelings do not come from the conscious part or the brain, so to speak.

Now all that said, it is one brain and you can't find a clear separation between the conscious and the unconscious or subconscious. They are both part of the same system. They are different aspects/processes of the brain.


Nathan Orf profile image

Nathan Orf 4 years ago from Virginia

Your argument has holes in it. First of all, you assume that any thought of self is selfishness. When I think to myself, "Gee, Nate, you need a haircut" I am not thinking about my state of well-being, I am merely being self-critical. Self criticism is a common trait, but it does not imply placing ones own personal needs before all others.

Secondly, you state that anything one has learned to perfect has been trained into the sub-conscience. To use your example, a surgeon working on auto-pilot, because her sub-conscious mind has been trained to perfection in the art of surgery, is acting through sub-conscience without consciously deciding what to do.

You then state that once the sub-conscience "has been educated, conscious thought is not required. In fact, it's detrimental." But that is not true in the case of a surgeon at work. Surgeons are trained to make decisions based on what they see in a patient. They are trained to make decisions that can end up having an enormous impact on their patients life. Surgeons are not infallible robots. They are under a great deal of pressure too make the right call. You can bet that they are not planning for dinner while in the surgery.

Martial artists make conscious decisions, too. They need to know what their opponent is doing, where the opponent plans to strike and how the opponent will do so. They need to be prepared for any eventuality, and to do that, they need to be consciously aware of everything around them.

I will be willing to backtrack and admit that emotion possibly is sub-conscious in origin, but acknowledging emotion is not, and acting upon it is not. We all have to be aware of what is going on around us. That is why we are beings of conscience, not sub-conscience.

But we are digressing from the original topic. I think to say that selflessness is a lesser word than altruism is a weak argument. They both mean the same thing. Neither word can be appropriately used to describe a sense-of-self above all others, even if that is to mean doing acts of kindness or nobility for the reward of feeling better.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 4 years ago from Canada Author

There are a few things that seem hard for some people to understand or accept about the concept that all acts are selfish, even self criticism. Being selfish doesn’t mean you place your own needs above those of all others. It means you act from self interest. So let’s use the word self interest instead of selfish.

You are critical of self because you want to change something in yourself or personality or body image. You feel or think that if you cut your hair you will look better for yourself or others. What is not self interest about that?

You are a subjective being, which means all you do and all you think is for self and self interest. Your reasons are self interest by default. If something is, in your opinion, a better outcome than another, you act to achieve that goal.

It is your opinion that you need a haircut or a car, or to quit smoking. It’s all about you. It is your opinion that helping a poor person is the right thing to do.

You won’t do something that you don’t want to do for whatever reason. Some people have died because they wouldn’t recant a belief. Rather than recant they would rather die. What is not self interest about that? I might rather starve than see someone else starve. That too is self interest, because it is that “I” that wants a specific outcome and “I” am willing to die to achieve it. Utter self interest just as being unwilling to die and allowing someone else to instead, or being willing to recant a belief to avoid death is totally self interest.

It’s a mistake to not separate action from deliberation. Action is done without conscious thought at the time. If your car is sliding on the ice you better know you have to take your foot off the break or the gas before it happens to you. Thinking about your action at that time is detrimental. You have to make the right moves automatically or you end up in the ditch. You sense the slide and you act. No deliberation.

You see a person in front of the car and you automatically put your foot on the break and swerve to avoid hitting them. There is not time to think beyond recognizing the problem and acting.

A martial arts expert will anticipate and react. Wondering what is best to do at that point loses you the fight. You have to know what to do at every juncture. That knowing is subconscious. Action becomes instinctive.

Being aware is not the same as consciously thinking. Of course you are conscious and aware, but deliberation/conscious thought is not part of action. Action is from the instinctive. Deliberation is one way we educate that instinct.

So don’t get hung up on the word selfish. Say self interest. What I am saying is that the word selfless is meaningless. There is no such thing as an act void of self or self interest. It’s impossible for a person to act without acting from the self. The concept itself is meaningless.

Even placing others interest above your own is self interest because you have a moral or other “interest” in sacrificing yourself or your goods or whatever for someone else.

If I save my child from being killed by a car but lose my own in the process, I decided that my child’s life was of more value to ME than my own. That’s hardly acting without self interest. It is an ultimate last act of self interest. You can’t get around this. There are no holes in my argument.


Rhonda D Johnson profile image

Rhonda D Johnson 4 years ago from Somewhere over the rainbow

Ever notice how people who ask for nothing, expect everything?

I like your idea that love is an extension of the self. An inclusion.


Ylissa 4 years ago

Someone on Reddit sent me here. I agree. I will not argue the philosophical point Merely the "God point" or "law point". In addition to societies created for our protection and Selfishness, or greater good for me AND you. Religion and laws merely adhere to reinforcing values.

Now, I've spotted something interesting. In an accident, you don't know what will happen as a result. In your reasoning this is a "selfless" act. Someone argued this to no avail for quite awhile, I'll take that up. When hypnotized can a voluntary act be self-less? It shouldn't by your definition. You did it, you had a reason for doing it. What of cults, people who act without their own volition. Can a person's subconscious be raided to the point of not having their own volition, as in a cult? Does that then exemplify "an accident", and should such accidents be contained by the rest of society in the purview of personal safety?

Can sanity be defined using your definition, as it stands, of self choice. Or is that also, just what's in one's best interest? About mind altering drugs.... This is the world we live in. Mind altering drugs appear to dissolve the self. Is this or should this be considered as an accident viewing the actions afterward, according to your suppositions? And they are suppositions involving the subconscious mind. All cause has it's effect, just sayin', I'm not a neurologist, but, there are absolutely exceptions to your rules and ever other one ever made or thought about.

There are no absolutes in life. We try and we try. This is the one thing we know for sure. It does, however, bring me great satisfaction to write this and remind you that accidents aren't always accidents. Actions are not always taken for self satisfaction. Sometimes, they are just taken. And we will ALWAYS attempt to justify why that just happened.

Why did someone in FL chew somebody's face off... How does this happen? What did he want? Was that self, or just some other self of self. I'll leave you now to think of the "man of god" above. He specifically mentioned a tool of god in his moment of revelation.

I don't go there, but many people do. Peyote, visiting the gods, been around a VERY long time. Subverting the subconscious a long time goal of a large number of people. The Gifford shooting, exceptions to the rule, there always are. Enjoyed reading your "dissertation", of sorts. Better than most stuff on TV and more honest. Do continue.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 4 years ago from Canada Author

Great comments. I tried to answer them but the answer got too big. You can find it here. Thanks

https://owlcation.com/humanities/There-is-an-excep...


blahgaga 4 years ago

'An altruistic person gets something out of their altruism or they wouldn’t do it. Self satisfaction, feeling good about yourself, feeling sorry for someone, empathy, are all motivators for altruism. We can’t separate ourselves from our acts, good or bad.' i disagree.....

u feel good becaue u did the selfless act. u dont do the act to feel good.theres a difference.i dont need to do anything to feel good about myself!!! and no one should!! we all love ourselves for who we are no matter wht we do or not do..are u telling me tht people who do horrible things dont feel good??? doing the right thing or the wrong thing does give us satisfaction but thts more of a by product than the motive of the act!


blahgaga 4 years ago

plus people dont give charity to feel good about themselves!!! if i want to feel good.i can just as well buy an ipad or an ice cream for myself and feel just as good...or if im rich enuf get a nose job and feel good about myself..yet i dont..i give it to people who need it..not to feel good but to make this world a better place.every penny counts if u to the right use. and i dont think saying "every rule as an exception" is a valid answer to justify the flaws in ur theory :)


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 4 years ago from Canada Author

It is not always about feeling good. It is often about not feeling bad about yourself.

Yes, people who do bad things may feel good about it. That is the point.

Why do they do what they do? That is the question. If you have a reason for doing something it is not selfless. There is always a reason.


I never leave comments 3 years ago

I never leave comments but this is terrible.... i can not believe someone has such opinion


Nathan Orf profile image

Nathan Orf 3 years ago from Virginia

"I never leave comments,"

I'd have to agree with you there...


jjj 3 years ago

There are many facets that make up the person. A person who behaves selflessly frequently, and as a regular facet of their character does so, because they themselves do not identify with the satisfaction one may get from behavior, they do because it is who they are.

TO be selfless because of fear of feeling like a bad person is not selflessness, but "do gooderism." It feels fake.

Nature does not behave the way it does because it "feels good," thus for the self by default. the feeling is just a byproduct, and a sign of proper direction OF the self.

Love does not seek its own, and one can be love. By Choice.

Read: All religious texts

Watch: Titanic, the Matrix, rugrats


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 3 years ago from Canada Author

No matter why you do something, and there is always a reason for anything you do, it is always an act of self. Now you say we do "selfless" acts because of who we are. Well that is the point. Who we are determines how we act. Acting as who you are is not selfless, it's just who you are.

Now there are a million reasons you are who you are.

Now lets look at it another way. You may mean that all acts are determined by our conditioning and our genetic predispositions therefore all acts are selfless because they are predetermined. Self being just a predetermined state of mind.

But even if it is true that there is no free will, there is still will which is the manifestation of that conditioning. All acts are done through that will, free or not. That condition is called self and we all identify as a self or individual even if that is an illusion.

All acts still come from that self.

Altruism is then just predisposition and conditioning and very much self oriented.

I did not say we always do things because it makes us feel good. There are times you do things not to feel bad.

Now you say you can be love by choice. Fine. But why do you choose to be love? When you say feeling good is a byproduct of proper direction for self, I agree. But that makes my point as opposed to rebutting it.

You can call it altruism if you like. But there is no such thing as a selfless act. It may be thought of that way by the writers of movies and holy books, but word selfless makes no sense in the context of altruism. or any act that is deliberately thought about or intended.

Only an accident can be thought of as a selfless act. Even then, even if you didn't intend to act in the way you did, you still did it. It was still an act of self, even if you did not intend to do something like drop a paper on the floor or drive your car on n ice patch and run down a telephone pole.


FrancoisNel 3 years ago

Slarty O'Brian said: "You would do zero, zip, nothing without stimulus or reason. Stimulus causes need. You itch you scratch. No itch, no need to scratch.

There is simply no such thing as a selfless act." I'm sorry I came a long so late to not be involved in the moment in this discussion. If you start practicing meditation for example Vipassana you don't scratch the itch anymore cause you want to or don't want to... you simply observe it. The very ego is what makes you persist with this argument and trying to convince someone else with their own unique life experiences whom you don't know... They might be much closer to enlightenment or mindfulness than you are, regardless of the fact that you have your own blog and after your name it says 'hubauthor'. If you haven't been on that path and grown that much it will be easiest and natural for you to hold on to your understanding of something and to intellectualize something and 'convince' someone else, cause the very thought challenges the way you think and everything you've learned in your life and you trust it no question about that. No matter how many other people post to confirm your thoughts to help reinforce your way of thinking and feed your ego, as it's being fed with every post you make talking about many things. Buddha only said a few things, and those few things he said, he also practiced. When you observe and stop reacting or not reacting based on cravings or aversions of ego, selfish gains, fear, etc.. you end up just being and when someone needs something you simply act. Almost like a reflex when you burn your hand and you pull away - it just comes from being one with everything & everyone - if you're not there, no intellectual argument will convince you of anything else. "emrldphx" have opened some doors in his / her life which in my humble opinion you haven't opened yet, just because you don't understand it, doesn't make it impossible... Just because you can't put it in one of the boxes which makes you feel sane and comfortable in life. Few people really step out and just observe and many sheep will be there to support and ridicule... Don't be too certain of things, you might just find out one day that you weren't correct and spent your life in ignorance.. Bob Marley once said: 'a fool trusts in his one misunderstanding' We've all been a fool... arrogance, ego, over-confidence,etc are all closely related.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 3 years ago from Canada Author

You seem upset by the idea that you cannot be selfless. That is odd for someone who claims to be enlightened. Why do you meditate? Why do you try to become enlightened? It’s all about you, isn't it? Your ego is strong. And that’s what you are trying to get rid of, isn't it? You prove my point.

Well I could say the same things back to you that you said to me, and they would be far more true in your case. I've been where you are. I can teach you how to have out of body experiences and reach states of mind you have only dreamed of or heard of through Buddhism or Hinduism etc. States of just knowing, of bliss. But I will tell you first that it is only mind. It’s a parlor trick.

Yes, I've been egoless, not for a moment in meditation but for months, and it nearly killed me. You need your ego. Not your greed or your desire, just your awareness of self. I looked in a mirror and found nothing. I could not relate to what was there. I went too far, but from it I learned a lot.

U G Krishnamurti said: “If you have the courage to touch life for the first time, you will never know what hit you. Everything man has taught, felt and experienced is gone, and nothing is put in its place.”

Despite what you may think, nothing is not what you want, and it’s not like attaining such states in meditation for a few hours, you live it. But you can’t live long in a completely egoless state.

As long as you strive for enlightenment you will never achieve it. It is already there. It is your sub conscious you seek. It may seem egoless, but it isn’t, and never will be till you die.

Consciousness educates the subconscious or the “instinct”. Don’t believe the gurus. Don’t throw the one way to real enlightenment away. All you will have is the illusion of enlightenment.


Ian Wardell profile image

Ian Wardell 2 years ago from Stockton-on-Tees

What about the ability to inflict pain and/or suffering on others but not doing so due to empathy and compassion for those others. To say that is "selfish" seems to be a misuse of that word.

We withhold from cruel actions, not because it makes us feel good and hence is motivated by selfishness, but rather because we identify with those others and do not wish for them to suffer in and of its own sake.


Slarty O'Brian profile image

Slarty O'Brian 2 years ago from Canada Author

"but rather because we identify with those others and do not wish for them to suffer in and of its own sake."

Right. That's your will and therefore your gain. What you will is your interest/self interest


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Jonathan 2 years ago

Our spirits do things for the right reason and our ego's do things for the wrong reason at the same time, because our ego only sees selfishness and the spirit only sees selflessness.


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Slarty O'Brian 2 years ago from Canada Author

What part of the brain is spirit?


YOYO 10 months ago

You're awesome Slarty.

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