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Is Generosity Actually Selfish?

Updated on March 15, 2013

It is growing ever more popular to claim that since all actions are motivated by good feelings, all people are inherently selfish. This article corrects this misapprehension, pointing out that it is not selfish to be happy, in itself. It is only selfish to be happy when others are harmed in the process.

Is Generosity Actually Selfish?

A new trend is sweeping through the minds of casual philosophers and pop psychologists: the conviction that human beings are inherently selfish, and selflessness is a myth. Even a totally altruistic act, like charitably donating a great sum of money to help homeless children, is selfish. This is because in doing so, the giver gets a "good feeling."

This piece of popular philosophy dictates that since everything we human beings do is for "good feelings," we are bound to our inherently selfish nature. This is because all actions and choices motivated by "good feelings" are selfish.

It's as though we're being told that the harder we try to be good, the more reprehensible we are. This traps us in our intentions like fingers in Chinese finger cuffs: the more we try to escape selfishness, the more we are bound by it.

In such a situation, it seems not to matter, then, if a person acts only in his own interests. If every action is a selfish action, nothing makes giving better than stealing. Morality dissolves.

However, everyone recognizes that morality is still important. After all, it's good to donate a kidney to a dying family member, and it's bad to keep that kidney to oneself. But if both actions are selfish, how do we differentiate between them?

New words must be invented. The donation of a kidney is called "good selfishness" and the keeping of the kidney to oneself "bad selfishness."

This re-defining of selfishness does nothing but rephrase an element of the human condition which is perfectly described by the original meaning of "selfish:" some acts (like donating a kidney) are actually altruistic, and others (like letting someone die because you didn't want to donate a kidney) are selfish.

The rebranding of the word "selfish" has served to do nothing but take away a linguistic tool for describing a common problem. Deciding that all actions are selfish, but some selfish actions are altruistic, is self-contradictory. It's impossible for an action to be both selfish and altruistic at the same time.

The "good feeling" described thus far goes by another name: "happiness." An expectation of happiness is always what drives people to act. What kind of action makes you happy determines whether or not you are a selfish person. If you are made happy by making other people happy, you are selfless; if you gain happiness from helping yourself at the cost of other people's happiness, you are selfish; and if you gain happiness by helping yourself without hurting anyone else, you are neither selfless or selfish.

Taking advantage of our capacity for empathy is not selfish just because it makes us happy. To be selfish is not merely to help yourself - it is to help yourself at the cost of someone else's happiness. One can easily be happy without harming someone else, so being happy is not inherently selfish.

Selflessness comes very naturally to most people; most of us, especially as we age and grow more aware of the feelings of those around us, get better feelings from being selfless than we get from being selfish.

It often makes us happier to share what we have than to keep it all for ourselves. This is why most of us give celebratory gifts, build families, and work for charities. It feels better to be with others, helping others, than to sit alone upon great heaps of unused wealth.

If it were true that to be kind to others is to be selfish, it would mean that the more generous we seem, the more selfish we actually are. The position is a complete reversal of what the word "selfish" really means, and in painting human beings so negatively, it is an unjustifiably cynical position to take.

The notion that an innate sense of empathy-based generosity is actually selfish, which carries a measure of shamefullness, is a new idea, but it is not a good idea. There is nothing selfish about being selfless, there is nothing inhumane about being human, and the better your generosity makes you feel, the less selfish you are.

Jangaplanet ©


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    • ginjill ashberry profile image

      Ashley TKL 3 years ago

      Useful. Though the thought has come to mind several times before I did not think people would brand good deeds like this. It is a fact that many and not all does charity for appearance sakes, normally it is well documented. But in a person's personal life, it may be getting rid of guilt whatever that maybe. Still I do not agree that being generous is selfish in a category.

      Giving makes the giver feel good..true..but for some they end up with recurrent thoughts of regret after doing so..thus questions the sincerity. What motivates the giving, especially if they do so to get certain desired reaction from the recipients.

      But when one gives for the sake of helping or wanting the other person to be happy..they will be no regrets. But again the question of whether the giver gives to substitute for guilt is unknown. still, this does not make the giver selfish.

      Everyone feels guilt. If you see someone suffering you would normally feel guilty because you are not suffering as the other person, it is because you feel compassion and empathize that you feel this you want to help. Does that make you selfish?

      Selfishness seeped when you are insincere and expect returns in terms of gratitude etc..which means your actions are self gratifying.

      It still does not make a generous person selfish. This view probably comes from someone who has been disappointed and bitter. Who does not believe in goodwill any longer.

      All in all, I believe that when you give, it is good that the other hand do not know. Give humbly. When you do, what the other person thinks, should not effect you. Be true to yourself.

      Thank you Jangaplanet always for insightful, thought provoking articles and sharing your knowledge and travels in hubs with us.


    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A James Di Rodi 6 years ago

      Thanks Ian! I am deeply honoured to have an amazing Author such as yourself stop by my Hub not once, but twice, and receive a comment of this kind! Your support and feedback is highly appreciated! Thanks again friend!

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      I am so glad I came across this very well written hub again. At my first reading, I was fascinated by the philosophy behind it and the expert way you stated your case, Jangaplanet, and still, after a second reading, I found it an enthralling and very eloquently created piece of writing.

      Thank you once again for delicious food for thought.

    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A James Di Rodi 6 years ago

      Thanks Nomascus concolor, it is one of those questions we often ask ourselves- I agree! Thanks again for stopping by, and for the kind comment, I appreciate it.

    • Nomascus concolor profile image

      Nomascus concolor 6 years ago from A Country called Earth

      Deep inspiring hub - true questions that we can ask ourselves about generosity. I like this type of hubs where you question yourself on preconcived ideas... Cheers!

    • profile image

      Milla 6 years ago

      In judging the selfishness, or lack thereof, of an act of generosity, I think motive is probably the most important fact. It's also the hardest to discern. It is that the concept of selfless generosity is well-known and is considered a virtue. It's one those unattainable ideals of human behavior! Interesting article..

    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A James Di Rodi 6 years ago

      Thanks Twilight, appreciate!

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 6 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      An exceptionally well written hub. My goodness, what food for thought. I have muddled thoughtss about this subject for many years and have developed my own philosophy on the matter, but I certainly could not have described it so elegantly and so well.

      This was pure reason, but couched in very readable terms.


    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A James Di Rodi 6 years ago

      Hi Danila, Thank you for the vote of confidence, I appreciate it!

      @ Hanna: I agree! It is a requirement for anyone who wishes to be successful. Thanks for stopping by!:)

    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A James Di Rodi 6 years ago

      It is such a strong part of our human nature to grasp and hold and protect. Generosity is definitely against the grain, so thank you Simone28 for you kind comment.

    • ArgentinaDanila profile image

      ArgentinaDanila 6 years ago

      You have such an incredible mind Janga let me tell you! The video you added here is inspiring just like your entire hub!

      Voted up, beautiful and interesting :)

    • profile image

      Hanna. 6 years ago

      It is a requirement for anyone who wants to be truly successful... in performance, in relationships, and in life. I like what you have to say here! Because it is true, we are forgetting what true generosity is all about.

    • Fortaleza profile image

      Fortaleza 6 years ago from Fortaleza, Brasil

      Acting with an unselfish regard for others doesn't always come naturally, much psychologists believe we humans r hard wired for empathy since cooperative behavior allowed our ancestors to survive under harsh conditions. But most of us realize that when we make the effort to give without expectations of reciprocity, we feel fulfilled and energized.

      Nicely put and fasinating! beautiful hub and I agree with you!:)

    • profile image

      Simone28 6 years ago

      That is so true! I volunteer on a part time basis. Now I don't get paid for doing it, but like you mention, it makes me happy and I never anticipate anything in return. It's such a satisfying reward. Actually what I do get in return is that good feeling. And it's true that sometimes we subconciously feel as if we're expecting something in return. But in truth many are genuine with there generosity.

      Important point you made here! Nice article an honest thanx!

    • ubanichijioke profile image

      Alexander Thandi Ubani 6 years ago from Lagos

      Generosity can never serve for selfishness. I appreciate the kind effort you made and agree with you. Generosity brings happiness to the doer. Great job.

    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A James Di Rodi 6 years ago

      Hi Shanaya, I like what you wrote; "Generosity is not giving me that which I need more than you do, but it is giving me that which you need more than I do." Well said!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, I appreciate it :)

    • profile image

      LoretteLeon 6 years ago

      You make an interesting point! You can give without loving, but you can't love without giving.

      Thank you :)

    • shanaya profile image

      shanaya 6 years ago from Living in my Own Dreams:)

      Hey Jang! Good Question and You describe it very well.

      Voted up, Interesting, Useful.

      Generosity is not giving me that which I need more than you do, but it is giving me that which you need more than I do.

      ~Khalil Gibran~

      With Respect

      from SHANAYA:)

    • Taniatravels profile image

      Taniatravels 6 years ago

      Generosity sits in the middle of the spectrum between selfishness to selflessness. There is no clear boundary between them. Only generosity ensures long term happiness for everyone.

      This article was amazing! Up, beautiful and interesting!

    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A James Di Rodi 6 years ago

      @fordie: I agree with you 100%. Thanks!

      I am so glad this article helped you Sintia. Thanks for taking the time to read it. I Appreciate it. I'm glad you found hubpages while doing your research.

    • profile image

      Sintia 6 years ago

      I like how you explain this. I'm doing an essay in school on this subject and your article thought me a lot. Thanx so much on posting it.

    • Jangaplanet profile image

      A James Di Rodi 6 years ago

      @ buythebook you are always so kind with your comments :)

      Thanks for stopping by to read!

    • profile image

      fordie 6 years ago

      Great question and well thought out response. Maybe if we recognise this things more clearly we can actually encourage more 'good'

    • buythebook profile image

      buythebook 6 years ago

      A very important point! I always looked open generosity as doing something nice, someone else takes notice and they then go out into the world feeling good and usually they do something nice for others. A simple act of kindness.

      I enjoyed everything you describe in this article. Well done Jang! Giving it a beautiful and intersting vote :)


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