Is Generosity Actually Selfish?
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.