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No Such Thing As A Selfless Act.
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?