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The Selfishness of Selflessness

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posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 08:04 PM

Originally posted by die_another_day
Nice, I did one of these topics for my Theory of Knowledge essay.

I concluded that we must all accept the fact that humans are selfish, unless the individual has some sort of a disorder that prevents logical thinking.

Nature has literally PROGRAMMED into our genes the so called "survival factor."

Hmmm! What did nature program into the genes of the soldiers who jump on granades to save their buddies? I guess that would be the stupid gene?

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 08:26 PM

We should probably distinguish between selflessness and absolute selflessness.

Selflessness is to selfishness as nothing is to something. It's not tangible. We describe the absence of selfishness as positive. Absolute selflessness has no basis in terms of costs. Selfishness is biologically motivated and so it can be described physically. Absolute selflessness is external to any physical system therefore it can not be described.

Selflessness can be understood in terms of energy costs. What might at first glance appear to be absolute selflessness can in actuality be reexamined from the perspective of the perceived-to-be selfless agent. Where marginal energy costs are lower than expected future utility, seeming acts of selflessness can be clearly observed.

On a road, for example, letting a single car into traffic isn't going to affect your task of getting to where you want to go in time. However, when the total number of cars being injected into the system exceeds a specific limit where you are not willing to allow one more car to get into traffic ahead of you, you will move forward (probably not before you smash your dashboard and vent angrily). Of course the size of the road, the number of times you imagine you will have to stop, and the distance required to drive in order to complete your task are all factors. If the capacity of the road is much smaller, thereby making you fail your task (not getting to where you want on time) if you let one car into traffic ahead of you, the chance you will let another car into traffic ahead of you will immediately reach zero. Everyone sets up this experiment in their head conceptually. People are smart enough that they can probably analyze the entire situation, bringing in variables such as distance, road capacity and time all into play simultaneously.


I noticed I didn't quite address why I would let that car into traffic ahead of me in the first place. If I were absolutely selfish I'd still be worse off, even if say I came a second late to my destination. It seems there is a cost involved with being anti-social. Whether that manifests physically in the form of people expressing discontent with you is not an issue. The fact that we are social animals means we have a social conscience. I might feel bad, or at least become disappointed in myself if I had not at least helped one other person.


Society can not achieve a state of absolute selflessness unless social utility is adjusted unilaterally to the extreme (the most plausible way of doing this would be some form of technological development, which eliminates scarcity-another option would be the formation of cults that threaten deviance with extreme punishment).

We are in fact capable of being absolutely selfish in some instances. On the other hand, our social conscience imposes a cost on us at the incredibly marginal levels of selfishness (whenever there is such a minuscule personal disadvantage associated with helping another person out-by not helping, we are affected by a negative utility cost greater than that of the initially perceived personal cost).

Also, in normal social situations, when there a population reaches a certain unspecified number of selfless agents, the utility of being selfish increases dramatically after that point. The number is arbitrary and changes, and it would depend on the objectives and size of the population. This model assumes the existence of scarcity. Of course, the elimination of food and psychological scarcity through some method, whether technological or forced through forced social contracts would eliminate all need for selfishness. Unfortunately, that's a world I'm afraid we will not see for some time.

[edit on 28-3-2009 by cognoscente]

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 09:10 PM
Sure we do, some Chinese guy killed himself a few days ago saving his girlfriend as she jumped off of a building in a suicide attempt. People slide off the road all the time swerving from animals and people, people have their families leave them all the time as they sacrifice themselves to a cause, it happens all the time, self sacrifice is all around, whether it be with life, time or resources, people sacrifice themselves all the time... why... because we aren't politicians, we're human.

To add, people may sacrifice themselves in a suicide bombing to push forward what they believe is the correct path, if it would make a difference I would sacrifice myself for the greater good of mankind.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 09:22 PM
Things don't fit in nice little packages. Things like this...self vs others is a constantly changing thing. It requires flexibility based on the circumstances. There is no manual on what is just right to be a good person and what is too selfish. What is ok to do and what is wrong. That comes from trial and error, chance and circumstance, other people's opinions and laws, oh, and how you feel today. There are days when I don't feel like letting anyone in ahead of me. Other days when I would let a whole line of cars in.
One day you get a good response the next you don't. Even when you are being nice or not. When you are dealing with people, expect the unexpected. You won't be able to predict what to do next time, no matter how hard you analyze it.
Flexibility and not taking it all too seriously is a great place to start.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 09:27 PM
Sacrifice is making a choice between one thing for another. Self sacrifice is choosing one way or another for the self. It is still a self based action. If you are making the choice you feel in control. If you are forced to you feel like a victim. Heros come in both colors.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 09:31 PM
Great thread. Just 3 points:

#1. "Karma is a boomerang." - Tip Jar @ Starbucks

#2. "It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice" - John Cassis

#3. “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism
or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.” - Martin Luther King Jr.


posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 09:38 PM
Dang, I just noticed this thread and apparently it is taking off like wildfire.

I wanted to throw in my thoughts before reading the thread because I am quite familiar with this debate.

Altruism. Does it exist?

Eh, I don't know.
I guess it depends on the person.

I mean, have you personally ever been put into a position where you were forced to act selflessly?

Just recently I was thrown into such a situation... I'm actually pretty interested that this thread was brought here as the recent event gives me a little insight into the matter that I lacked before.

I went to pick my wife up from work the other day to take her to lunch.
While I was there I noticed that a little girl was in trouble. (my wife works at a day-care)

I didn't notice it until I saw the commotion being displayed by the teachers.

The director of the day-care was stooped over the little girl waving her hand in the girl's face and I overheard my wife on the phone talking to the mother asking if the girl had taken any medication. I observed that the answer was yes and saw that the girl was unresponsive, although eyes wide open.
I'll tell you, I freaked out. I thought I had understood the problem immediately anapalephtic (sp?) shock due to a reaction to the medication.

I just sort of took over the situation (which I SHOULD NOT HAVE DONE) and ordered my wife to call 9-11 rather than waste time on the phone with the girl's mother. After that, I rushed around to find something to prop the girls' legs up above her head to get bloodflow back to the brain.

I acted out of pure panic for the safety of this little girl. And I acted incorrectly. As it turns out, she was having a mild seizure.

But anyhow, the point of the story is that I used to be able to make an argument that altruism doesn't really exist in any real sense because there is always a sense of self-glorification in any action. But I can tell you that nothing like that crossed my mind. And I'm no hero. I was terrified in the ordeal and my panic caused me to act incorrectly.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 09:52 PM

Originally posted by John Matrix

Originally posted by Welfhard

Originally posted by John Matrix
The good that I do is not to bring glory to myself, but to glorify the divine creator who has already given me a reward which I do not deserve. By grace I have been saved through faith. From a greatful and thankful heart I seek to do good.

...Way to wreck the party, kill joy. Are you people completely incapable of original thought, I ask you?

[edit on 28-3-2009 by Welfhard]

I flagged your thread to ease the burden of your pain. A gift from "my people" to "your people".

'The burden of my pain'? Pain? What pain? My leg hurts from a 12y/o spinal injury. That what you mean?

BTW: My people have many original thoughts.

Oh well good then, I was starting to worry being as how you guys have a certain love to quote scripture and rhetoric. But I'm glad you demonstrated wrong.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 10:11 PM
reply to post by Jay-in-AR

I think that self-sacrifice for a child, while not technically selfish, still doesn't really qualify as altruism. Irrational behaviour because a child may be in trouble is just an instinctual imperative, protecting the next generation. This base instinct is so strong in us that crimes against children is perceived as being many times worse, or evil, as crimes against adults. Notice in World Vision adds, all you see is suffering children and people pay. But they wouldn't actually care if they hadn't seen the children and we all know it.

But the preservation of the next generation from an evolutionary standpoint, is still a selfish one. It is better to try harder to save the children than our equals because they are the future of the society. Doing something to benefit the group that we are apart of is still a degree selfish.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 10:34 PM
I found myself going through a kind of soul searching a few years ago after I realized I was doing alot of bad things and my actions were hurting people that cared for me very much. I also realized that I was not only feeling instant karma from when I'd do something stupid, but I would also suffer the mental anguish of self loathing and that whole cycle of selfish withdrawal. The questions always being
Am I a good person who does bad things or a bad person who does good things?
But I've also learned in my limited 30 something years that when I do good things, that good things came back. Since then I have begun to change, and it has become a sort of selfish quest to strive to be a better person. Not better than everybody else, just better than yesterday. Alot of it was guilt obviously, a feeling of needing to pay penance or get some absolution. But it's also about trying to make the world better in some small way, if only the world around me (is that selfish too?). There's way too much craziness everywhere and it seems like there are alot more negative vibes going around. Little by little it seems to be spreading, like a vine slowly growing up a tree. Nobody notices it because it happens so slow. But soon enough all you see are vines and underneath is a tree that had the life squeezed out of it. It seems like from the customer service rep, to the nurse, to the toll collector, alot of us are putting out some bad juju. So I figured that since I was so sick of the sickness, I was going to put more effort into being better. It doesn't take much to hold a door for someone, or say please, thank you, excuse me, showing a little respect to elders, etc. It doesn't have to be some grand jesture. Little things really do mean alot and it will become effortless after a while. I think it becomes selfish when you're doing it for recognition. But when it's done with good intent, good things do have a way of finding you. And as idealistic as it sounds, I think that WE ALL can make a difference... and will.

[edit on 3/28/09 by Chillidog1]

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 10:40 PM
reply to post by Welfhard

That instinct IS altruism, I would guess.
2nd line.

PS - Your response deserves more than a one-liner.
You just basically defined altruistic behavior.

The idea that you will preserve those who follow you, even at the detriment to yourself, is altruism.

[edit on 28-3-2009 by Jay-in-AR]

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 10:43 PM
reply to post by Chillidog1


You raise one of the interesting points in this debate, that certain forms of selfishness are rather good.

I am going to improve because I want to be a better person.

And the flipside of that is to avoid/minimise discomfort/pain/saddness etc.

"You personally get more out of being a 'good' person than being a selfish one" - my selfish motive for selflessness.

[edit on 28-3-2009 by Welfhard]

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 10:47 PM

Originally posted by Jay-in-AR
You just basically defined altruistic behavior.

The idea that you will preserve those who follow you, even at the detriment to yourself, is altruism.

Hence, why I reasoned that it is probably the only real exception to the rule.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 10:52 PM
reply to post by Welfhard

IMO there isn't an exception to the rule when it comes to "does it exist or doesn't it".

Alright, I need to stop participating here. I'm worked up about other crap right now and this thread doesn't deserve argumentative behavior.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 11:02 PM

Originally posted by Jay-in-AR
reply to post by Welfhard

IMO there isn't an exception to the rule when it comes to "does it exist or doesn't it".

Sure there are when it comes to the behaviours of higher-thinking animals and instincts.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 11:10 PM

Originally posted by Welfhard
Irrational behaviour because a child may be in trouble is just an instinctual imperative, protecting the next generation. This base instinct is so strong in us that crimes against children is perceived as being many times worse, or evil, as crimes against adults.

Well, not really. If you look at history, and with the rose colored glasses on the shelf, we actually have not traditionally cared very much for children. When times get tough, they ( and our elderly) are often the first to go bye bye.

And, when childhood and infant mortality was high, (and it was pretty high) you just didnt get as attached to the little buggers. In Hawaii where I am from it is still a custom to hold a "baby luau" at the one year birthday, because until very recently, you didnt even name the child until it survived a year.

It is packed away, so I cant give you the title, but I have a 3 volume set that outlines the history of marriage and family from 1500 to 18??. It would shock our delicate modern sensibilities. Stories of parents hanging their own children for stealing food. Death rates in orphanages approaching 70% as an average in many countries. And this was not uncommon. It was justthe way it was. Some orphanages were worse of course;

Of some 40,996 children admitted to the Orphanage during Catherine II's reign, 35,309, or 87%, died during their stay there[1]. As a result, the vast complex housed only a handful of survivors. A 1792 report listed as few as 257 resident orphans who studied a variety of trades ranging from metallurgy to accountancy[1]. Several attempts to decrease mortality by passing infants on to foster families did not improve the survival rate. The aged Betskoy could not be relied on for managing the expanding faculty, and the Orphanage became notorious for fraud and child abuse.[2]

Abandoning infants to the animals and weather, and this is in Europe. England, France, etc. Fascinating stuff, really, but for those who sigh and long for the good old days and "traditional family values" you really have no idea what you are asking for.

Originally posted by Welfhard
Notice in World Vision adds, all you see is suffering children and people pay. But they wouldn't actually care if they hadn't seen the children and we all know it.

True, but in part this is to get around our irrational hatred of poor adults. (Check out the welfare/drug testing thread for examples of this) We blame poor adults for their position, even if they are blameless. But children, we have a harder time rationalizing how they deserved it. If we are going to give to the poor at all, it is the children, handicapped and women, pretty much in that order.

Originally posted by Welfhard
But the preservation of the next generation from an evolutionary standpoint, is still a selfish one. It is better to try harder to save the children than our equals because they are the future of the society. Doing something to benefit the group that we are apart of is still a degree selfish.

Yes and no. It is not better to always save the children in fact. Even our own. If you starve yourself in a famine to ensure your 3 year old lives, and you die as a result, that child is virtually doomed. He or she cannot fend for itself, find food, fight off predators, etc. Other members of your groups (depending on their relatedness to you) may or may not raise your child. It would be a bad gamble. Better for you to feed yourself, let the child perish, and when times are better, begin again. You need to ensure the children make it all the way to reproductive age. Not just have them. There is quite a long period in that process when the childs death is more advantageous than your own in evolutionary terms.

Even our modern obsession with children is pretty superficial. Lots of children die at the hands of their caregivers, usually the birth parents. Most never make the news. And abuse and neglect is a pretty big problem.

So, when our friend leaped in to aid the child, it was not necessarily a biological drive built into all of us. (After all, there were others there not acting) it was his unique combination of personality and moral imperative. Biology was in the mix, but it wasnt the whole thing.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 11:18 PM
reply to post by unityemissions

I just don't buy that all of my good deeds stem from a desire to feel better internally. It sure helps make the act easier overall, but it's not the primary motivation.

I agree! I don't find myself doing good deeds so I feel better, I think I do them because I was raised to, and believe in helping others if I can. I also don't think that being selfish is a bad thing as long as it doesn't hurt someone else.
If you do something to benefit your self, but it harms someone else, than that is bad and selfish in a negative way. But if you do something for your own benefit, but it also helps others at the same time, then that is a win win situation. If we feel good for helping someone, then that is perfectly ok, after all I believe we are here to live a joyous life experience, and what ever brings us joy is very important. And when we are happy with ourselves, than we are being the best of who we can be to everyone else.
Even though through the "Law of attraction" which is at work all the time, we attract kind acts to us because we are receiving just what we put out. But I don't think that is why I do kind things for people. I do them because it was how I was raised, and just comes natural. And when "I" receive a kind gesture or act from someone else, then I make sure that I show appreciation for it whether it be by letting them know I appreciate it, or acknowledging to myself that I am thankful for it. Just the other day I was heading toward a toll booth and I was not in the best of moods which is unusual since I am normally a pretty happy person, and when I got to the toll to pay my 2 dollars, the toll attendant told me to go on through, that the car ahead of me had paid my toll. I have no idea who the person in front of me was, but I gave her the two dollars anyway, and said since my toll was paid that I would like to do the same for the car behind me. She just smiled and said "I wonder how long this will go on". Anyway, that small gesture by the car in front of me helped to put me in an instantly better mood, and the fact that I did the same for the next car also made me feel good. So maybe that was the Universes way of saying hey, your always giving, so here is a little something in return to put the smile back on your face on a day your feeling a little down. Anyway, this all might not be making sense as it's late and i'm tired, but I am trying to say that I find myself doing good just because it comes natural to me, but not because I am looking for something in return. "But" good things do seem to happen to me unexpectedly at a time when I need them, and that might be because of how I am toward others. Since the toll booth day I wonder if the kind act stopped with me or if the car behind me kept it going. Sometimes small things can make a big difference

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 11:22 PM
reply to post by Illusionsaregrander

Hmm. It's clear I didn't quite think that one through. It seems then that not even the love for a child is unconditional.

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 11:27 PM
You have to stop caring about yourself to not be selfish.

If you have no god, no after-life, and nothing motivates you, you are presented with a real dilemma. If they accept the idea that they will never feel the happiness others feel, that they will never have the riches, the loving relationships, or the rewarding activities others feel and have, they feel their is no purpose to life. They turn to suicide.

They are faced with three options at this point, yet usually only see one of them, sometimes see two, and rarely see all three. The first is suicide. They say "I will never be happy, I will never have this that and the next thing. I could live 1000 years, and I will not gain anything from living. I'm going to kill myself". Most people in this position think that way.

The second option, which some see, is the idea that they need help. That something must be wrong with them and that they need to get fixed. They also believe that if they can be fixed, they can go on to live a happy life, which in actuality, is a self based life. Basically, they are saying, "I am broken, I cannot find selfish motives, I need to be fixed."

Then you have the third option which most people rarely see. The thought process behind this is:
Well, If I kill myself, that is pointless. I get nothing out of it, since I'll cease to exist; Other people get nothing out of it, usually (assuming if they died nobody would directly benefit greatly), overall neutral results came about from them.

So, if I assume that nothing I do will improve my situation, and I assume that I am not broken, where do I go from here and why? If I don't do anything, that is just slow suicide, so obviously I will act to extend my lifespan, at least for the immediate future. If I didn't get up, eat, drink, act, I would die from starvation and things of that nature.

So now I know that I must do daily functions to survive, because if I didn't, I might as well use a gun and cut three days out of the process of suicide.

Now, even though these immediate acts prolong my lifespan, they do not make it indefinite. Even if I do everything in my power to live, eventually I will die. So if ALL I do is basic necessities to live, again, I might as well get the gun and cut down on this very long process. After all, my life would, again, would remain effect neutral, as all I did was act out necessity to survive, with no point toward surviving.

Neutral being I neither acted out of self based reasons or selfless based reasons. None of my actions were done out of a desire to better my own situation, or others, so it is a neutral base act.

In order for my life to be more than an extended suicide, I must push my actions out of the realm of neutral, and into the realm of selfless based acts, or selfish based acts. Since selfish based acts have shown to benefit me none at this point, hence the dilemma I am facing to begin with, I must resort to selfless based acts.

If I gain no joy, no thrill, no positive experience from the self based acts, there is no point to engage in such acts. They have a sum of 0 gain for everyone. Nobody else gains directly (nobody should at least) from my self based acts, and I do not gain from my self based acts. So the gain overall is 0, making it pointless, quite literally. Suicide would usually be a neutral act, where nobody else directly gains (in normal cases), and I gain nothing as I cease to exist. Since neither I nor anyone else gain from my suicide directly, the sum must again be 0, or a pointless act.

The only act left is selfless based acts. I gain nothing, yet again, but other do gain something. This act does NOT have a sum of 0, as somebody gained directly as a result from this action. This act is NOT pointless, though it may seem that way to the selfish person.

That means, the only act I can engage in that is not utterly pointless, is selfless based acts. Any other act, in this situation, would be pointless and illogical. Self based acts would be illogical, as there is no value to the acts, no gain from the point of 0. Suicide is in the same point. There is no value to the act, no gain from 0. The only act that have some value, is the selfless based act, because it has some form of gain, on somebodies end.

So I should engage in selfless acts.

Now, if somebody kills themselves to end pain, that is an act of selfishness, as you gain personally from the act. It is not a neutral act anymore. You can commit suicide for a selfish reason, for no reason, or for somebody else benefit. In the case of no reason, it is when you realize you cannot gain anything from selfish based acts, but do not have the capacity to see that suicide has an equal value of 0, when put next to selfish based acts.

That is the only way, from what I can tell, to be 100% completely selfless. To put yourself apart and make no strides to gain, in any aspect of life. If you are selfish in certain aspects of life, you are not selfless.

A good example would be you live to love your family. You must face the choice of running into a burning building to save a class of school children. If you don't, the children die. If you do, you come to the assumption that you will definitely die, and that there will be no afterlife waiting for you. That you run in, save them, then die and cease to exist.
A. Choose the self based act and do not run in.
B. Choose the selfless based act, and condemn yourself to death.

If you picked A. you picked the self based act, which could be a result of ANY self based lifestyle. If you had no attachments, no self based lifestyle, A. wouldn't be an option for you. It is only because you had a lifestyle based around selfish acts, that you were presented with the dilemma. Had you not had a family, and had no other self based lifestyles, you would have no reason NOT to run in.

If you picked B. you decided to put your self based lifestyle behind you, whether it be for a brief moment, or for the rest of your life. You became selfless. You picked helping others, even though it meant death with no reward. You stopped caring about yourself and your self based lifestyle. If you live, then you could go right back to that self based lifestyle.

If you are living a self based lifestyle, the only way you can act selflessly, with certainty at least, is if you are certain you will die, with no reward, and act anyway. That is the act of sacrifice, rather than simple selflessness. If I am selfless, I am merely acting for others because I do not act for myself, but see no value in suicide. If I selflessly sacrifice, it must mean I am directly giving up a part, or all, of my self based lifestyle, when I am absolutely certain I cannot gain from it, and never will, but others will.

Many times, for most of you, you will not know if you acted selflessly, selflessly sacrificed, or merely acted out of selfishness. The situation may be complex and you might not have all the information to know or see just how you acted. But this much I do know:
If you are wondering if you acted selflessly, chances are, you weren't.

In other words, if you care about whether or not the act you engaged in was selfless, you weren't acting selflessly. If you were, then by definition, you wouldn't care if it was selfless or not. The act had nothing to do with you or your personal gain, so there is no reason for you to engage in caring. The only reason you would care is if you intended to gain something from it and are not sure if you did or not.

Selflessness is simply an act. You do it, you move on. You didn't get anything from it, on any level, and never intended to, so you have no reason to think about it after the fact. The only exception might be if you are looking back on it to analyze your act, and yourself, to get a better grasp of the situation, and your own motives.

For instance, I question if my act was selfish or selfless to see if the circumstances of my existence has changed, or I felt I was ineffective at the act itself and wished to analyze, thus improve on it, for the next time the situation arises. If I improved on it, I could make the gain for others higher, making it less pointless of an act.

The final question you might wonder is "why must you have a point? Why can't it be pointless?" Well, the main question is why do you want your act to have a point, or value, over an act which has no point, or no value? It is very simple. It is logical to pick an act that has some reasoning behind it, than one with no reasoning. It makes sense, on a rational and logical level, to pick the choice that has some point to it. If you were presented with two choices, and one made logical sense, and the other made no logical sense, you would pick the one that made sense.

You ask "Why should I do it?" and cannot find an answer, because there is no reason to do it. That is a pointless act. There is no logical reason to engage in a 0 sum act. So you engage in the act that has a point, because it is more logical than the one that has no point.

That is all for me, thank you to the very few of you who probably actually read this.

[edit on 28-3-2009 by grimreaper797]

posted on Mar, 28 2009 @ 11:29 PM
This is good thread.

I just want to say I let people take cuts, and help people who need help. It's nothing about any reward or feeling good about myself, it's just the way I am. I'm already at peace with self, but maybe it's just the right thing to do the way things should be.

I don't care for people that speed up when you put on turn signal, to get over, and please try not to take cuts with out asking

But I do try and see things thru other eyes, and feel for others that have not come to the realizations I have. If you ask for a cookie and I only have one left, I would gladly let you have it.

If you met The Chirst on the road and ask him to walk a mile with you he would walk two. I am in no way making any comparesions, but yes I would like to be like The Christ.
I beleive he did say become as I am and do as I have done.
Maybe someday all will rise to this awarness, peace will rane on Earth, there is really more to existane than to be selfish.

If someone has fallen you help them up, you don't kick them and take their wallet. What goes around comes around sooner or later, I pity those still lost when that day comes, but like they say it will all come out in the wash.

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