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Is it possible for people to actually be selfless? It seems that in many cases where someone is being kind, they are actually performing in a manner that will benefit them. Either the recipient of the kindness will reciprocate, or the act of kindness itself is deemed commendable. Therefore, the one who offered the kindness still benefits personally from their action.

A child shares a toy in the same way. Even with the heroic act of martyrdom, the possibility of knowing one could become a martyr may be uplifting. It seems that every "selfless" act, in some way, may benefit the one being "selfless".

In light of those observations, is selflessness truly possible? What does philosophy have to say about this question?

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Many thanks to Cody Gray for editing the question, making it more suitable and understandable. –  E1Suave May 3 '12 at 8:59
    
The following 10 minutes clips from Ayn Rand articulate the best answer to this question I have found to date (here and here). The philosophy contained therein may be fundamental or causal to the question being asked. –  iamtoc May 7 '12 at 18:37
    
The answer to this question is "no", using common definitions of altruism, because of evolutionary biology and most generally the way the universe works. Evolutionary we are selfish, and this must necessarily be part of the very fabric of the universe, and even if we weren't selfish our reasons for being so wouldn't be praiseworthy (because we aren't morally responsible for our actions). –  stoicfury May 7 '12 at 19:38
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I can elaborate in an answer if you desire. Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion provide insights here on altruism, and the very underpinnings of evolution by natural selection favor selfishness insofar as selfishness increases the reproductive fitness of an individual where selflessness does not. –  stoicfury May 7 '12 at 23:05
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@ChrisS Not only that, I'd argue that conscious thought is controlled entirely by unconscious thought (which itself is bound by causality), and therefore selfishness/altruism at the core are not merely partially controlled by unconscious thought but entirely so. But I think on some level it can be useful in philosophy to talk about acts which are kind/selfless and acts which are not kind/selfish, even if both are done for the (ultimately) selfish reasons. There is a level of altruism that exists, and selfishness which exists, and it would be wrong to deny that. –  stoicfury May 9 '12 at 23:04
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5 Answers

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First, let's get the terminology straight. What you are talking about does not appear to be "selflessness" at all, but "self-sacrifice", or "altruism."

Now, with that in mind, let's refine the question. You appear to be asking "Is it possible for someone to act in a manner that is not motivated, directly or indirectly, by self-interest?"

If this is the question, we immediately run into two difficulties:

1) We need to have a clear idea of what we mean by "motivation" in this sense; unfortunately, this is an extremely difficult problem, as most people recognize the possibility of unconscious motivations-- this means that we have no reliable manner of ascertaining precisely what one's motivations were for any particular act.

2) We need a good definition of "self-interest." This is a much more difficult problem than it appears, and a critical analysis of forms the first part of Derek Parfit's classic Reasons and Persons. I'd recommend this book as a good starting point, if questions like the one you posed interest you.

Finally: if we set aside all of the above, and still try to plow through to an answer, I suppose the answer would have to be "Why not?" Is it possible? I don't see any reason it should be impossible to believe that at least once in the history of humanity, a single human has taken a single action which offered no foreseeable benefit to the actor. But what does that really tell us?

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Great answer. Your explanation actually ask the question (correctly) and provided a brilliant answer. Thank you for the referral of Reasons and Persons. –  E1Suave May 3 '12 at 7:24
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On a temporary basis and as an ongoing personal philosophy selflessness is possible but a consistent selfless life is unsustainable.

Selflessness perhaps seen "Universally" or collectively could be seen as good because collectivism inherently blanks-out the individual, but in an individual sense selflessness is bad. All values have to be produced by individuals, so altruism requires a sacrifice of time and effort. To see morality in regards to the daily and your long term goals, as individuals, sacrifice is bad. I do consider benevolence and altruism to be separate concepts. Philosophy qua individualism selflessness is bad. It can mean a few things: material selflessness (the giving of possessions), spiritual selflessness (giving up logic and thought; ie religion), and collectivist ethical doctrine towards the state.

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Anything we do based on our thinking and our emotions. Whether we did something because of someone else, but eventually we did:

  1. comparison from others with our thinking or
  2. something that was in line with our desire (emotion).

    • It's enough to assert that what we did, what we will do and what we are doing, there is little (or huge) of something from ourselves, and there is little (or huge) of something for ourselves.

An understanding that we couldn't stay away from selfish, this doesn't mean there is something bad on our behavior (attitude, personality or similar to these). But seeing selfishness as a good behavior must be viewed from different direction.

  • It's when our selfish is our rights in line with ethics or moral (for some religions).

There is no way for us to understand completely (essentially) selfless except by understanding that completely selfless must assert "no connection to our thinking and our emotions".

Essentially (without our consciousness):

  • A complete selfless may be understood related to "no connection to our thinking and our emotions" similar to BAQAA, unity of being, or completely controlled by God. In this case, selfless may be considered as goodness (based on ethics and moral). See BAQAA, but it's not selfless, it's NO-SELF.

  • An altruistic considered as "to be truly selfless" when we are doing something because of being hypnotized, or when we were a baby.

Practically (with our consciousness):

  • To be selfless is act in line with ethics and moral (for some religions)

  • Whether someone saw us act selfishly but as long as it's in line with ethics and moral, it may be considered as true selfless but not essentially.

  • If somehow we saw someone did selflessly, it's because our lack of awareness observing this situation. What actually happened here, that at that moment someone did selflessly but in the future someone needs to be rewarded. It's just a matter of time to be caught as selfishness (need to be rewarded), no matter how small. If it's not like that, then human like this is just like mechanical without purpose.

We do something for our happiness. This happiness may be in line with (or against) our ethics and moral (for some religions). Happiness has levels, but essentially to get satisfaction (whether it's bad or good).

We can do evil and we will get happiness. We can do good and we will get happiness. But both have differences.

  • It's when what we did something to pursue happiness in line with ethics and moral, then we did goodness whether it's selfishly.

  • It's when what we did something to pursue happiness against ethics and moral, then we did selfishness as bad things.

    It's relatively related to ethics and moral, but that's the principles to value selfishness.

The points are:

Is it possible to be truly selfless?

  • Yes, but it may be related to (if we believe an understanding about) BAQAA. But it's NO-SELF (there is no our consciousness). Or similar to this.

  • Practically (outside understanding similar to BAQAA), there is no selfless, but there is only selfishness against ethics and moral, and selfishness follows ethics and moral.

  • Selfishness in line with ethics and moral (obey to God's commands, for some religions, or follow Buddhism) is another happiness that has differentiation with happiness that was coming from selfishness against ethics and moral (againts God's commands, for some religions, or not following Buddhism, or similar to these).

  • Whether altruism may be considered against egoism, but helping for other must involve a little bit our egoism, to satisfy our thinking and our emotions.

  • True selfless asserts no purposes whatsoever and (how small) for us. Can we do this? No.

  • But we can do true selfless just to justify that we must do something less egoism. Can we do something with no (not less) egoism at all? No.

Rather than saying there is true selfless but assert a little bit egoism, better say "there is proper selfishness that is in line with ethics and moral. Besides, it's SELF-LESS (LESS, but not completely "NO-SELF", just LESS for the degree of SELF).

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We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

There is no good or evil, only consequences.

We, as humans, never do anything unless it is good for what we care about. If you care about the little starving children, you might spend a lot of money to help them, but ultimately it is because you (your brain) do(es) so, and rewards you (itself) in some way for it.

You will never, and I mean never, take action that hurts your goals. That is not how brains work. We might call people who donate to charity selfless, but they do it because they want to, and because they gain from it (in emotional or other non-monetary fashion).

Self-sacrifice is an oxymoron.

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I know this might seem like an ad hominem, but you just wrote "Of course there is such a thing as evil" here. What's your point? –  iphigenie Jan 27 '13 at 21:26
    
Karl, your answer is true, but unsatisfying. People instinctively know that the way to get ahead in life is via cooperation, and this requires getting along with people, being trusted etc., and this requires a distinction between right and wrong, good and evil etc. Anyway, I gave you a +1. –  user18921 May 13 '13 at 11:01
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I'll probably get downvotes for this answer. Anyway....

Yes. We call those people 'extinct.' More precisely, genes that code for biological altruism are systematically extinguished by evolution.

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Please elaborate; as this answer stands now it is merely a statement - we'd like to see arguments. –  Camil Staps May 12 '13 at 7:05
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