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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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  • 1
    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
  • 2
    @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

13 Answers 13

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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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Is it not too far from selfless reasoning that we ensure good selfless acts, deeds,services to improve those around us, to shape a better quality of people for our Childrens children and so forth

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  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE. If you would like, here is a link to take the tour. It may be helpful to review the guidelines for answering questions and how to use comments to ask for more information or clarify a question or answer.
    – PV22
    May 27 '17 at 18:09
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Case:

If a government, say, uses it's power to enforce 'selflessness' (as they intend to describe it) on a citizen then they can say it is as you are describing (and possible!) if they want to, basically, or rather bluntly (and accurately). In this case there is extremely little the individual citizen (assuming unprivileged means) who has been deemed eligible for such a horrendous predicament as an alotted and unwilling 'altruism' can do.

So, in this case the possibility of an individual being truly altruistic is a question completely off the actual, real issue.

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    Welcome to Philosophy.SE. If you would like, here is a link to take the tour. You may find it helpful. I am sorry but I am finding your answer difficult to understand. Perhaps you can take the time to edit it and elaborate on the specific circumstances you are describing?
    – PV22
    May 27 '17 at 18:15
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1. As far the science explains life is "just" algorithms assembled in a way that they are able to exist at least up to the moment of replication.

2. Such replication mechanism guides life (?)towards(?) homeostasis.

3. To have homeostasis without having "mind as we - sapiens - have" is a kind of "easy", however, when we - sapiens - become able to build structures we start to be able to leverage.

4. On the process of leveraging we are still looking for homeostasis however we have not capabilities for this (maybe yet) so we use heuristics because at the conscious level at any given time we might be able to play with maximum of (?)7, 8 concepts in our mind.

5. When we are effective and/or efficient we might use concepts such as "selflessness" (or the opposite ☺).

6. Concluding [Is it possible to be truly selfless or altruistic?] if we are a "standard" sapiens we are able and capable to perform much more times as a selfless being than the opposite.

Among references one can start with for example: Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Jim Holt. And if one likes can go deeper by reading this Quantum theory, the Church–Turing principle and the universal quantum computer by David Deutsch.

After all the purpose of life it seems to be so simple that our "mind" has difficulties to "digest it" ☺

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I have witnessed a dying mother who sacrificed everything for her child’s future. Don’t tell me that wasn’t true altruism . There was no self involved in her deeds . These days every philosopher is guided by herd mentality and it is truly worrisome.

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If altruism is defined as:

"To act without conscious expectation of reward", then it is quite easy to imagine situations in which a person might act 'purely' for the benefit of another.

Instantaneous reactions - such as the trope of throwing oneself on a grenade - might occur prior to any consciously-recognised evaluative processes during which the reward of 'doing one's duty' or 'being a hero' is taken into account.

It is another thing however to argue that such an act is therefore not motivated by some kind of reward. It is quite possible that motivations such as to 'be a good soldier' for example, drive instinctive acts such as these at such a speed that the conscious mind - occupied with the urgency of getting to the grenade in time, and possibly with fear - is simply unable to register.

Even if an act is 'automatic', there is almost always going to be a motivator that leads the mind to pursue one particular automatic response instead of another (such as to flee from the grenade). In the absence of such motivators, there would be no reason for the soldier to move towards the grenade.

In the case of the soldier, such a motivation likely has roots in the heavily team-oriented values embedded during training, and in any personal values which led to the soldier becoming a soldier in the first place. A desire to prove one's masculinity to oneself or others. Patriotic values. Family tradition. There are many other potential motivators of course, such as love, perhaps, for a particular colleague in harm's way, or even a suicidal impulse that seeks to avoid the suffering that would be sustained by a non-lethal but traumatic injury. Another powerful motivator might be to avoid the shame/dishonour/guilt/remorse of not sacrificing oneself when one had the opportunity to do so.

All of these motivators, regardless of whether or not they serve partially to help the other, seem to always have an origin in, and a desire to serve, the self. Even the self-sacrificial act satisfies some value that the self holds as important. In the case of the soldier described above, many of these motivating values boil down to the importance of being a 'good person', not only in the eyes of others, but in his or her own eyes.

Less urgent actions have been addressed clearly in earlier answers. Suffice to say, acts we might consider more fully, more consciously, such as the donating of money, or the giving of time, or the uttering of a charitable word, will always provide the giver with reward, whether it be an affirmation of values, the immediate feedback of a person's gratitude, or again, the avoidance of any negative emotions that might arise from acting against one's values.

So, whilst it easy to imagine the 'unthinking', 'noble' act as altruistic, it is far more difficult to conceive of an unmotivated act. An unmotivated act is necessary for the 'true' altruism of which you enquire, for when we act in accordance with out motivations, we cannot help but be rewarded.

If you can imagine an example of an act which does not provide some form of reward to the actor, I would sincerely enjoy reading about it.

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I think true selflessness happens when a person risks being punished for doing the right thing.

Doing the right thing entails doing what is best for oneself and for others. However, high control groups (such as dictatorships or fundamentalist religions) might view such activity as threatening to the stability of the group so they use systems of punishment to block members from engaging in such activity.

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From an economical perspective (considering that economy is not a zero-sum-game, the most extended current view), there are four possible outcomes from any interaction (definition: winning is an interaction which ends up producing a subjective value that is more positive than negative, for example I buy an apple because I'm hungry and that's way more important, in my own subjectivity, than keeping a coin I have):

  • win-win: I need an apple; such need is greater than my need of a coin in my pocket; in your case, the need of the coin is greater than the need of a particular apple you have; so we both exchange our goods (I buy you the apple), and we both win.
  • win-lose: I buy you the apple with a false coin. I win, but you lose. This is quite common, people cheating in order to get a short-term benefit, like stealing a wallet. It never works in the long term, the probabilities of such harm to bite back increase with time.
  • lose-win: I buy you a rotten apple, just to help you economically, because I know your business is not going well. There's a lot of people that tends to harm themselves while allowing others to win, due to psychological reasons.
  • lose-lose: Even if I lose, I want you to lose. There's a lot of people who think that way, again, for psychological reasons.

People with bad economical habits tend to think I-win-you-lose, or I-lose-you-lose, those are not relevant to your question.

(Economically) healthy people has the habit of reaching win-win interactions (that's why some people tend to have nice neighbors, nice neighborhoods, nice towns, nice families, nice salaries). This is just being intelligent: we all can choose how to interact. This is not altruism.

Real altruism would be I-lose-you-win, which happens when a father does something harmful for himself, but helps his son. Anyway, this is not really harmful: what the father is doing in this case, has deep instinctive and moral reasons: in the last term, he's just protecting the survival of his own human group. But this case could be considered the only one which can be qualified by altruism. In most cases, any intentional I-lose-you-win which has logical basis (that's the key factor!) is not really a loss.

In the last term, there could be a case of I-lose-you-win which could really go against oneself: when the maker does not follow a logical behavior (key factor!). For example, I play the russian roulette game just for fun [1]. But it is obvious that this case is not altruism. Dying, or losing, due to irrational thinking is just a loss, not altruism.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_roulette

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"Altruistic behavior" is an established concept in evolutionary biology. Contra stoicfury in the comments, Richard Dawkins' in The Selfish Gene does not argue that all animal (including human) behavior is genetically determined to be self-interested. He argues that the unit of selection is the gene, not the organism. The natural selection of better-replicating genes over natural history can (and does) produce organisms that in certain cases act against their own interests. The interests of the organism are different from the "interests" of the gene. (As displayed whenever anyone uses a condom.) Also distinguish between an act having some reward for the agent vs. an act being done for the sake of the agent's reward. If you define "reward" broadly enough to include the activity of the dopaminergic system in the brain that motivates all of our behaviors, then every voluntary action has a reward for the agent. But that doesn't mean every voluntary action is done for the sake of its reward for the agent. People who are altruistically inclined will feel pleasure from altruistic acts, but they don't do it for the sake of the pleasure they get from it; they only get that pleasure as a side-effect of achieving the goal of the action, which is to benefit someone else.

We can't make any meaningful distinction between "selfish" and "selfless" unless we distinguish levels of self-interest. For example, (a) lending money to someone in need so that they'll pay you back with interest; (b) gifting money to someone in need so that you can boast to your friends about how benevolent you are; (c) gifting money to someone in need and not telling anyone about it so that you can take pleasure in your moral superiority in the privacy of your own mind; (d) gifting money to someone in need and not telling anyone about it and just taking pleasure in seeing the alleviation of another's suffering. All of these are perfectly possible human actions. If you consider (d) selfish because it still involves pleasure, I think you've diluted the term "selfish" beyond all possible meaning (because a term needs a contrast-term in order to have any informative application).

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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. May 13 '13 at 11:01
-3

True selflessness is impossible, your driven by what makes you feel good, you can set up a mindset that makes being altruistic make you feel good but your still out to get positive feeling out of the action. For me the most profound version of "selflessness" is when someone puts themselves in a worse position for another human (altruism) and this may seem like true selflessness but I disagree, people choose to commit acts like this because put quite simply it makes them feel good about themselves, it feeds their ego. If these people weren't raised to value good behavior and to feel good about doing good they would not be committing good acts. Of-course what do I know.

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  • There's nothing per se wrong with answering "No." But there's nothing to back that up in this answer other than a denial of the claim repeated in different words joined to caveats that it's an opinion.
    – virmaior
    Jul 11 '16 at 1:49

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