I think the answer is in the negative, and this is my reasoning:

It is trivial to see that selfish actions could be regarded as selfless under certain circumstances and perspectives. However, a not so trivial case would be one where one acts in a selfless manner, but such actions could be considered selfish from other perspectives. E.g Suppose I’m obsessed with being charitable (in the form of giving money away to charity) to the point where I neglect my kids on the premise that the kids I’m helping with my donations have it worse than my own kids. From my perspective (and possibly many other people’s), I’m acting in a selfless manner when I donate, but to my kids I’m being selfish insofar as I neglect them in order to satisfy my obsession for charity.

To show they aren’t mutually exclusive, it is sufficient to find a case in which both happen simultaneously.

I don’t know what part of ethics this would belong to, so I would appreciate it if someone were to correct it. Please provide the definition for selflessness and selfishness you are using when you provide your answer. Thanks in advance.

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    Another consideration might be that all acts are ultimately selfish because the greater good contributes to the individual good: By giving donations for poor kids, you are insuring that these kids have better opportunities, thus avoiding that they would have otherwise become delinquents who might have endangered your own children, so ultimately you were doing it for the benefit of your own children. Oct 25 '17 at 23:01
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    Notable you ask, Please provide the definition for selflessness and selfishness but this is absent from your own self-quote above...
    – virmaior
    Oct 26 '17 at 0:18
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    The definition anyone would provide for selflessness and selfishness pretty much determine the answer anyway. If we define 'selflessness' as serving some good of another and 'selfishness' as serving your own good, then they aren't exclusive since you can take someone else's good as your own good. If we define 'selflessness' as serving someone else's good at the cost of your own good and 'selfishness' as serving your own good at the cost of someone else's good then they are trivially mutually exclusive.
    – user28843
    Oct 27 '17 at 20:02
  • user28842 makes a good point. If we see the identity between ourself and others then, as the Perennial philosophy proposes, in these circumstances selfishness and altruism become indistinguishable. The word 'selflessness' is less clear since it may mean a few different things.
    – user20253
    Oct 28 '17 at 12:48

Isn't a person who is maintaining themselves as their number one priority with the purpose of having more and being more to share with the people who depend on them in their lives being simultaneously selfish and unselfish?


It depends on whether we use the perception of the person in question, as to whether they intentionally performed the act to benefit themselves, or whether we used ‘our’ perceived or possible intentions of the action.

In the first case, it could be argued that these events are mutually exclusive, selfishness is lacking consideration for others, whereas selflessness is being more concerned for needs of others than yourself. The person performing the act is aware of whether the action is out of consideration for others or for their personal gain, although there are many situations where these can overlap, if we define ‘others’ as ‘anyone and/or everyone’ it is impossible to be both concerned with others needs and to lack consideration for others, therefore making selfishness and selflessness mutually exclusive.

If we were to look at all the possible intentions of an action, even the subconscious ones, we would see instances where both ideas of selfishness and selflessness are present. For example, someone pulls over as they see someone needing help with a broken down car, they act in a selfless manner by inconveniencing themselves to help someone else in need. However this person is also on his way home from work, but knows his in-laws are at his house and stereotypically tries to avoid them as much possible, subconsciously wishing for an excuse to come home late and avoid them, he then see’s a pulled up on the side of the road, hazard lights flashing and decides to offer to help. While his intention was to help out someone, he actually consciously or subconsciously acts in a selfish manner, would he have stopped if he was on a rush to get home after a long day? Extravagant example, but this then poses the question, is it only true selflessness if you do not gain any benefit from the action? Or if you perform an action out of selflessness but you happen to benefit from it, is still a selfless act?


Alex D answers his own question in the negative with the example he provided of an act that is both selfless and selfish when seen from the perspectives of two different groups. So, they are not mutually exclusive.

Using his idea one might speculate that for any act that an individual performs there exists a group that perceives the action as selfless and another group that perceives it as selfish. This suggests that neither selfishness nor selflessness exists in an absolute sense. We need to identify the group as well when considering such concepts.

There are many groups that might be interested in a particular individual’s action. Let G be a group that is interested in an individual’s action. Then we can make the following functional definitions:

Selfishness(G): The action benefits the individual, but not G.

Selflessness(G): The action benefits G, but not the individual.

WinWin(G): The action benefits both the individual and G.

LoseLose(G): The action benefits neither the individual nor G.

David Sloan Wilson in “Does Altruism Exist?” noted that altruism (selflessness) was not a traditional idea, but was first used by Auguste Comte in 1851. A traditional perspective on doing good would involve a win-win for both the individual and the group.

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