Is a selfish man who only does stuff for his own benefit, worthy of praise if his actions just so happen to help others? (And am I wrong in assuming someone always attempts to gain something?).


I don't have any real knowledge of philosophy so sorry if im not using terms correctly here.

Recently I saw an interview with a guy arguing against religious institutions helping others as being worthy of praise if they're basis for doing so is not merely a concern for their wellbeing.

He argued that if religious people help others merely to secure a place in heaven, this is selfish and therefore not worthy of praise. Implying that really selflessness is what matters when determining if an action is nobel.

So say someone who is not religious, and cares greatly about his wealth, walks by a homeless man, he sees him struggling and thus gives him a significant amount of money. This clearly hurts the man financially, and he really sacrifices something for this man.

But like the religious guy attempting to secure a place in heaven, this guy is really just making an investment, because ultimately the happiness and satisfaction he gained from helping this man, surely must outweigh what he lost from giving his money. (Else he wouldn't have done it)

Thus it seems to me this argument must be flawed since no one would be worthy of praise.

So my question: Is a selfish man who only does stuff for his own benefit, worthy of praise if his actions just so happen to help others? (And am I wrong in assuming someone always attempts to gain something?).

  • Morality aside.. some things don't have to be a 'zero sum game'. In fact some would say that seeking deals which profit both parties is the wise thing to do. On the subject of christianity... Some would say that the entire religion was set up to enable just this outcome. It has the effect of pacification.. and peace is worth having.
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 1:54
  • Im not sure I understand. You are asking if someone who gets satisfaction from doing a good deed is equally not worthy of praise as someone who does a good dead to avoid punishment?
    – Cell
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 2:18
  • @Cell Im asking if its equal, if the guy only does it for his own satisfaction. Thats to say, the good it produced for another was just an irrelevent byproduct.
    – Cortex
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 3:38
  • @Cell Its not a: "Do it to feel better VS Avoid making it worse" thing. Its more about the idea of someone doing something that is in no way worthy of praise ie. only caring about yorself, but coincidentally, the selfish thing happens to help another. Is that worthy of praise?
    – Cortex
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 3:44
  • 1
    For anyone with a well-developed Self or Ego (in other words mentally healthy and well-adjusted), virtually every act or deed reaps deeper personal happiness and a rewarding and fulfilling sense of genuine pride in themselves. But some Selves recognize Others also as an important aspect of themselves. They acknowledge the relationship between themselves and other people. So it is possible when sincerely serving / caring for others that one may also at the same time be serving one's own healthy ego. The two are not mutually exclusive. That's probably the most well-rounded personality type.
    – Bread
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 0:12

7 Answers 7


I think so. Helping others is praiseworthy and worth imitating. One can help others more or less wisely, depending on how much energy one puts into figuring out what will be most helpful to others; but some praise is worthy in any case.

I've heard that the most unselfish person is the most selfish person - i.e., we want people to like us and we want to be happy, which are selfish; so we do unselfish things that make us feel good and cause other people to like us.

There's lots about this question on Google:

Why Being Selfless Is Actually Selfish | HuffPost

Why Being Selfish Is the Most Unselfish Thing You Can Do: The Martyr ...

Selfish vs. Unselfish: Who Wins? | Psychology Today

Is being selfless the most selfish thing? - Quora

Can a selfish person be unselfish? | Debate.org

  • In the 3rd article selflessness is self-neglect. However, a more reasonable form of selflessness is simply not over-prioritizing oneself, treating everyone equally, including oneself. Dividing the cake equally, or according to needs. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 8:39

TL;DR: It is important to note that society possesses criteria for praiseworthy character and praiseworthy outcomes. I would think that there are people who achieve praiseworthy outcomes but do not have praiseworthy intentions. These cases are hard to find because they are hard to find/prove, and different societies have different notions of what is praiseworthy.

Two examples came to mind when I thought about this. One, an anecdote of mine and the other, a hypothetical. It might also help to know that I don't have a philosophical background either, so take these examples for what you wish.

In high school, I remember learning first aid during PE class, and being taught the abbreviation DRSABCD, short for Dangers, Response, Send for help, Airways, Breathing, Circulation, Defib. Revising the abbreviation with peers or for a test, I always found it hard to remember the -ABCD part of first aid, yet what intrigued me and I remember to this day is the Dangers step, which specifies that you should always identify and mitigate dangers to persons in the following priority 1) Yourself 2) Bystanders 3) The receiver of first aid. From a utilitarian standpoint, this "ranking" presupposes that the mitigation of dangers to yourself first and foremost would facilitate a greater chance of survival for the receiver of first aid than if dangers to others were dealt with first. Should society value a greater chance of survival rate as a praiseworthy pursuit, then I would think that endeavours towards self-preservation, then towards preservation of others would be worthy of praise. In most contexts, I would think that this is the case, and it would be hard to label first-aid responders as "selfish" for pursuing actions that mitigate dangers to themselves before others. Saying this, think an answer to your question would also consider the use of word selfish itself - whether one associates negative connotations to its use, or whether it is used purely to describe one's actions as opposed to their intentions. Used descriptively, perhaps one could describe someone as "selfish with good intentions" or "selfish with bad intentions?"

In thinking about man and his actions, something else to consider would also be to distinguish between praiseworthy character and praiseworthy outcomes. On top of pursuing praiseworthy outcomes (saving someone via first aid), society also has criteria for praiseworthy character (in other words values/morals/intentions e.g. caring for others, being actively involved in and aware of society and politics). Perhaps what makes your question difficult to answer (and what others in this thread have alluded to) is that it is hard to find and/or hard to prove scenarios where character and outcome are separated. As a consequence, there is little precedent and hence many opinions.

My final thoughts are from an example that I'm pretty sure has been used elsewhere, but I forget where (if anyone knows, feel free to comment. I'd be highly appreciative!). Let's say that there exists a man devoid of all good character, and has caused society nothing but undesirable outcomes. To every person he has been known, he has caused pain, suffering, despair and shows no remorse, because he intends these things. He is not praiseworthy in the eyes of society in any respect. Yet, it is still possible for this person to be praiseworthy, if he praises himself, if, at the end of the day, he pats himself on the back for a job well done. Perhaps this is stretching your words a bit, but I found and continue to find this an interesting question. Let us also consider if this man is captured, studied, and provides valuable insight into abnormal psychology - doesn't he now become praiseworthy on account of the knowledge he, by existing, has provided to society? Anyhow, I'll stop ranting and I hope you find an answer which you are satisfied with :)

  • I like your hypothetical case, as it shows how wretched and confusing the moral world is without some kind of outside guidance. How could he not be praiseworthy, both in that he praises himself and in that he teaches us such an invaluable lesson about praise (under the assumption of relative morality)? Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 18:08

In the sixth century, the Chinese Emperor Liang invited the Indian monk Bodhidharma to his capital in Nanjing. The emperor was very fond of Buddhism and often wore Buddhist garments and recited Buddhist prayers. He was, however, most proud of his unbending and unqualified support for Buddhism throughout his entire kingdom. Proud of his knowledge and the contributions towards Buddhism, he asked Bodhidharma, “Since I came to the throne, I have built many temples, published numerous scriptures and supported countless monks and nuns. How great is the merit in all these?”

“No merit whatsoever” was his shocking reply. “You have gained no merit. What you have done produces only worldly rewards, that is, good fortune, great power, or great wealth in your future lives, but you will still be wandering around in samsara"...

The emperor had failed to understand Bodhidharma’s words which mean that one is not really practicing the Buddha-dharma if one does good with the desire to gain merit for oneself.

So, independent of whether we should "praise" these deeds, their rewards should, I think, be of no consequence to someone on the Buddhist path, at least supposing that the suffering involved even in happy human affairs should also be suspended for nirvana.

Not sure what the link is to, but I believe that that's the conventional reading of the aphorism.

Pure land Buddhism gets closer to validating the religious practice of Buddhism for one's own benefit, with the reformist Shinran saying that "ulterior motives" were potentially virtuous but nonetheless in some sense an imitation or inferior practice.

Jodo Shinshu: Shin Buddhism in Medieval Japan p71

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I believe that at least some important zen monks have claimed that chanting the nembutsu with ulterior motives will get one sent to hell! I'll add a reference if I find it.


If someone tries to harm another person by throwing a stone that inadvertently

  1. knocks him into the way of a bus that kills him.


  1. knocks him out of the way of a bus that would have killed him.

I can't imagine the stone-thrower being praised. If someone does something with an evil intent, even if it backfires and has a good outcome the villain is still a villain.

  • Implying that if your intent is aimed at actually helping someone it is never worthy of praise, despite its outcome. The problem there, I would think is the example of the guy, giving money to a stranger. I would think most people would praise him, yet really he's not doing anything different from the rock thrower in terms of intentions, it just so happens that the by-product of satisfying his satisfaction results in a homeless man getting money, and not a man getting a rock thrown at him.
    – Cortex
    Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 19:12
  • @Cortex I don't know how you arrived at your implication. Charitable giving is generally praiseworthy. By contrast, malevolent rock-throwing is not. Unforeseen outcomes are unintentional, so not really praiseworthy or blameworthy, except to note that any action can have unintended consequences. "Hell is paved with good intentions." as they say. Commented Jan 5, 2019 at 20:40
  • Chris, I think what @Cortex is getting at: someone making a living by sitting on the pavement would not reap lasting benefit from being given money by a stranger, thus the giver in this scenario is mostly helping himself.
    – christo183
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 5:07
  • Whether an action, such as the throwing of stones that somehow results in someone being prevented from being injured, is praise worthy is dependent on the moral paradigm; such as consequentialism or dentology, or perhaps a synthesis of ethical theories a la ethical puralism. Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 8:02
  • I don't precisely disagree, but may I politely suggest to expand a tad bit on your answer? Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 8:05

Not really.

That his actions accidentally helped others shows that he wasn't intentionally expecting to help others, and hence cannot be relied upon to help others.

  • No, that's not what is asked. Helping others waiting for a reciprocation/reward, is that worthy of praise? This is the question.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 18:01
  • that applies to a few answers i think @rus9384
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 0:53
  • So, doing something only for yourself, and not caring what so ever, yet being aware that it will help others, is worthy of praise? Essentially the only thing that matters is that your aware that your actions are gonna help someone, and your intentions otherwise are irrelevant?
    – Cortex
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 7:39
  • @rus9384: How do you explain the first sentence: 'Is a selfish man who only does stuff for his own benefit, worthy of praise if his actions just so happen to help others?' I suggest that you ask your own question if that is what you want answered and withdraw your 'No' as it looks misconcieved. Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 14:57
  • Well, TL;DR part is different from the other part. I would say it is worded badly. But the example is clearly that a man helps to secure place in heaven. And that's the reward, not a coincidence.
    – rus9384
    Commented Jan 16, 2019 at 21:23

From a Nietzschean point of view the association of praiseworthiness with self-sacrifice is a particularly 'slave-morality' point of view. In fact this notion exists primarily to voluntarily enslave the capable and make their efforts available to everyone else. This may ensure things are used better within a social group, but it does not create value out of things that are not already valuable, and there are other ways of distributing value effectively, which may be better than voluntary slavery to one's social group.

If the efforts of the capable were not praiseworthy before they were distributed this way, they are not so afterward. We do not praise people who give us inferior or pointless garbage, except perhaps to be nice to them. We do praise incompetent people who strive for us, but that striving is valuable in itself, even without a 'consumer'. It is a valid expression of personal power and 'the human spirit', or it is not really a thing of value to begin with.

Self-sacrifice cannot create value, it can only 'bless' it, and turn it into gratitude. Our gratitude may be withheld from work that does not serve us as a group, but that does not reduce its value. The value already either does or does not exist, in order for us to be grateful for it. To withhold praise, when we are impressed or moved to value something, is just emotional manipulation.

  • what about buddhism?
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 0:58
  • @confused I don't understand. I haven't brought up religion at all.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 1:03
  • no i guess not, but philosophers of religion have something to say on ethics. that's all
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 1:08
  • @confused So to philosophers of things other than religion, and I am explaining the position of one of those.
    – user9166
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 1:10
  • ok, great! i agree with your conclusion, ethics or not... thought you were trying to be exhaustive / conclusive about the question, sorry
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 1:11

In Christian teaching, even Jesus did not act on a strictly selfless motive when he sacrificed himself for the benefit of humanity, but endured the cross "for the joy that was set before him" (Hebrews 12:2).

So, I think that few people would restrict their measure of praiseworthiness to those who do not stand to benefit from the good work.

  • you could use a theological citation for what "joy was set before him". fwiw i agree with your 2nd paragraph and how it refers to christian beliefs in the afterlife, but i don't know much about the faith
    – user35983
    Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 0:56
  • 1
    @confused, I put in the specific verse reference you requested. These kinds of references are common and very well standardized, so it will by no means be difficult for Google to serve up the source and any number of commentaries. Commented Jan 15, 2019 at 14:51

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