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11 July, 2004


I don't believe in selflessness.  I don't mean that I acknowledge some people are selfless but don't practice it myself, I quite literally don't believe selflessness exists; it is simply not something of which humans are capable.

I also don't mean that everyone is driven by an urge for self-gratification.  This isn't selfishness versus selflessness; I'm saying self-interest is at the root of both.  There are infinite combinations of motivations for a vast range of activities, but I believe all, without exception, may be ultimately reduced to self-interest.

Practitioners of certain religions undergo particular actions or hardships in this life, in the expectation of reward in the next or indeed to avoid punishment in the afterlife. Expressed this way, this seems like selfishness through selflessness, but that thought invites digression into a whole different issue, heavily laden with value judgements, so I won't pursue it here!

Take two definitions of 'selflessness', from

1: the quality of unselfish concern for the welfare of others [syn: altruism]
2: acting with less concern for yourself than for the success of the joint activity [syn: self-sacrifice]

Both can be traced back to a more fundamental level of motivation: an individual may put the interests of others ahead of his/her own because the individual wants others to succeed - the individual is satisfying his/her own desire, or sense of propriety.

As noted by Nathaniel Branden in his thought provoking 'Reflections on the Ethics of Selflessness':

Kant taught that any action contaminated by self-interest to even the smallest degree can make no claim to moral merit - only that which is done out of duty can be virtuous.

Yet this is treating the concept slightly differently, erroneously treating 'self-interest' too much as a synonym of 'selfishness'. An individual's decision to perform a duty is still motivated by an attempt to satisfy the individual's interest in duty. Humans operate within communities and society, so it is rarely in an individual's interest to act selfishly - selflessness promotes the interests of the individual.

People might accept certain duties not because they particularly want to, but because they, as individuals, feel it is the 'right' thing to do. This may even mean acting contrary to the individual's own welfare, such as rushing into a burning building to save someone, but the motivator is still that individual's love for the partner or family member, or sense of obligation to do whatever one can even for a stranger.

A person mightn't wish to perform a certain action at all, but does so anyway, for reasons of self-preservation due to a fear of punishment or retribution from others. An extreme example would be a soldier going into battle and killing others, rather than be shot as a deserter.

I'm sure anyone reading this can think of someone well-known as 'selfless'. The first that springs to my mind is Mother Theresa. I very much doubt her work in Calcutta was motivated by self-gratification or a desire for glory, but because she, as an individual, felt it was the right thing to do, and she was complying with her personal and religious morals.

I suppose the only truly selfless action would be an entirely random one, though even that might be ascribed to the individual's whim, so that only leaves totally inadvertent, accidental actions, driven by no motivation whatsoever. That's getting a little abstract, though!

If I was selfish, I'd take the time to refine this argument, but I have work to do (yes, on a Sunday). If I don't study a stack of completed job applications in time for the shortlisting meeting tomorrow morning, the process will be delayed, others will be inconvenienced, and I will be open to (unspoken) criticism. Hence, it is in my interest to post this 'as-is' and read the applications, even though I'm not being paid for the extra time, to protect and infinitesimally improve my position.


You're quite right, Neil. I have often thought about this issue and it seems that apparently altruistic behaviour actually stems from one of two motivations: people do it either because it makes them feel good (self-interested) or because of a promise of future religious paradise (also self-interested). Not the same as "selfish" which connotes putting one's own short-term interests over those of another, but still not selfless. It comes down to this, I think: as long as what you are doing is the result of a choice you have made, it is motivated by some form of self-interest. And almost every action we take is the result of a choice.

Posted by Jon. Waller at July 12, 2004 06:04 PM
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