Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is there a completely selfless deed?

People all around us like and praise selflessness and dislike and denounce selfishness. Why do people do that? How do you know if an act is selfless or selfish? For that matter how do you define selfishness and selflessness? Can there be an act that can be defined as an act of absolute selflessness? Let us see.

What is selfishness? Selfishness can be defined as the quality or state of showing exclusive regard to one's own interest or happiness. It is that supreme self-love or self-preference which leads a person to direct his purposes to the advancement of his own interest, power, or happiness, without regarding those of others. Absolute selfishness would imply acts where only the actor benefits.

What is selflessness? Selflessness can be defined as the quality or state of showing absolute disregard to ones own self. By this definition such a person would direct his purpose exclusively for the advancement of other's interest, power or happiness without regarding those of his own. Absolute selflessness would mean that such acts would give no returns of any kind to the actor.

Leaving aside the definitions how does the society judge if an act is selfish or selfless. The answer is pretty straightforward. An act is judged as selfless if the actor gets less out of the act than the society or other people around the actor does. This can normally be accentuated if the actor had alternative choices where he could have gotten more out of the alternative acts and the others would have gotten lesser from those. All other acts are considered selfish :-)

In terms of cost (and efforts which is a cost) when a person incurs cost for the benefit of another person it is considered selfless. If not it is selfish. Normally society is not that harsh and judges based on alternative options available and the 'selflessness ratings' of such options. Also when acts can only possibly yield rewards to the actor, for example preparing for exams, the acts are considered neutral on the selflessness index. However a person declining to help another person during exam preparations will still be considered selfish by the society.

Let us take a closer look at a selfless act. Any act can be considered to have both a physical (or external) result and a metaphysical (or an internal) result. Consider having come through an exam with A+ grade. The physical result is in you getting enough questions correct to get an A+ and the metaphysical result is the 'happiness' or 'satisfaction' that you feel inside your mind. For a selfless act we have defined that the person gets less than what he gives. But this only applies to the external cost vs result. What about the internal results. What if the person enjoys each and every one of his selfless acts more than what the recipients of the fruits of the act does? Would these acts be really selfless? Wouldn't such acts be considered as being done by the person for his own sake without actually caring about others? If such a reasoning holds true couldn't all supposedly 'selfless' deeds be considered selfish where the actors were doing it for the sake of the internal result?

Even if it were partly true, i.e. if the person gains some internal returns but were doing the act for the recipients sake or that the recipients received more than the actor, the person would be getting something in return for the supposedly selfless act. Now getting something in return should imply that the act was not fully selfless like we have defined before. Shouldn't that imply that there is no such thing as a fully selfless deed?

There is an interesting aspect about this argument. This can be extended to every deed and we can claim that we are rewarded internally for every deed that we do and hence all of these are selfish and the true reward of all these deeds is the 'happiness' or the state of mind that the person achieves through the action itself. This can be extended again to state that the objective of every action is ultimately the internalized 'happiness' or the above mentioned state of mind. I am still not very clear about this angle but it is an interesting thought.

If we take out the philosophical perspective that every selfless deed can indeed be selfish then we can take a look at why people praise such deeds. In a society where only the fittest is supposed to survive why would an act where the actor bears the cost and somebody else enjoys the fruit get promoted.

I feel that this adoration for selflessness is a trait that has evolved in society to reward 'selfless' deeds that are valuable for the continuation of the species. There are two types of selfless deeds that I think are relevant here. One is where the actor does something very beneficial to the society at his cost and another is an act where the actor does something which the society expects somebody else to do for him if such a situation arises.

An example for the first would be where somebody, in a medieval society, risks his/her life to fight off natural dangers, for example marauding animals, at their personal risk. Cumulation of such acts would have provided protection to the society as a whole but sometimes at the cost of the individuals similar to how a worker bee sacrifices her life for the hive by stinging invaders.

An example for the second would be where a person spends time and effort by rushing to accident scenes and providing care to accident victims. A cumulation of such acts would act like an insurance policy for every individual in the society. The individual who acts might not really be doing it for the insurance aspect, and in fact mostly wouldn't even be thinking about these aspects. It is like a transparent social security net woven by societal evolution.

'Selfless' acts also serves to balance out the costs in the society. Persons capable of bearing some extra costs, by doing the selfless deeds and bearing such costs, enable people who are not capable of bearing such costs (or being not in a position where they could bear such costs as in the case of accident victims) enjoy the fruits of such actions. This again is another perspective of the social security net mentioned above.

The society is banking on the theory of diminishing efforts. By incentivising selflessness, the society is hoping to get more people to do such deeds thereby making the cost of such deeds smaller and smaller for each individual and ultimately reach a perfect state (which it never will) where every individual will only pay the proportion of cost that he is bound to pay. The biological reasoning could be that the species have a better chance of survival against other species if individuals of the species stand together and grow together.

So through the adoration people are incentivised to do such 'selfless' deeds for which individually they might not get a direct benefit proportional to the cost (or effort which is also a cost) they bear. Let us join in and do such 'selfless' deeds and hope that the secret agenda of our society moves forward towards its target and of course ensure the continuation of the inherently selfish species homo sapiens sapiens :-).


  1. I agree with you on the part that if you take into account "happiness" as a result, there are no selfless good deeds, even acts of random kindness wont qualify. Also I think by nature we are motivated towards an altruistic deed by a very "selfish" pursuit of good-name or happiness etc. The doer of every so called selfless good deed does derive something from the act and if that prize(or a chance for a prize) wasnt there, I dont think the person would have considered that act in the first place.

  2. True, society 'rewards' such people. But I would suggest these rewards are mere farcical in nature and have absolutely no value whatsoever. For eg. army personnel lose their lives trying to protect a nation, a true selfless act. Yet, they are ignored or given an award. Suddenly, at what point do you draw the line of selflessness (assuming attaining absolute selflessness is impossible as even those who give their lives for others achieve something, could be love, joy, meaning to life, anything)? So there you have brought in the cost/effort factor. But assuming you do say, that society gained more than me as a result of my endeavour, will society take care of me? I highly doubt it, as humans by nature are covetous and individualistic. Wouldnt it be fair to reason that the society for which I give my life for, will sustain me? But then at that point, it will longer become an act of selflessness. So does that mean selflessness would result in a mere burning out of person, to a point where I am longer a person but a ragdoll at the service of others and have nothing for myself?

  3. @Rajiv - I am not too sure about the last statement but I agree with the rest

    @Wanderer - What a pleasant surprise! Regarding the rewards, these are only what the society can afford I guess. When you take a particular example like the case of army personnel that you have stated - you are no longer dealing with society but rather a group of people making a joint decision on whether to reward the soldier or not. The society that I am talking about is a social being in itself influencing the decision making of the people in the society but never manifesting itself directly. It is more like a concept :-). Such a society will cease to act the moment you have a specific case or example. The 'social force' can be explained only on a group of events just like statistics.

    Now regarding your last point, you are totally at your own freedom to do whatever you want. Now society incentivises certain things and disincentivises certain things to try to bias the occurrence of such events. If you feel (sometimes this could just be subconscious as in the case of jumping in to help accident victims without thinking about rewards/consequences) that it is worthwhile you can take it else you can leave it.

  4. Based on the society defined terms: selfishness is what naturally comes to you as a child, to have get everything for onself. As you grow up, you learn that there is a trade off between giving and getting, whether it is physical or mental or spiritual or on any other terms. The one who is more aware (consciously or subconsciously) on how to play the game is tagged as selfless.

    Nishkamakarmam as in bhagavat gita...
    karmanye wa adhikarasthe
    ma phaleshu kadhachana
    ma karma phala hedhur bhu
    ma the sangoastha akarmani

    Summarised, it says you have the right to duty only, which you should not refrain from doing, and which should not be driven by its fruits. This could probably termed as selflesness IF that does not even include a hope of moksha or eternal happiness as a final reward: OR a self glorification in some terms. I am not sure such a nishkama-karma is perfectly possible. I havent heard or met anyone so far..

    I am a firm believer of selfishness. When i was a child, i believed in getting money (symbolic) without giving it out. Later i learnt that investing it in several ways, would get me more money. It is not a set rule or an aware act. Just a subconsciously learnt awareness?

  5. Very interesting post. Every action has a reaction, though not necessailry equal. Every deed, no matter how selfless will have an effect on the doer - fame, adulation, respect, happiness, satisfaction - though some of these effects may be unforseen. Maybe a truly selfless deed is where the doer does benefit positively out of it, but has not forseen this benefit!!

    1. Or consider a truely selfless deed being emotionally costly whereas the doer must endure painful emotions yet acts because he does forsee future positive benefits. An example would be an altruistic mother who gives up a child so that child has better opportunity 4 a brighter future then the 1 she is able to provide, a painful sacrifice for the love of a child. Induring while waiting the unknown outcome of the delayed reaction,

  6. Great non-thondom raughts. I happened upon your blog because I am currently writing on re-defining, egocentric, exocentric and holocentric with respect to the human. Instead using "Self" and other modifiers. So self-ishness and self-lessness are more than obvious players. One model that I am using this within is the Alcoholics Anonymous defining of Ego and how they use it. I believe there is a way to harness more "buy in" for a greater number of addicted.
    So to your thoughts..
    I think the missing modifier in your premise is Intention. "If" the actor has forethought and the intention of receiving external and/or internal gains from the selfless act "than" the act is not selfless. It is beneficial to other human(s) and can be judged to be selfless by society but at its metaphysical heart it is not true. If however the actor proceeds without a priori or a posteriori thoughts as to personal rewards but acts from altruistic intention than the act may be deemed, both socially and metaphysically to be a true selfless act. As you point out there is a summation effect whereby the actor is rewarded with positive emotions, senses of achievement and fulfillment, etc. I think here we see evolutionary feedback (perhaps transcendent evo-devo feedback as well)that reinforces the "rightness" or "righteousness" (social/spiritual you choose)of the act and its chances of being carried out again. Selfless or selfish is than defined by the second act where the actor is executing the giving either for the return of that state of mindful experience (much like the hooked drug addict returning again and again for the "high") or execution is given for the need of the other without intentions of receiving personal reward.
    Again great thoughts on your part and thank you for sharing!

  7. @Rocksea - I think the whole world is selfish, and it might even be OK to be selfish. The problem only starts when people start doing things where they stand to gain at the cost of others. But this I think is an inherent problem with the attitude of selfishness. i.e. when given with 2 choices wherein in one I gain and somebody loses something and in the other I do not gain/lose anything whereas somebody else gains something, being selfish would make me choose the first option because that option would give me higher returns. So a mix of selfishness plus a strong sense of fairness would probably be a good characteristic to have. The selfishness would drive the person to achieve his goals while the sense of fairness would force him to not take actions where he gains unfairly over another person.

    @Preeti - That is an interesting perspective. I think your answer makes sense and this is resonated by Dr. Don. Selfless acts could be those where the actor acted without intentionally looking for the returns from the act.

    @Dr. Don - I think you have dissected the intention aspect of the act. I agree with you fully.

    I was however looking at how society judges the actor based on what the society sees or deduces as the returns from the act. Society will not be aware of the intentions of the actor but will definitely know or deduce the rewards of the act for the actor, both external and internal. Here I am looking at society as a group of selfish individuals not as the unified entity that takes care of the continuation of the species in the example cited in the article.
    So from this perspective society will constantly put on a pressure on the person against selfish deeds and will try to judge all acts as selfish.

    Now we all concur on the definition of a selfless act as an act where the actor did not act with an apriori knowledge and desire for the reward from the act. But who is the judge here? For a third part observer who makes the judgment aposteriori every act can be concluded as a selfish act, wouldn't it be so?

  8. Wow, some great posts and wonderful reflections!
    I'm not very good at the whole Blogger stuff so I'm not sure who I'm replying to so I beg pardon preemptively.
    As to the third person judging with personal knowledge and limited perspective (as you or someone said we cannot truly no the mind or heart of another[poorly paraphrased and hopefully not interpolated])I believe the key lies within the "judgment" of another. Judgment, at least where humans are concerned, is rife with mistaken conclusions for all sorts of reasons we shant have time to delve into. It sheds more critical reasoning upon the phrase, "Judge not lest ye be judged". Now could all True (I understand the point of "who is to judge" and takes us into the metaphysics of being more than human which is MY FAVORITE area of thought/reason(watch for a coming book entitled, The Life Model)selfless acts be judged selfish? Sure, possible but not probable in the absolute. What of the woman who's child falls into flood waters and an assured death. Without thinking a man jumps in and by a miracle saves the child but gets pulled under after the child is grabbed from his arms..and he dies. I don't believe the Mom or society would ever judge his act as anything other than selfless.Society would also lose the possibility to judge based upon perceived reward. He is not around to receive any. And any who would judge his intent to motivated by reward would be chastised by society and deemed deviant in view.
    I do agree that, depending upon the culture, a society can be less inclinesd toward selfless acts especially when they live under a socialized compact where the government is supposed to take care of its people. My experience is that these groups are less inclined to philanthropy and charity, both potential acts and possible opportunities for selflessness. Compare Germany with USA for instance. Germans think we're nuts for how much we give and how often we reach out to those in need. Not bad people (no judgment), wonderful actually but their society perceives the reasons and needs for acting in selfless and selfish ways differently.
    And this would create varied outcomes for any argument where human judgment is a variable.
    My head hurts...

  9. @Dr. Don, Thanks for sharing your thoughts in detail once again.
    Yes again you are dead on target. The issue is more about the judgment than about the actual action. Your example about the man dying to save a child takes out the possibility of the a posteriori logic :-). Your example about the cultural effect on the logic of judgment makes sense and concurs with my logic about the safety net. When there is a system wide safety net you don't need to be selfless any more. That is probably where the world is headed to :-)

  10. heh heh heh.... interesting. well offcourse there's no selfless good deed. The moment the person thinks of it as a 'good' deed..his intention gets selfish. Deeds good or evil both feed his ego. If on the other hand if he sees a traffic accident and immediately rushes in.. thats a whole different scenario altogether. people doing stuff out of care...thats something else