Is there such thing as a truly selfless act?

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In summary, the conversation discusses the concept of selflessness and whether there is a truly selfless act. Some examples of potential selfless acts are becoming a nun, consciously joining a suicide mission, and saving a life through the loss of one's own. However, some argue that even these acts have some selfish motivations. The discussion also touches on the idea of giving to charity and whether it can be considered a selfless act. Ultimately, the question of whether there is a truly selfless act remains open for debate.
  • #1
Schrodinger's Dog
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All actions have motivational considerations, but can you describe a truly selfless act that transcends motivation or gain? It's a simple question, but a difficult one to answer I think.
 
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  • #2
Schrodinger's Dog said:
All actions have motivational considerations, but can you describe a truly selfless act that transcends motivation or gain? It's a simple question, but a difficult one to answer I think.

Devoting one's life to the study of physics(?):wink:

Becoming a nun.

Consciously joining a suicide mission.:eek:

Going to work.

Saving a life through the loss of one's own.

Being a lab rat.

Being a lab assistant.

Coming up with things to write on PF.:confused:
 
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  • #3
There is another thread about this I believe which I discussed the topic with others heavily. Basically most people agree, it just comes down to the definition of Sefless (or Selfish), people have to realize when you're talking about this topic you don't mean "Selfish" in a negative fashion, and even "Concerning Self" usually invokes negative thoughts in people's minds, and with people's tendency to want to believe human nature is good they dismiss this.

I'll see if I can find the thread.



Edit: https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=129699
 
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  • #4
Saving the life of someone you just don't like. Theoretically, it is possible. No personal gain (in fact, significant personal risk is almost always involved), no real motivation, other than doing what duty tells you to do.

Sounds kind of robotic, you know?
 
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  • #5
Question inspired by the Friends episode? :P
 
  • #6
AsianSensationK said:
doing what duty tells you to do.

You answered your own question.
 
  • #7
Being in an accident.
 
  • #8
well saving someone's life? There are 2 kinds of ppl in this situation
1. Ppl who won't move so not to put their own life at risk.
2. Ppl who would actually do something

But in both cases, who could live with himself if he knows that he could have done something but didn't? so even that has a slight selfish act, cause not doing anything for saving someone also has its consequences and no1 ever wishes to live them.

As for sacrificing one's life for a cause, i think that is probably the only unselfish act, but also if u think about it from a suiciders view pt, especially the palestinian side: Well someone takes ur land, ur dignity, ur freedom, ur family, and forces u to live in disgrace, and when u have nothing to fight back with, ur only choice is to die in honor. so ultimately i think this also has a selfish side, even though dying for a cause in my opinions is the most unselfish thing to do.
But ultimately everything we do we do for ourselves.
 
  • #9
In extreme situations, accidents, natural disasters there are those who almost instinctively come to the aid of a stranger, only later do they think that it was possibly a stupid thing they did but as it all turned out well they get the reward of feeling they have done a good job. But I would argue that at the point of action there was no consious decision to act and therefore no opportunity to think of self.
I seem to be a freezer, but am quite good when I have an oppertunity to assess the situation, therefore I am no good at preventing an accident but calm in clearing up the devastation. Other people I know shout out/dive in as the event occurs so are great in preventing injuries but then fall apart when they see the bigger picture.
Therefore I can't commit a selfless act but I know people who could and infact have, although a totally insignificant selfless act.
 
  • #10
panda just to get ur last comment straight. Do you think that giving money to the poor is selfish or not?
 
  • #11
eaboujaoudeh said:
panda just to get ur last comment straight. Do you think that giving money to the poor is selfish or not?

Yes because you feel good about yourself for performing the act of charity.

Remember that the definition of selfish I am using here is that you get something in return for the act, not that you get more in return than you give.
Giving to charity is also usually good for the recipient as they are given the opportunity to move forwards. It is a win win situation and therefore fgood to be selfish.
 
  • #12
eaboujaoudeh said:
panda just to get ur last comment straight. Do you think that giving money to the poor is selfish or not?

It makes you feel good, you might argue that you do this in order to make yourself feel better, thus it's not purely selfless. The only really selfless act is one where no one knows you even did it, say you saved a thousand people and in doing so died in such a way that no one ever found your body and you were pronounced missing, your final whereabouts a complete mystery. And you would have to know that is what would happen. That way no one associated with you knows, and there are no knock on effects. There is obviously no possible gain to you personally, unless you consider dying a gain.

Other than this obviously unprovable situation? Is there something that could be construed as truly and absolutely selfless? I'm genuinely curious to see if anyone can think of something?

gabee said:
Question inspired by the Friends episode? :P

Not inspired by Friends, inspired by another thread AAMOF :-p:smile:

https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=158130
 
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  • #13
Schrodinger's Dog said:
There is obviously no possible gain to you personally, unless you consider dying a gain.

Ahhh, if you are theist then dying to save a thousand souls would be a gain as you would be rewarded in heaven and therefore again there is a selfish factor to the act. I think you can only do something selflessly if you do it instinctively.

Of course what drives your instincts if not your mind and personality? it could be an unconscious selfish act, but as that is untestable it is beyond the scope of the post.
 
  • #14
eaboujaoudeh said:
But in both cases, who could live with himself if he knows that he could have done something but didn't? so even that has a slight selfish act, cause not doing anything for saving someone also has its consequences and no1 ever wishes to live them.

That's exactly what I wanted to say, too.

eaboujaoudeh said:
panda just to get ur last comment straight. Do you think that giving money to the poor is selfish or not?

Giving money to the poor is in general selfish, since today every piece of c**p which can afford to do so gives away money to the poor (as if it was a fashion craze) and feels better about itself. If some of them really had to help someone in trouble, they'd be too disgusted to even approach. Giving money away is an 'easy, remote-control-styled way' to help someone.
 
  • #15
finally some ppl who feel the same way as i do..human beings are naturally forced to be selfish, but some in a good way, some in better ways then others, some selfish to the extreme
 
  • #16
eaboujaoudeh said:
finally some ppl who feel the same way as i do..human beings are naturally forced to be selfish, but some in a good way, some in better ways then others, some selfish to the extreme

The point is that the term 'selfish' is very elastic in this thread.
 
  • #17
Panda said:
Ahhh, if you are theist then dying to save a thousand souls would be a gain as you would be rewarded in heaven and therefore again there is a selfish factor to the act. I think you can only do something selflessly if you do it instinctively.

Of course what drives your instincts if not your mind and personality? it could be an unconscious selfish act, but as that is untestable it is beyond the scope of the post.

Frankly theists are a rarity around here, but you read the subtext very proficiently :smile:

Instinctive actions are usually self preservational, to commit suicide for others for example is not likely to be based on instinct, more likely morality.
 
  • #18
Being born.
 
  • #19
baywax said:
Being born.

I think by act we mean something you have a choice about, I'm pretty sure all babies have no choice about this.
 
  • #20
Schrodinger's Dog said:
I think by act we mean something you have a choice about, I'm pretty sure all babies have no choice about this.

OK. But do you have a choice about doing what makes you feel good? Is there any other choice?
 
  • #21
baywax said:
OK. But do you have a choice about doing what makes you feel good? Is there any other choice?

Naturally we do. Could glue thumb tacks to each of the keys of my keyboard, but that would make me feel bad whilst typing so I'll choose not to, equally I could design a keyboard made out of chocolate that would make be feel good whilst typing, but I'd then get fat(ter) and feel bad so again I'll choose not to.

Unless you are trying to swing this to an argument about the existence of free will, given the apparent prescence of free will we can choose to make ourselves happy or sad. I think that we will always make choices towards happiness in the long term.
 
  • #22
Panda said:
Naturally we do. Could glue thumb tacks to each of the keys of my keyboard, but that would make me feel bad whilst typing so I'll choose not to, equally I could design a keyboard made out of chocolate that would make be feel good whilst typing, but I'd then get fat(ter) and feel bad so again I'll choose not to.

If pain makes you happy then you are going to put yourself in pain. If pain is all you know then that is what you will seek. It is not as cut and dried as you make it out to be.

What act is there that a person performs that doesn't gratify their conscious and/or subconscious desires?
 
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  • #23
Schrodinger's Dog said:
All actions have motivational considerations, but can you describe a truly selfless act that transcends motivation or gain?

Probably not.:wink:
 
  • #24
Panda said:
Naturally we do. Could glue thumb tacks to each of the keys of my keyboard, but that would make me feel bad whilst typing so I'll choose not to, equally I could design a keyboard made out of chocolate that would make be feel good whilst typing, but I'd then get fat(ter) and feel bad so again I'll choose not to.

Unless you are trying to swing this to an argument about the existence of free will, given the apparent prescence of free will we can choose to make ourselves happy or sad. I think that we will always make choices towards happiness in the long term.

I tihnk that brings us to the point, is there ever any action that will bring us nothing whatsoever happiness or whatever and has it ever been done? Is not morality tied up to some extent to utilatarianism? What's good for the person or the majority in other cases?
 
  • #25
I have a theory that we have not really evolved since we lived in trees and we are fundamentally Anarchists.
We may live in complex societies with Democratic Principles but we only do so because it suits our own ends.

Deep down we want to eat, sleep and breed without being eaten.

Modern society does that better than ever before with the one down side that we have to be socially responsible and go off every day and earn money for the stronger ape at the top of the heap who provides us with financial protection in return for creaming off a profit for himself.

If you could walk outside of your free house and pick an apple off the apple tree and a dvd player off the sony tree and then walk back inside and reproduce asexually, would you say "I must go to work today and get that budget report in"?
 
  • #26
baywax said:
If pain makes you happy then you are going to put yourself in pain. If pain is all you know then that is what you will seek. It is not as cut and dried as you make it out to be.

What act is there that a person performs that doesn't gratify their conscious and/or subconscious desires?

I get the feeling that we are arguing the same point. There is nothing we do that does not gratify our desires. We could do something that does not gratify our desires but we choose not to.
It is difficult to proove though, because I could say "I'll show you, I'm putting my hand in the blender...<Brrrrr... Owwww... Brrrr>> See I didn't enjoy that" But I could be gaining satisfaction by proving to you that you can do things without gaining satisfaction.
As soon as you make a conscious decision, you are satisfying a desire. It is a bit like the free will debate you can only proove it from the outside.

p.s. I'm now off to the hospital now to have my hand put back on...
 
  • #27
What motivates a conscious decision is the desired and expected outcome of the decision. There is no way you can interpret a desired and expected outcome as something you do not actually want, something selfless. Any decision you make is necessarily selfish because every one of your conscious decisions is the result of what motivates you.
 
  • #28
out of whack said:
What motivates a conscious decision is the desired and expected outcome of the decision. There is no way you can interpret a desired and expected outcome as something you do not actually want, something selfless. Any decision you make is necessarily selfish because every one of your conscious decisions is the result of what motivates you.

Let's talk about selflessness in holistic terms then, otherwise you cannot get a sensible answer.

OK so is it possible to have a truly selfless act given what you just typed, given the whole of humanity or x group?

If for example your conscious decision is to save 4000000 people and to die yourself and you are not religious and believe you will get no reward for your action nor will anyone else benefit ever except obviously the 400000 people but all of them will be totally unaware your action saved them and you will die in such a way that no one even knew you were there, and thus you will be reported missing and no one will tie in your act with you, etc, etc is this truly selfless?:smile:
 
  • #29
AsianSensationK said:
no real motivation, other than doing what duty tells you to do.
that's very real motivation. if soldier disobey, he's going to jail.
 
  • #30
Schrodinger's Dog said:
If for example your conscious decision is to save 4000000 people and to die yourself and you are not religious and believe you will get no reward for your action nor will anyone else benefit ever except obviously the 400000 people but all of them will be totally unaware your action saved them and you will die in such a way that no one even knew you were there, and thus you will be reported missing and no one will tie in your act with you, etc, etc is this truly selfless?
Not really, you will have short moments of increased self-respect.
 
  • #31
whatta said:
Not really, you will have short moments of increased self-respect.

There will be a lot of benefit in those short moments when you are dead won't there :wink: I think more likely you'll be afraid of dying, self respect will be the last thing on your mind.
 
  • #32
if I will be "afraid of dying" and "self respect will be the last thing on [my] mind", I will not do what you suggested.
 
  • #33
Schrodinger's Dog said:
OK so is it possible to have a truly selfless act given what you just typed, given the whole of humanity or x group?

I don't believe so for the reason I gave in my previous post.

Schrodinger's Dog said:
If for example your conscious decision is to save 4000000 people and to die yourself and you are not religious and believe you will get no reward for your action nor will anyone else benefit ever except obviously the 400000 people but all of them will be totally unaware your action saved them and you will die in such a way that no one even knew you were there, and thus you will be reported missing and no one will tie in your act with you, etc, etc is this truly selfless?:smile:

I think you can formulate any dilemma in any manner you wish and it would still not matter. In your example, if you are motivated to make this decision then clearly your expect that the outcome will be to save these people and clearly you desire this outcome. The exact reason why you desire this outcome are personal. It could be that you would not want to keep on living with the knowledge that you sacrificed four million people. It could be that failure to act would violate your self-respect. Or anything along these lines. A motivator can be avoidance of a negative as well as desire of a positive. Regardless of the specific motive, the motive exists and it is what you personally want. The fact that different people would make different decisions simply reflects different personal motivators.
 
  • #34
out of whack said:
I don't believe so for the reason I gave in my previous post.
I think you can formulate any dilemma in any manner you wish and it would still not matter. In your example, if you are motivated to make this decision then clearly your expect that the outcome will be to save these people and clearly you desire this outcome. The exact reason why you desire this outcome are personal. It could be that you would not want to keep on living with the knowledge that you sacrificed four million people. It could be that failure to act would violate your self-respect. Or anything along these lines. A motivator can be avoidance of a negative as well as desire of a positive. Regardless of the specific motive, the motive exists and it is what you personally want. The fact that different people would make different decisions simply reflects different personal motivators.

What if you had no time at all to think about the consequences, ie it was pure instinct that made you act one way or another, so there is no conscious thought gone into your action, only a decision act or not act, with no provisos placed on either or time to analyse the outcomes of inaction or action, what then? In other words you know to not act means life and to act means death but the saving of 400000 people, but you have no time to ponder the implications either way, in fact the decision must be made practically instantaneously and instinctively, and then of course what I said above also follows.

In essence is this a selfless act?:smile:

Ie it is not motivational exactly, it is just reflexive action.
 
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  • #35
when your instincts fail you and for that reason you die, that's not a selfless act, that's an act of natural selection.
 

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