# Is there such thing as a truly selfless act?

Gold Member
Don't feel bad, if you haven't been exposed to much philosophy its quite common to mistake things like Rand or the Matrix for the real thing.

If you're looking for some more serious stuff on Altruism, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene is a good place to start, at least from a modern perspective.
Dawkin's is an influential evolutionary biologist. I don't agree that qualifies Selfish Gene as a good example of a 'starter' philosophy text.

JoeDawg
Dawkin's is an influential evolutionary biologist. I don't agree that qualifies Selfish Gene as a good example of a 'starter' philosophy text.

It is with regards to any kind of modern philosophy of selfish/altruistic behavior.

Philosophy doesn't ignore advances in science. This is a case where advances in biology inform the discussion.

40 years ago it would have been solidly in the category of psychology/sociology, 2 hundred years ago, those disciplines were considered philosophy. And that is where the discussion on those topics has its history.

Science is merely an extension of rational/empirical philosophy.

To understand some of the philosophy of Aristotle, Descartes or Hume, you have to understand the level of 'scientific' understanding of their time.

I mean, hell, I'm not a member of this particular community because I studied physics, I'm a member because I studied subjects that are informed by advances in physics... and most of those advances I only have a marginal understanding of. But then watching physicists philosophize outside their expertise can be amusing too.

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moving finger
Determinism is dead, I really hope that's not news to you.
Certainly news to me.

How did it die?

moving finger
But if you take the word "selfless" literally, then a selfless act would be cutting off an apendage/bodypart or cutting out an innard. that would mean that you would have less of the self.
so cutting my fingernails is a truly "selfless" act?

:rofl:

JoeDawg
so cutting my fingernails is a truly "selfless" act?

:rofl:

Only if you dispose of the clippings properly.

Noone
Yes its a concept of (Doing onto others as you want done onto your self) it takes away from you and gives to other's every time. Also another one would be what i do every day to everyone i meet and that would be giving there thoughts and point of view of life and there perception of it all the same respect as my own. i dotn do it for my self but only for them with pure intentions i do such -.- here's an example of what peoples thoughts seem like to me and i still give them the same respect as mine--->(killing your self would be selfish, he/she should have to go through the same BS we all do till the day nature takes him/her away to the unknown vauge.) My thought on that matter would be--->(No comment, for lack of logic of why it would or why it wouldnt:)but the reason why i give people the same respect as my own thoughts is due to the concept of doing onto others as you would want done to your self. it only works if you don't lie to your self and try to justify your actions when there not really correct :)

seanpcurto
Being in an accident.

an accident is not an executed act.

seanpcurto

Being in an accident.

I don't think it's possible to commit a selfless act.

Demonstration for continuous acts:
As long as we are making a conscious decision to give or suffer to provide for another, we are being rewarded by the avoidance of failure of what we expect from ourselves and/or of which we are expected from society for the fear of ridicule of action not taken where otherwise could have been. Also, what is perceived as selfless may provide hope to a caretaker that their efforts will resolve a long term problem.

Demonstration act for potential loss of life:
If we commit what some might call a selfless act, we have an awareness that it is good no mater how reactionary or, preconceived it is. Most of us, desire a meaning in life above all else and would attain a "selflessness" status from others from the MOMENT we put our life at risk whether resulting in either escape, injury or death while the act is in progress. The rest of us would have no moral invested interest in being selfless and therefore be the one's on the sidelines of a seen in which a dangerous self sacrifice rescue or the like might be attempted but chosen not to.

A persons act/acts may be deemed by others as a selfless act, but not to themselves.

For me personally I'd like to think it would a selfless act to feed myself to wild tigers, but that's only because I care for wildlife in general and therefore it would be an honor to offer myself to something greater than myself of which I am a integral part of. That is why it wouldn't be selfless. Giving, no matter how extreme, affects how good I feel emotionally responsible AT THE TIME OF THE ACT no matter how terrified I might feel during the act because I would have made the decision first. (hopefully :)

Because we all are different, we go to different lengths to "act" selfless, but are not selfless ourselves.

Air
It's all down to personal thoughts. A matter of opinion. One act may seem selfish to one person and not to other and vice versa.

Gold Member
an accident is not an executed act.

That's debatable. Many people believe there are no accidents. They tend to view the fact that someone has put themselves in a position to be in an accident as a subconsciously directed act.

This doesn't mean its a selfless act... just a subconsciously directed act.

Otherwise, selfless acts appear to be somewhat of a myth. Even the guy dampening the blow of a grenade with his body is doing so out of the selfish aim to feel good about saving his comrades from harm.

Lord Ping
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.

One day a demon pops up and gives me two choices. After I have made the choice, I will forget that the deal ever took place. The options are:

1) My children will be happy throughout their lives, but it will always seem to me as though they are suffering terribly.
2) My children will suffer terribly throughout their lives, but it will always seem to me as though they are happy.

I have absolutely nothing to gain intrinsically from taking option (1). No happiness, no profit, no sense of self-satisfaction. Yet option (1) is still the obvious choice.

This observation is fully compatible with "inclusive fitness" or "selfish gene" theories about altruistic behaviour - these theories don't deny the possibility of selfless acts by individuals.

Mathos
I would say no. I would argue that these examples of sacrificing your life to save someone else (or a great deal of people) would only be attempted because you would be impacted in such a way that by continuing to survive without saving them would harm your internal well-being more than you may perceive is allowable to stay within the boundaries of your moral code (or other subjective value system you abide by) to handle and that dying would seem a more attractive option. Those who are religious have more incentive to act in a way perceived as selfless due to the rewards received after death.

Some may argue that by acting so quickly that it's almost 'subconscious' may be considered a selfless act because no time has been made available to process any gain that could come from the action. I'd say that people have likely thought of performing such an action at some point in their lives or have at least thought of something similar enough to have made a judgement on how they would act should such an occasion present itself. That or their skeletal muscles are all messed up and they move without being aware. It could happen!

Lord Ping
Mathos, I think my example refutes your point.

Mathos
The actual well-being of your children may have a profound effect on their chances of reproduction and this could be a factor in your decision, which I would say has a big impact on you.

More importantly though, it could be that you simply value your children's well-being as a function of your own happiness. You'd rather make a decision knowing that your children will actually be happy (and this thought naturally makes you happy) rather than on how they seem outwardly. It doesn't matter that you forget the choice you made afterwards, the fact that leading up to making the decision you know your children will be happy is the real factor.

mr-tom
Stroking your dog? Can't see anything selfish in that.

Lord Ping
The actual well-being of your children may have a profound effect on their chances of reproduction and this could be a factor in your decision, which I would say has a big impact on you.

More importantly though, it could be that you simply value your children's well-being as a function of your own happiness. You'd rather make a decision knowing that your children will actually be happy (and this thought naturally makes you happy) rather than on how they seem outwardly. It doesn't matter that you forget the choice you made afterwards, the fact that leading up to making the decision you know your children will be happy is the real factor.

1st point: You think I may indirectly gain from choosing option (1) because I will get grandchildren. Is this why I make the decision I make? No. If you like, we can add a bit to the example that says my children don't want any children and will never have any.

2nd point: As far as I can tell, the suggestion here is that my decision is based on my desire to be happy "leading up to the decision". Rather shortsightedly, I prioritise instant gratification over long-term gratification (let alone selflessness!). I don't think this sticks either. Unless you think instant gratification is my rationale for moral decisions normally, it must be that my decisionmaking process in this hypothetical scenario is highly exceptional. But intuitively it isn't. The exceptional feature - that I will never know about the outcome of my decision or that I even made the decision - doesn't have any effect on my decisionmaking at all. It is a simple case of looking after one's children.

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Mathos
1st point: You think I may indirectly gain from choosing option (1) because I will get grandchildren. Is this why I make the decision I make? No. If you like, we can add a bit to the example that says my children don't want any children and will never have any.

2nd point: As far as I can tell, the suggestion here is that my decision is based on my desire to be happy "leading up to the decision". Rather shortsightedly, I prioritise instant gratification over long-term gratification (let alone selflessness!). I don't think this sticks either. Unless you think instant gratification is my rationale for moral decisions normally, it must be that my decisionmaking process in this hypothetical scenario is highly exceptional. But intuitively it isn't. The exceptional feature - that I will never know about the outcome of my decision or that I even made the decision - doesn't have any effect on my decisionmaking at all. It is a simple case of looking after one's children.

The first point is kind of tied to the second, so I'll just address the second point.

Choosing the option that makes you unhappy due to seeing your children unhappy may not be self-centered, but I wouldn't say it's selfless either. Yes, most people would likely pick the first option, but I would say this is tied more to an intuition regarding the passing of genetic material (I think that this drive would still exist in some complex emotional form even if you knew logically that your children would not reproduce.)

More fundamental I think, is that lacking any outside frame of reference, you would put yourself in the situation. You've experienced sadness and you view it as something you'd like to avoid and the empathy associated with the first option is the ability to view what is happening to your children as if it were happening to you. There are probably a host of reasons for empathizing in this way, but I think ultimately it can be tied to some biological imperative.

You realize you're hurting yourself, but by helping your children perhaps on some level you feel like you're helping yourself more in the long run. Of course I doubt any of this would occur at a conscious level-- I don't really enjoy thinking about it in these terms-- but I believe this to be the case.

_Mayday_
A bee giving it's life for it's queen.

Lord Ping
Mayday said:
A bee giving it's life for it's queen.

I assumed we were talking about people. It's doubtful that bees have a "self," whatever that is. We only apply the term to bees anthropomorphically. I think consciousness is a basic prerequisite (are bees conscious? Seems unlikely).You could equally say a bomb is terribly selfless, destroying itself for the good of a terrorist.

Choosing the option that makes you unhappy due to seeing your children unhappy may not be self-centered, but I wouldn't say it's selfless either. Yes, most people would likely pick the first option, but I would say this is tied more to an intuition regarding the passing of genetic material (I think that this drive would still exist in some complex emotional form even if you knew logically that your children would not reproduce.)

I wouldn't say this is incompatible with the act being selfless. The question is whether I gain anything from my decision.

More fundamental I think, is that lacking any outside frame of reference, you would put yourself in the situation. You've experienced sadness and you view it as something you'd like to avoid and the empathy associated with the first option is the ability to view what is happening to your children as if it were happening to you. There are probably a host of reasons for empathizing in this way, but I think ultimately it can be tied to some biological imperative.

I don't think this is incompatible with the act being selfless either. You're saying I'm putting myself in someone else's head and then being selfish from within their perspective... I'd say that's basically what we mean by "selfless".

Mathos
I don't think this is incompatible with the act being selfless either. You're saying I'm putting myself in someone else's head and then being selfish from within their perspective... I'd say that's basically what we mean by "selfless".

You're only putting yourself in their head because it's the only way to perceive their emotional state. You could be placing your children's happiness over your own in that instant for a whole host of reasons. Perhaps some notion of guilt comes into play when deciding or maybe it would simply be extremely difficult to imagine the situation of seeing your children unhappy and you're making a decision too rashly. I think that the answer lies in some biological drive and it probably doesn't occur on a conscious level.

I won't pretend to have an exact answer to a hypothetical that requires so much leeway in deciding what most people would or wouldn't do, but these are my guesses.

Gold Member
A bee giving it's life for it's queen.

That's an interesting example. However, we can't say whether or not a bee has a sense of self and therefore we can't say if the bee is acting selflessly in this case.

There is some research into the presence of a gene that regulates altruistic behaviour. I wouldn't doubt this because of the numerous examples of cooperation within gene pools and cooperation in symbiotic relationships between different species. It appears to be an autonomic response to be available to give up everything for the good of the "hive" or the organism or for the tissue or the colony.

Gold Member
If it feels good to see your children healthy... facilitating their health is a selfish act.

K.J.Healey
What about feeding my cat? It doesn't make me feel good, but I'm sure she likes it.

JoeDawg
A common problem when talking about 'altruism' is the fact that the word is used differently, both in common parlance and in different fields of study.

The original definition of the word simply referred to 'acts' done for the 'common good'.

Clearly this doesn't imply any problem with receiving benefit from the act. The difference between 'selfish' and 'altruistic' in this case is a decision based on 'what is good for the self' and only the self, as opposed to, what is good for the group, which obviously may include the self. The fact what is good for the group may also be good for the self is not really the issue.

Talking about altruism in some hyper-idealized way simply ignores reality, which is open to interpretation based on individual point of view.

Also, rewards, with regards to altruism, are generally thought to include 'material' gains, rather than internal or emotional gains. This is often the case when sociologists/anthropologists observe animal groups. Obviously, identifying the internal emotional benefits to an animal that performs an altruistic act is quite difficult.

In the end, you can't really look at 'altruism vs selfishness' as binary opposites. Any action described in one way could also be described in the reverse given a specific interpretation of motivation. Any specific action is likely going to exist along a spectrum between these two 'opposites'.

Gold Member
What about feeding my cat? It doesn't make me feel good, but I'm sure she likes it.

Why do you feed your cat?

Gold Member
A common problem when talking about 'altruism' is the fact that the word is used differently, both in common parlance and in different fields of study.

The original definition of the word simply referred to 'acts' done for the 'common good'.

Clearly this doesn't imply any problem with receiving benefit from the act. The difference between 'selfish' and 'altruistic' in this case is a decision based on 'what is good for the self' and only the self, as opposed to, what is good for the group, which obviously may include the self. The fact what is good for the group may also be good for the self is not really the issue.

Talking about altruism in some hyper-idealized way simply ignores reality, which is open to interpretation based on individual point of view.

Also, rewards, with regards to altruism, are generally thought to include 'material' gains, rather than internal or emotional gains. This is often the case when sociologists/anthropologists observe animal groups. Obviously, identifying the internal emotional benefits to an animal that performs an altruistic act is quite difficult.

In the end, you can't really look at 'altruism vs selfishness' as binary opposites. Any action described in one way could also be described in the reverse given a specific interpretation of motivation. Any specific action is likely going to exist along a spectrum between these two 'opposites'.

The main reason to bring altruism into this discussion was not to use it as a polar opposite to selfishness but rather to help explain that there is no such thing as selfless behaviour. As more research shows that altruistic behaviour is autonomic and genetically determined, that is... behaviour that benefits both the individual and the group... the more "selflessness" begins to look like the "myth" of a self-important group of people.

The idea that selflessness looks like fiction rubs people the wrong way because they have ideals about heroism and sainthood that depend on the concept. I'm not saying there is no such thing as either... I saying the criteria for these nominations may need to be overhauled.

You have to realize that this discussion is summed up by one of three (or so) men from France in the old saying...

"All for one and one for all".

Gold Member
raw post (have only read the title. If an argument pursues, I'm willing to read other posts if referenced to them)

Of course, we can't ever prove this absolutely until we find a way to verify people's motivations objectively (if that's even possible... if motivation actually has an observable physical representative... a common set of signals in the brain or what not).

For someone to be selfless, they must have a parasitic relationship (where they are the host, not the parasite) by the definition of selflessness.

I think we generally look down upon parasitic relationships (somehow or another society considers both participants of a parasitic relationship to be weak) and hold symbiotic relationships in high regard.

Personally, I tend to trust people more who are open about their expectations, because it means they have explored and developed their own intentions and expectations. People that have a selfless personality are more liable to have surprise expectations...

So in conclusion, perhaps there are selfless acts, but one person in their lifetime can't be more selfless than selfish without endangering their psychological and/or physical health.

One exception may be someone born rich who never consumes more (in financial value) than they give to charities or what not. Unfortunately, this isn't the end game though, because they may have been receiving other benefits from their actions that result in other types of gains besides financial.

K.J.Healey
Why do you feed your cat?

Habit? If its empty I put food in. If I don't I'm sure my brother will, its his cat really.

Can habitual actions that happen to be beneficial to others be considered selfless?

luben
how about we construct a linear scale between selfish and selfless and then continue the discussion I think this is more definite and effective. IMO, 100% selfless acts does not exist, since there is alway some selfishness exists when one considers all relations:
$$\int_{\text{all relations}}d\text{(relation)}[\text{selfishness in an act}] >0$$

in other words, one can always find something "the subject wants" in an act

Gold Member
Habit? If its empty I put food in. If I don't I'm sure my brother will, its his cat really.

Convenient but incomplete answer. You either feed the cat to stop it from asking for food (selfish behaviour) or because you feel good about feeding the cat (selfish behaviour) or because you have a habit of feeling good when you feed an animal (also selfish).

Can habitual actions that happen to be beneficial to others be considered selfless?

If you have an addiction (habit) of feeding animals it fulfills the need to make the action of feeding an animal (selfish motive). Fulfilling the need to do something is a selfish act.

* * * * * *

We could really end this discussion by saying all motives and all actions are selfless in that they are determined by genetic programming and by the influence of the laws of physics.

In this way we have to see that there is only the myth and the conjecture that there is a "self" because the "self" is really just a composite of matter and em waves acting in accordance with natural laws with no real self-determined outcomes whatsoever.

Concluding with my last statement would mean that all actions are selfless in that they are under the direction of natural law.

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K.J.Healey
Convenient but incomplete answer. You either feed the cat to stop it from asking for food (selfish behaviour) or because you feel good about feeding the cat (selfish behaviour) or because you have a habit of feeling good when you feed an animal (also selfish).
I don't do it to stop her from asking for food.

I don't feel good about feeding her. I do it without even thinking. I see an empty bowl and I fill it.
While I understand the whole "habit fulfillment" thing being considered selfish in some way, isn't it really a subconscious selfishness? Can that even be considered selfish?

I guess I think its all up to semantics. Selfish in my book means a primary concern for ones self. Actions that just happen to benefit you without consideration I do not deem selfish.
I do not feed my cat to feel happy about myself. I may do it so she doesn't starve. The fact that I MAY feel happy about it (or may not) is inconsequential. It was not the REASON the act was performed.

JoeDawg
As more research shows that altruistic behaviour is autonomic and genetically determined...

That doesn't make it any less altruistic. A behavior is a behavior.
Like I said, if it is for the 'common' good, then its altruistic by definition.
It doesn't matter where altruistic behavior comes from, or whether it benefits the individual as well.

Those who demand that altruistic behavior produce absolutely 'not benefit' for the individual are simply creating a straw man to knock down.

Richard Dawkin's for instance, in his book The Selfish Gene, explains how altruism may have evolved... but the fact its not some metaphysical thing, doesn't make the behavior any less altruism.

Gold Member
but the fact its not some metaphysical thing, doesn't make the behavior any less altruism.

That's why I've never said altruism needs to be metaphysical or "selfless" to be altruism.

Gold Member
As I said before,

my conclusion is that "self" is basically a concept born of
an organism which is a composite of matter and em radiation.

The debate should really be about whether or not there is
a "self" to begin with.

If no one can prove "self" to be a viable and verifiable
entity then all animal, plant and mineral actions are indeed "selfless".

This would render the answer to the question posed in this thread "yes".

Solar Eclipse
well pretty much every action a plant does is for its own survival and making a new generation of itself, right?. that sounds pretty selfish.