General Question

tinyfaery's avatar

Is there really such a thing as a non-selfish act?

Asked by tinyfaery (41974points) July 21st, 2008

If one does exist, describe it. I’m having a hard time coming up with one.

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31 Answers

Harp's avatar

Giving blood

gailcalled's avatar

I have a friend who gave a kidney to her son. One could make that case that there is a socio-biological imperative to keep her gene pool alive; in which case that is not an unselfish act.

xxporkxsodaxx's avatar

Donating money to support groups in Africa.

gailcalled's avatar

Giving bone marrow to a stranger.

Tone's avatar

If you take for granted that doing something “good” makes people feel good about themselves on some level, then any charitable or other good act that the actor survives has at least an element of self-interest, if not selfishness.

I would say that spontaneously sacrificing one’s life to save another is selfless, at least for an atheist. If you plan to sacrifice your life, you get to enjoy the gratitude before it happens, so this would only apply if it happened without forethought, like diving in front of a bullet headed for someone else.

tinyfaery's avatar

Aren’t all of our actions a result of appeasing ourselves in some way? Give blood=I did something good, I feel good about myself; Give kidney=I don’t want to lose my son; Donating=I feel good about myself; Giving bone marrow to a stranger=I feel good about myself. See where I’m going with this?

Poser's avatar

Theoretically, if I donated a kidney to my ex-wife, whom I hate, I would get no satisfaction from such an act. That would be selfless.

arnbev959's avatar

Although they can’t actually be measured, how about if the sacrifice involved is greater than the reward you get.

nikipedia's avatar

You can rationalize a selfish basis for any action. Is that necessarily what causes you to do it?

Human behavior is so multifaceted—yes, I hope that we can derive some kind of satisfaction or pleasure out of everything we do. Otherwise, what would compel us to do it?

Does it not count as selfish if the net cost to yourself is greater than the net benefit? How would you quantify something like that, anyway?

Tone's avatar

@Poser – Seems that doing something nice for someone you hate would give someone even more self-satisfaction, and more admiration from one’s community, than doing something nice for someone you like, which would be more expected.

Harp's avatar

I think that it’s possible to “do good” out of ego-interest, certainly, but we are also capable of responding spontaneously to the need of a stranger without self-referencee. Someone who shoves a kid out of the way of a bus doesn’t necessarily do a cost/benefit analysis first. True compassion isn’t self-referential.

Poser's avatar

@Tone—Suppose I swore her to secrecy and told no one myself. What self-interest would I glean from such a transaction?

marinelife's avatar

Which came first the act or the feeling good? I find it rather cynical that people assume that everyone who does a charitable deed does it to feel good. I would argue that feeling good is merely a byproduct of a selfless action.

Tone's avatar

@Poser – Theoretically, you’d feel good about yourself for doing it, regardless of whether anyone else knew about it. Saving the life of someone, even someone you hate, would make most people feel some sense of self-worth. Of course, if you actually hate her enough to want her dead, then your act may be selfless, and would also be just weird.

@Marina – I’m not saying people do good acts only to feel good about themselves, or even mostly. The discussion is more about whether there is a case where that’s not a factor at all.

gailcalled's avatar

I’m with Harp here. As his answer appeared, I was also thinking about the ego -a mysterious and unmeasurable concept. A spontaneous act of heroism that requires no planning or reflection would meet my definition.

I have heard that a good goal as one grows older is the subjugation of the ego. Easier said than done.

xxporkxsodaxx's avatar

Well I guess the real question would be, what non-selfish acts have you actually done?

Tone's avatar

I also agree with Harp and gailcalled. In order to not have your ego involved, you probably have to act “without thinking,” which would be all id. The complexity of human intention and thought would seem to nearly always include some consideration for the self when an act is considered in advance, even for a very short time. If we bring the subconscious into it, even more so.

nikipedia's avatar

I think another important question to consider is: what’s wrong with being selfish, anyway?

gailcalled's avatar

@tiny: this is a wonderful question. Thank you (hope you are feeling better.)

Tone's avatar

@nikipedia – There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, in fact I’d say it’s absolutely necessary to survival. As you said above, our motivations are very complex, and one can have selfish and non-selfish motives at the same time. Most likely this is the case the vast majority of the time.

trendbreakr's avatar

I would say making a sacrifice(doesn’t have to be life-threatening) for someone else would be unselfish. Some people here have been saying that feeling good about helping someone is selfish because you enjoy it. I disagree. You can feel good about making other people happy without it being selfish.

trendbreakr's avatar

A selfish act would be doing something only for your benefit, even it if hurts others. An unselfish act is doing something for others, even if it hurts you. It’s ok to feel good about being nice to people. That doesn’t make you selfish.

flameboi's avatar

Buy a (red) product

Poser's avatar

I bought a (Red) Razor. It was the worst phone I ever owned. Cheaply manufactured. Really turned me off of that campaign. Might not be a fair assumption, granted, but I’m not going out of my way to correct it.

Tone's avatar

@friendbreakr – I think this misses the point. The presence of some amount of selfish interest in the motivation for an act doesn’t define the person as selfish, or the act as selfish. It merely defines the act as not entirely unselfish. It’s not about whether the act or the person is categorically selfish—all the acts described here would be considered to be very good things to do—it’s more a philosophical question of whether we ever act without at least a little self-interest.

nina's avatar

Short answer: nope!

Long answer would involve a whole dissertation on the concept of selfishness and connotations of the word ‘SELFISH’ but I have a suspicion would come to the same conclusion: Nope!

nisheedhi's avatar

If we define selfishness as merely doing acts that will benefit the immediate you, altruistic acts like for example anonymous donations or voluntary service of anoymous nature may qualify to be called unselfish but that is again limited in definition because altruism itself can be as a result of a desire to feel good within ourselves .Some times empathy or commiserating with another person in pain may be as a rsult of our own compulsion because there are empathy neurons within us (as psychologists say) which make us suffer when we witness suffering.It is therefore better to forget about defining selfishness.

mee_ouch's avatar

Love, honour, faith and belief….......
When pure, all are self-less.

Nicromm4's avatar

If one thinks that there is no non-selfishness at all, then there is no selfishness either. If north pole should be vanished, then south pole shouldn’t have any meaning. When you give a definition to the notion of selfishness, automatically you define its opposite: the non-selfishness. So, if you refuse the former, automatically you reject the latter.

Poser's avatar

I agree with @nikipedia. What’s wrong with being selfish?

After further thought, I think that the answer to this question is, yes, there is such a thing as a non-selfish act. But this realization has brought another question to my mind. Is such an act desirable?

In order for an act to be non-selfish, the doer of said act would have to glean no benefit (or at least perceive no benefit from his act). In other words, his best self-interest would be harmed by the act. Consider the act of sacrificing one’s life for an unworthy person; someone whose benefit to society would be less that that offered by the doer of the act. For instance, a would-be successful cancer researcher jumping in front of a train to save a child-molester. He loses his life, and society suffers the loss more than what is saved. This is always the case when doing something outside of one’s own rational self-interest. If the scientist had rationally considered his actions, he might have realized many of the shortcomings of such a choice. Not only has he lost his life (certainly counter to his self-interest), but by doing so, he has saved the life of someone who may then turn around and harm the scientist’s own offspring (made that much easier by the fact that he is not around to protect his children). And of course, there is the obvious—it’s hard to cure cancer when you’re dead.

That’s not to say that sacrificing one’s own life for another is always unselfish. If the situation were reversed, and the child-molester’s offspring were dying from cancer, his self-interest might lie in saving the cancer researcher, even at the expense of his own life.

tinyfaery's avatar

Holy old question, Batman.

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