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chocolatechip's avatar

All people's voluntary actions are a direct result of their wants. Therefore, no voluntary action can be considered selfless. Agree or disagree?

Asked by chocolatechip (2999points) August 5th, 2010

Since we only do things because we want to, the only purpose of any action we take is to satisfy our desire to do it. Furthermore, all wants, regardless of how “selfless” they may seem (e.g. wanting to donate money/organs, taking a bullet for someone) are ultimately rooted in one’s desire to seek pleasure/comfort. This is a result of our biological need to seek out things that are pleasurable in order to facilitate the survival of oneself and of the species.

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38 Answers

Trillian's avatar

Your first position is false. Many actions are a result of need, instinct and reflex.

chocolatechip's avatar

I edited my original question as well as a slight elaboration, which now states that all VOLUNTARY actions are direct results of wants. That eliminates reflexes. As for needs and instincts, wants are a result of needs and instincts.

Mariah's avatar

I’ve seen this question before, and it’s usually a very contested question. Because it feels wrong to agree with it, but when you look at it logically, it’s hard to disagree.

I agree. That’s not to say that fulfilling our desires is never noble! Like you said, actions like donating money are noble but they still fulfill a desire. A desire to help people less fortunate at best, or a desire to feel good about oneself for doing a kind thing at worst.

chocolatechip's avatar

I would say that the desire to help people less fortunate comes from the desire to feel good about oneself for doing such a thing. I believe it is impossible for someone to desire something for any reason other than ultimately feeling good. In fact I challenge someone to give me an example that proves me wrong.

I’m not debating the existence of altruism though. For example, feeling good about giving to charity is more altruistic than feeling good about eating a huge lunch. But one cannot really blame another for not caring about the environment or the poor, because the difference between feeling pleasure for an altruistic act and not feeling pleasure from it is beyond our conscious mind to decide for us. Ultimately, we just do what makes us feel good, but we cannot decide what those actions are.

ETpro's avatar

I disagree. Wanting to do good for your fellow man when doing that good costs you is the very definition of selflessness. “the act of sacrificing ones own good for the greater good.” We see an example of that every time some soldier smothers a grenade with their body to protect their buddies in arms, or when a Secret Service officer steps into the line of fire to stop an assassin from killing the President of the United States. We have just seen it in Warren Buffet and Bill & Malinda Gates giving most of their personal fortunes to charity, and now convincing 40 more of America’s billionaires to join with them in the project.

Mariah's avatar

So, do we ever have any desires that aren’t self-beneficial? I would have to argue yes. You gave an example in your original post. Taking a bullet for another person. Maybe it does make one feel good about oneself. But I bet that’s not the motive. Because it’s not very useful to feel good about yourself if you die an instant later. Doesn’t seem like a very good biological mechanism to me.

@ETpro The devil’s advocate argument here would be that those people still wanted to do those things. Even if they wanted to do them for very noble reasons, they still were fulfilling their own desires by doing them! The soldier didn’t want his buddies to get hurt, the secret service man didn’t want the president to die, billionaires want to help the poor.

chocolatechip's avatar

@ETpro

I think you missed my reply just before yours where I clarified my views a bit. I am not denying the existence of altruism. That surely exists. I am claiming that even altruistic acts ultimately stem from some kind of self beneficial desire.

Nullo's avatar

Actions are connected to but ultimately distinct from motives: this is the difference between murder and manslaughter.
Also, the individual reaps no long-term benefit from being shot.

chocolatechip's avatar

@Mariah

What would be the motive of taking a bullet for another then? Logically speaking, it serves no beneficial purpose because you might die, but biological mechanisms don’t have foresight nor do they consider logic.

Say you take a bullet for a loved one. What was the motive? To protect your loved one, because you love them, right? Why is it important that a person you love must be living? I won’t tell you what to thin, but I would ask you what your answer is. As I ask more and more questions, I think you will find that ultimately, the answer is, “because it is beneficial to me in some way”.

chocolatechip's avatar

@Nullo

What does this have to do with the question?

Also, the individual could reap long term benefits from being shot, assuming the individual survives. And as I stated in response to Mariah, the logic of why you would make that decision in the first place is not in question.

Zaku's avatar

“All people’s voluntary actions are a direct result of their wants.”
– “Voluntary” comes from the Latin root “to want”, and voluntary essentially means wanted, so it’s a circular premise, if you want (sic) it to be. By definition, you aren’t saying anything. X = X

“Therefore, no voluntary action can be considered selfless. Agree or disagree?”
– Disagree. I can want to be selfless. Therefore I can consider what I want, and what I do voluntarily, to be selfless. Your proof only works if you rig it in your definitions, in which case you aren’t really asking a question. If you are saying “aha! You want to be selfless, so it is selfish, because you want it!” then you are just posing a non-question with rigged definitions. (It’s like asking can X have a different value from Y? Given that X = Y.)

“Since we only do things because we want to, the only purpose of any action we take is to satisfy our desire to do it.”
– That’s not a proof. It’s a assertion and imposition of semantics. It is frequently said, “I don’t want to do X, but I am doing it anyway.” Your logic only follows if we obey your constraints of word use.

“Furthermore, all wants, regardless of how “selfless” they may seem (e.g. wanting to donate money/organs, taking a bullet for someone) are ultimately rooted in one’s desire to seek pleasure/comfort. This is a result of our biological need to seek out things that are pleasurable in order to facilitate the survival of oneself and of the species.”
– So say you. I disagree, unless you bend the meaning so as to make the question pointless because it’s true by the way you define it. Also even your assertions do not to me connect with your conclusion or corollary about pleasure necessarily facilitating survival. I also question whether you have a question here, and what it actually is, because I think your expression of it is very muddy and mixed up in coerced word meanings. What’s your point?

ETpro's avatar

@chocolatechip I may have missed your clarification, but it doesn’t change my contention that wanting to act altruistically does nothing to modify the definition of “selfless”. The definition remains “the act of sacrificing ones own good for the greater good.” That you did it because your wants drove you to is immaterial. To think otherwise, you would have to maintain that, because we live in a deterministic world, there is no difference between selfless and selfish; when in fact they are antonyms.

Oh, and now that we’ve conducted demolition derby on your question and implied answer, welcome to Fluther. :-)

johnnydohey's avatar

@chocolatechip, That’s right. A human being does everything which driven by self-pleasure. The very idea of thinking about doing a selfless act, already causes a person to feel self-pleasure and therefore, goes and acts upon it, as well as the pleasure one get’s after the “selfless” act is completed. Even a person who mutilates his/herself, despite the obscene amount of self inflicting pain that’s involved, the very thought and the action, followed by the action itself and it’s continuance was driven by self-pleasure. Selflessness is not a drive in biological sense.

johnnydohey's avatar

@chocolatechip, just thought about it some more. Check out this scenario. If I’m really late for something extremely important, however, a old lady falls near me by the road as I’m running to my designation. I really don’t want to help her because I can’t, at all cost, miss this appointment, but I end up helping this lady despite the urgency. I never wanted to help her even during the process of helping her, and after helping her, I regret very much helping her because I missed where I had to go. Would this be a selfless act or would this still be a self-pleasured act?

DrasticDreamer's avatar

@johnnydohey I’m not sure that would work, either. If you didn’t want to help her (no part of you) then you wouldn’t stop to help her. And most likely, even though you were thinking “I don’t want to help her”, some part of you would probably be thinking, “But if I don’t help her, I’m a bad person”, thus, “I don’t want to be a bad person, or feel badly, so I will help her”.

johnnydohey's avatar

@DrasticDreamer, good point, then I stick by my original commentary. My concern wasn’t the thinking of being a bad person, the concern was why did I help her when I didn’t want too, shouldn’t have, and regretted too.

Nullo's avatar

@chocolatechip I am saying that though our motives may be selfish, our actions can be selfless all the same.
Basically, I’m saying what @ETpro is saying.

“Taking a bullet” typically implies a fatality, in the common usage. Bullets are not especially survivable, no matter how many television heroes shrug off their wounds.
Reminds me of a recent ponderance, in fact. Could a human body really slow a bullet enough for its interposition to have any use whatsoever? There’s a lot of power behind a 30–06.

You would be surprised how little conscious thought goes into a response to an emergency. Mostly, it’s your brain following a pre-established model at its highest-possible processing speed. If you – like most of us – have no model, you tend to sorta glaze over until the models that you do have can be applied to the situation. This is why people in dangerous professions must train so much: so that when it’s go time, they can act effectively.
Thus, a fireman might have your deep-rooted tendencies towards self-centered altruism, and that may be why he decided to be a fireman, but that’s probably not what’s going through his head when he’s mashing his way through a burning building.
Incidentally, burning buildings are no place for navel-gazing.

Russell_D_SpacePoet's avatar

Disagree. I do things I don’t want to do all the time. Paying taxes,. Waiting at stoplights, etc. We all do things we don’t want to do. It’s part of life.

johnnydohey's avatar

@Russell_D_SpacePoet, why do you still pay taxes and wait at stoplights then? Your drive is still self-pleasure because you care too much for your well being. You don’t want to go jail for not paying taxes, and you don’t want to get killed or kill someone by not stopping at a stop sign, hence, the self-pleasure drive.

chocolatechip's avatar

Sorry guys, I’ve got a bunch of responses I wanted to type, but my neurons are so gridlocked with thoughts that I haven’t been able to express them. I will try again tomorrow morning.

Trillian's avatar

” coerced word meanings.” @Zaku Like it. That was kind of my point.

Russell_D_SpacePoet's avatar

@johnnydohey So, we care too much for our well being? If we stop at stop signs? I think that falls into the common sense category. Which is in short supply these days. Self pleasure and self preservation are 2 different things

Mariah's avatar

@chocolatechip “What would be the motive of taking a bullet for another then? Logically speaking, it serves no beneficial purpose because you might die, but biological mechanisms don’t have foresight nor do they consider logic.”

I would argue that biological mechanisms DO have some amount of logic built into them because they evolved to favor survival. Taking a bullet, a potentially fatal act, therefore seems to go against instinct or logic. So then why does it happen?

It can make sense depending on who you’re taking the bullet for. Instincts also favor reproduction and the survival of those offspring. Taking a bullet for one’s offspring isn’t so inconceivable then.

What about taking a bullet for anyone else? Can it be self-benefiting? Logically, no. So the optimistic view of humanity would say that people do this for noble reasons, because they don’t want their loved one to die, and out of true caring for that person. I feel that it is indeed possible to care for someone this deeply. It might go against our wiring to sacrifice ourselves, it may not be self-beneficial, but we do know that it happens.

There is another, colder way to interpret these actions. Instinct also favors actions that increase acceptance by others; this makes sense because being accepted by others facilitates survival; they might share their resources with you, etc. We therefore do sometimes go out of our way to help others for selfish reasons: to get them to like us more. It doesn’t make sense in this situation, because it doesn’t matter if people like us if we’re dead. But it could simply be a case of mistaken priorities between our social instincts and our survival instincts.

Evolutionary psychology fascinates me. Almost all things we think and do, if analyzed enough, can be determined to be beneficial to survival or to reproduction. And true empathy, altruism, and selflessness just don’t seem to fit the model. But I still think much of it is up for interpretation.

ETpro's avatar

@Mariah Perhaps we vieew survival of the group, the city, the state, the nation, the species as all being more important at time than self preservation. Certainly, some cultures (the military, the Chinese, are inculcated with these values. But natural selection seems to have taught the upright, speaking ape the value of tribe as well.

Winters's avatar

Riddle me this. My natural want is others to be happy/content before myself, so if I perform a voluntary act, would it then be selfless? (And no, I do not have a personality disorder)

Mariah's avatar

@ETpro This kind of behavior exists and is observable, so we know that it happens, but it is so difficult to rectify with natural selection. That is, the man who values anything over his own life is less likely to last long enough to pass on his genes. So why do people like this exist? Evolutionary psychologists have not been able to figure out why people are willing to die for the countries. It’s just not a self-beneficial trait, so it’s interesting that it exists and is prevalent and hasn’t been wiped out by natural selection.

@Winters But if that’s really what you want, then wouldn’t that happening make you happy yourself?

Winters's avatar

@Mariah I would use the word content. Emotions overall for me are distant to say the least.

ETpro's avatar

@Mariah Natural selection drove toward preservation of the species, not the individual organism. Why do warrior bees sting intruders who threaten the hive’s honey supply when it means certain death for themselves? Surely they aren’t thinking it through. They are acting on instincts installed by natural selection. Natural selection has left male black widow spiders a terrible dilemma. He may chose to preserve the species by mating with a female who will kill and eat him; or save himself, and in so doing go childless.

Mariah's avatar

@ETpro I’m gonna have to argue with you on that one. Natural selection shouldn’t really make us care about other members of our species EXCEPT our own offspring. The most successful genes are the ones that are very determined to spread themselves, not the ones that waste resources helping unrelated individuals.

Natural selection simply favors those who are able to create the most successful and plentiful offspring. A side effect of this is that we care about our own self-preservation, because if we survive longer, we may produce more offspring, or we may be able to provide our offspring with resources to help them succeed. But if there’s a choice between saving oneself or saving one’s offspring, the choice is often made in some species to save the offspring. This is probably what’s happening in the case of the bees.

The male black widow spider mates even though it means death because dying to produce offspring is better than dying later for another reason without doing so.

There really isn’t an evolutionary reason why anyone should care about members of their species that aren’t related to themselves. This trait means that one will “waste” resources that could have been used on one’s offspring and is actually detrimental to the success of those genes.

Zaku's avatar

@Mariah
– I think people tend to go a bit overboard with evolutionary determinism, particularly considering that variation is caused by random gene mutations which have multiple effects, and that those effects also have multiple effects. E.g. Curiosity may be a powerful survival trait, but it is also curiosity, which can lead to all sorts of things not all of which are about survival.
– Moreover, I think you are incorrect to assert that “There really isn’t an evolutionary reason why anyone should care about members of their species that aren’t related to themselves.” Because cause and effect goes on and on and on. For example, ever heard the expression, “what goes around, comes around”? More to the point, humans as individuals in nature, die. See sociopaths, for example. Humans that reproduce but don’t interact with society, also don’t do so well. Humans survive well because they cooperate and act as societies, which requires caring and helping each other, cooperating, etc.
And that’s just the obvious…

Zaku's avatar

In fact, it seems to me that this question was asked, and is interesting to people, because the assertions can seem to be true, but are in fact very false. Human nature is to love and care for and support each other, and that is very good for everyone’s happiness and survival.

(Of course, that realization may have the asker returning to their original assertion of “aha! benevolence is selfish!” which is just a silly badly-defined non-question (see my first answer).)

Rarebear's avatar

@Mariah I’m going to nitpick with you here, although I see where you’re going with your point. Your view is basically the view that Dawkins wrote about in The Selfish Gene, and is its core correct. I take issue, however with your statement: Natural selection shouldn’t really make us care about other members of our species EXCEPT our own offspring.

Natural selection doesn’t make us “care” about anything. Natural selection is merely a process by which the phenotypical expression of a population changes in response to an environmental pressure. Natural selection works as strongly in a slime mold and bacteria (arguably more so) as is does to humans, and a slime mold certainly doesn’t “care” about anything. It’s a mindless process.

ETpro's avatar

@Mariah Carrying on the nitpicking, you need to study up on the life cycle of bees. I chose them for a reason, however ants or termites would be similar.

There are a few drone (male) bees per hive, and one queen. They are the only breeding members of the hive. If natural selection forced each bee to evolve to be completely selfish, caring only for its own life and the lives of its own offspring, there would be no worker bees to feed the hive and no warrior bees to guard the hive. Workers and warriors cannot reproduce. Only drones can fertilize the queen’s eggs, and only the single queen is capable of producing eggs.

When a warrior bee sacrifices its life to defend the hive, if we insist on anthropomorphizing bees, she is committing a completely selfless act. Of course, she is not. She is doing what instincts developed through natural selection compel her to do.

And we humans most certainly risk and lay down our lives all the time for people not related to us. We even do it for people we don’t know. The 10 medical workers killed today in Afghanistan clearly knew their lives would be at risk if they hiked into a remote mountain region to provide medical care to people they had never even seen before. But they went because they felt it was the right thing to do. I am very thankful that most humans function that way, rather than just saying, “What’s in it for me?”

Zaku's avatar

Ok, another way to answer:
DISAGREE, because if you define being selfish as acting in your own best interest, and in the interest of your own pleasure and survival, then being selfless is selfish by your definition, because when humans give to others, others give even more back to them, and everyone is much more likely to be healthy and happy and safe.

Which is all true, but the attempt to rigidly define selfishness as black-and-white exclusive of selflessness, simply produces confused examination based on flawed definitions.

chocolatechip's avatar

Alright, here we go.

@Zaku “Your logic only follows if we obey your constraints of word use.”

Yes, you are correct. My first sentence is an assumption of fact which I did not attempt to prove, and which I encourage others to disagree with. Using your example, “I don’t want to do X, but I’m doing it anyway”. I would argue that, if you truly did not want to do X, you wouldn’t be doing it. If you are doing it, it must have been initiated by a desire to do it. For example, “I don’t want to do my homework, but I’m doing it anyway”. In this situation, although I would prefer not to do my homework, I care about my academic performance enough to want do something I would otherwise not want to do.

“Also even your assertions do not to me connect with your conclusion or corollary about pleasure necessarily facilitating survival.”

I was on the fence about including that statement. I originally did not intend to provide any kind of proof whatsoever to support my initial statements, but instead to elaborate after I had received responses. Now that we’re on the topic though, I will explain.

Firstly, human beings pursue pleasure and comfort. This is evident from the actions of the majority of the population. All human activity is ultimately geared towards making the lives of the individual easier, and more pleasurable. It’s the reason why we’ve created so many technologies. It’s the reason why we have such a prosperous entertainment industry. Seemingly in contrast to what I just stated, it’s even why we have wars (because one group’s need for pleasure conflicts with anothers).

In nature, pleasurable feelings often lead to benefit, while displeasure leads to harm. Sex is the most obvious example, with the benefit being continuation of the species. Eating is a pleasurable experience, until you eat too much. Urinating/defecating provides a sense of pleasurable relief. Holding it in is uncomfortable or painful. The scent of urine and feces itself is unpleasant. Damaging your body is painful. Picking scabs is painful until the skin underneath is fully healed. Foreign objects entering your body cause unpleasurable physical reactions (sneezing, coughing). Being too hot is unpleasurable. Being too cold is unpleasurable. The feeling of being tired is unpleasurable, and sleeping is pleasurable. Etc. Those feelings which are pleasurable are a result of actions that are beneficial to one’s continued existence, and vice-versa.

Exceptions to to this “rule” are due to man-made interference with our ecosystem (e.g. introducing tasty, but unhealthy foods) or physiological/psychological disorders (e.g. allergies).

Without an understanding of how the ecosystem works and what we must do to survive, it seems to me a logical conclusion that the purpose of “good things feeling good” is so that we will seek out pleasurable actions, which in turn, are beneficial to us. This mechanism works assuming of course, we desire pleasure.

@ETpro “I may have missed your clarification, but it doesn’t change my contention that wanting to act altruistically does nothing to modify the definition of “selfless”. The definition remains “the act of sacrificing ones own good for the greater good.” That you did it because your wants drove you to is immaterial.

Why is it immaterial? Is the definition of altruism not putting the welfare of others above your own? Do you accept wants are a biological mechanism to facilitate needs, and therefore, to sacrifice needs requires one to sacrifice wants (and vice versa)?

“To think otherwise, you would have to maintain that, because we live in a deterministic world, there is no difference between selfless and selfish; when in fact they are antonyms.”

I would argue (in fact, I am arguing) that selflessness does not exist, or in other words that selfishness and selflessness are the same thing, because it is impossible to be truly selfless. You cannot act in such a way that completely disregards your own wants (and by extension, needs). In fact, for this discussion, we must assume we live in an, at least partially deterministic world, as choice is intrinsically deterministic.

“Oh, and now that we’ve conducted demolition derby on your question and implied answer, welcome to Fluther. :-)”

Demolition derby? You’ve hardly chipped off the paint. Thanks for the welcome. =)

@Nullo “I am saying that though our motives may be selfish, our actions can be selfless all the same.”

You’re right, and thank you for making this distinction. However, without motive, altruism is meaningless, even if you “accidentally” helped someone else without satisfying any personal desire. You cannot put someone else’s welfare over your own if it was by accident, since without the motive to do so in the first place, I would not say that you could really claim responsibility for the action, and therefore, “you” did not perform the altruistic act.

@Mariah “There is another, colder way to interpret these actions. Instinct also favors actions that increase acceptance by others; this makes sense because being accepted by others facilitates survival; they might share their resources with you, etc. We therefore do sometimes go out of our way to help others for selfish reasons: to get them to like us more. It doesn’t make sense in this situation, because it doesn’t matter if people like us if we’re dead. But it could simply be a case of mistaken priorities between our social instincts and our survival instincts.”

Thank you for this. I did not consider the social aspect of biological mechanisms.

“This kind of behavior exists and is observable, so we know that it happens, but it is so difficult to rectify with natural selection.”

Plus, all of humanity’s meddling with the ecosystem and natural selection complicates the matter further.

@ETPro “Natural selection drove toward preservation of the species, not the individual organism.”

Survival of the individual organism is a requisite for survival of the species, even if it means that organism has to die to preserve the species. A male black widow can’t reproduce if it dies before it finds a mate. Likewise, a dead bee can’t protect a hive.

@Zaku “Moreover, I think you are incorrect to assert that “There really isn’t an evolutionary reason why anyone should care about members of their species that aren’t related to themselves.”

”(Of course, that realization may have the asker returning to their original assertion of “aha! benevolence is selfish!” which is just a silly badly-defined non-question (see my first answer).)

Refer to my retort =).

“Which is all true, but the attempt to rigidly define selfishness as black-and-white exclusive of selflessness, simply produces confused examination based on flawed definitions.”

Well I would argue that selflessness does not exist at all, in which case, there is no comparison to draw between the terms. One is imaginary.

phew

Time to go to bed.

Nullo's avatar

@chocolatechip I haven’t seen a Massive Wall-O-Text like that since my AiROW days. o_o

Look again at the example of the fireman.

ETpro's avatar

@chocolatechip The definition of selfless is determined by the dictionary, not by you. The definition of selfless doesn’t get into the issue of whether a person’s wants directed them to take the selfless act. That is why wants are immaterial to what is and isn’t selfless. I agree that when we sacrifice ourselves for some person or cause unrelated to us, it is because we want to do that. I disagree that it is impossible for any person to want to do things not in their own immediate survival interest or the survival interest of their immediate children.

A dead bee may not be able to defend a hive, but neither can one that refuses to die in its defense. Again, go convince the bees they are crazy if you wish, but their behavior is what it is whether it jibes with your ideology or not. Warrior bees can only defend the hive by stinging, and when they sting, the barbed stinger sticks in the enemy they are attacking, pulling the end of the bee off. They die shortly after delivering a sting. Likewise, worker bees work out their lives and die childless in order to feed the hive. Their behavior ensures survival of the species, not the individual bee and its direct progeny.

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