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DominicX's avatar

Is a "selfless" act defined by its intentions or its consequences?

Asked by DominicX (28762points) October 3rd, 2010

I will hear people often claim that there is no such thing as a selfless act. People will cite instances like donating to charity that results in a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure in you because you donated, thus proving that it benefits you and is not “selfless”.

But, to me, a selfless act is one that has selfless intentions. So, if you donate to charity because you want to help others and you don’t care about how it makes you feel, then the act is selfless whether or not you “feel good” as a result. It’s about the intention, not the consequences. Your action was motivated by a selfless intention, thus the action is selfless, even if it benefits you as a result.

However, I know many do not agree with this. Is it about intentions or consequences? The biggest problem for me is that you can never truly “prove” what your intentions were…

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13 Answers

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

To me (and this isn’t a popular opinion, either) it doesn’t matter why you’re doing good, just do good. If you want to donate to charity to make yourself feel good, fine..matters more to me that that charity got the money.

DominicX's avatar


That’s unpopular? I certainly feel that way too.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@DominicX Well, ordinarily..people say the intention needs to be selfless always.

muppetish's avatar

I spent the greater portion of three hours listening to friends of mine debate this. For the most part, their differentiation stemmed from the connotations they felt from the word “selfish”. One felt “selfish” carried the weight of egotism; the other felt “selfish” carried a neutral meaning of “for the self” (without positive or negative weights.)

“Selfless” implies “without self” which does not make sense to me. Everything I have done, and will do, is a motion of my self. I cannot dissever my self and do not think they I should be required to in order to seem as though I want to bring good to others.

They are only words, selfless and selfish. I know I do good things. It doesn’t matter whether they are for me or for others, or both.

I know that doesn’t directly answer how “selfless” is defined, but that three hour debate really tortured my ability to define words. I wish I had taken notes. It was fascinating to hear.

Vunessuh's avatar

I agree with @Simone_De_Beauvoir and I also want to include that for some, they don’t give to charity because it feels good – feeling good just happens to be the end result after they’ve given. In which, it doesn’t imply that they gave to charity only to achieve that feeling. It’s just a natural result after doing something good for others.

lloydbird's avatar

Properly, I think that it should be “defined” by both.
In actual fact, I think by its intention.

marinelife's avatar

I agree with you about the intention of the act.

AstroChuck's avatar

There is really no such thing as a selfless act. Altruism doesn’t exist.

DominicX's avatar


And what might be your reasoning behind thinking that?

AstroChuck's avatar

@DominicX- It’s simple. Everything we do in life is done ultimately for ourselves. What we consider self sacrifice is actually done for our own fulfillment. Explain to me how could it possibly be any different.

Haleth's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir “Well, ordinarily..people say the intention needs to be selfless always.”

I agree with you that the good act is more important than the motives behind it. Everything we do is motivated in some way by the desire to feel good or avoid pain. Even if we put ourselves through something painful or unpleasant, like going to the dentist or paying our taxes, there’s usually some mental or emotional payoff, like the satisfaction of knowing we’ve done something responsible. I was thinking about religious self-flagellation… that’s the same idea taken to the extreme.

So I think that anyone who says the intention needs to be selfless is being self-righteous and hypocritical. There is still so much need for acts of selflessness that, like you said, it doesn’t matter why we do them. If there was no emotional satisfaction for doing something selfless, people would be a lot more selfish.

iamthemob's avatar

We really need to define selfless act for this – but I think that the way people consider it is an act where on person puts the needs of another before their own.

If that’s the case, I think both the intent and consequences figure into the picture, as the truly selfless act requires a person to consider the consequences. Of course many people feel good when they do something good for another person. However, if the person is giving up something that will bring them more pleasure, then they are considering themselves, true, but they put themselves aside for another person.

Littlehummer's avatar

To me a selfless act is when doing a selfless act, you don’t brag about it. Keeping it to yourself is truely a selfless act. In doing so you are not expecting anything in return. There are so many people that do good; by helping other people but then they have to tell someone of their actions or paste it on facebook for the world to see. In my opinion that is not a selfless act.

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