On the Nature of Selflessness

Note: Thanks to alexandracorinth for the inspiration for this post.

I want to propose a mildly radical concept. I do not believe there is such as a thing as selflessness. All humans are selfish.

Before you cry out in indignation, I want to acknowledge every selfless act you have ever done. Every time you allowed someone else to take the last chocolate truffle. Every time you didn’t buy a new pair of shoes, even though you really, really wanted them, because your boyfriend was worried about money. Every time you bit your tongue and allowed a friend to believe they convinced you of their opinion, even though you know they’re completely full of crap. Every time you’ve ever donated to charity.

I want to acknowledge your efforts in all of this, because it’s all a lie.

We are raised (at least in Western society) to believe that selflessness is the epitome of culture and manner. We serve others before we serve ourselves at dinner, and we stand to allow older folk to have a seat on the bus. Some of these things have been ingrained in our nature from a very early age, and are very nearly subconscious. Some things, however, are more difficult to reconcile; we might forego applying for a promotion at work, because our best friend also wants the same position. We might give up every friend and joy of a home town, because our spouse wanted to move to a different country. We might put ourselves in a position of danger, so that our loved ones might not be.

At the heart of all this is the notion of sacrifice. Ultimately, all acts of selflessness are the result of the deliberate abstaining of something we desire, for the sake of another person or entity. Perhaps it is an object or toy; perhaps a location or person we love. We may even make that ultimate sacrifice, and lay down our own life. The impetus behind this is the same: we are willing to give up something we desire, because we feel there is something else that is more deserving.

Yet why do we do this? Where on earth does this sense of altruism come from? Evolutionarily, it doesn’t seem to make sense; in a simplified way, the great natural law ‘survival of the fittest’ goes completely against this grain. If you have ever watched birds scrabbling for breadcrumbs, you would recognize this: not a one of them is willing to give up a tasty morsel for a compatriot. The very nature of survival presumes the endurance of the most selfish; the one who can eat the most, endure the most, procreate the most and live the longest, ensures the preservation of their genes into the subsequent generation.

Yet is this always the case? There can also be found examples in the wild of what we would call altruism; a mother cat might die in defense of her kittens. The reason here seems perhaps obvious – her genes have been passed on to the next generation, so there is now little reason for her continued survival. Would she die in favor of her mate, however? Perhaps not. Wolves in a pack might share a kill with each other, even if an individual has not filled their belly. Again, survival is at work here; wolves live by necessity in a pack, and the survival of one is inherently linked to the survival of all.

So what of human sacrifice, then? Outside of our race, there is little evidence for altruism that does not directly further an individual’s survival. Yet there are examples of people who would give up items or values of considerable cost, sometimes for the sake of complete strangers. Where does this come from?

In much the same way that a wolf must live in a pack, so must humans live in society. Our race has evolved to the point where it would be nearly inconceivable for an individual to survive without any other person at all. We rely on each other for food, for clothing and for shelter; we rely on each other equally for emotional survival – for love, friendship, and counsel. It could therefore be argued that there is a very strong human drive to ensure the survival of our people in general, even at the sacrifice of ourselves as an individual.

It is possible, even, that it is from this basis that the very concept of morals arises. What defines ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Again in evolutionary terms, ‘good’ represents survival, of either individual or society – ‘bad’ represents the opposite. Thus, killing is bad; children are good. Yet killing bad people is often be considered good; ridding society of those who would destroy it is a strong survival trait. This instinct as produced a strong reward in us; we feel good when we do good.

And so this relates to selflessness. When we sacrifice something we care for, we convince ourselves we do it for the benefit of others. Yet the subconscious is at the same time rewarding us – we feel good for our sacrifices. This in turn leads to the thought that, in fact, every decision we make is based on the outcome we believe will make us feel better about ourselves.

And therein lies to falsehood of selflessness; if each decision we make is ultimately for our emotional benefit, then could we not be considered as being ultimately selfish? Consider a simple scenario: you are at a party, and there is one last cookie on a table. You could take the cookie and eat it, because you want it, or you could leave it for another to take. Take a moment to think about what you would do; then take another to think about why. Then – take a third moment to think about your reason. If you eat the cookie, it is ultimately because your desire for the cookie outweighed your desire to be nice to others. If you leave it, the converse is true. One or the other does not make you a bad or a good person; it becomes a simple matter of choosing the path we can most easily live with the consequences of.

This is a terrible thought to consider, in a way, yet comforting at the same time. Every act of self-sacrifice we have have ever made was in fact driven by the subconscious desire to feel good about ourselves. Every act of selfishness was driven by exactly the same force. Ultimately, whatever path you choose, it will be the one that benefits you: if not corporeally, then emotionally. In this, then, there is perhaps little difference between altruism and selfishness – merely our perception of the result.

In a nutshell, you ask? Okay, here goes: don’t feel bad when you are selfish, because you are just as selfish when you are selfless. And so is everyone else. So there.

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4 thoughts on “On the Nature of Selflessness

    • Most certainly; the path of physical selfishness leads to loneliness; the path of emotional selfishness to guilt and self-hate. Those who understand this are perhaps best suited to survive without despair.

  1. Ooh, tricky concept. 🙂 This reminds me of the episode of Friends where Phoebe tries to do something truly selfless. And the moment she thinks she may have done it, she feels happy, but is then sad because the happy feeling was in effect a reward.

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