As we all know, quite a bit of emphasis is placed on the difference between the values of “selflessness” and “selfishness.” One almost gets the impression that everybody blindly accepts as supreme truth that some actions are “selfish” while others are “selfless.” Yet, we must question what these polarities really mean. Relatively speaking, these two opposing concepts have a useful meaning and it is certainly possible to make qualitative judgments as to what is more “selfish” or “selfless.” However, speaking in absolute terms this dichotomy is in fact a monopoly; all of our intentions and conscious decisions must inescapably be “selfish.” Finally, from a more spiritual vantage point, one can see that, in truth, there can be no absolute difference between “selfish” and “selfless;” there is ultimately no distinction between “selfishness” and “selflessness” because they are fallacious mental constructions. Only in the relativity of human experience can these opposing qualities find meaning and interpretational value, for (as the shared word root suggests) it is in the enhancement or relinquishment of the self that the human condition lies.
First of all, I want to make it clear that the common terms “selfish” and “selfless” do have a practical meaning in day-to-day life. Some human behaviors seem motivated by desires that we consider to be lower or darker, and we generally classify some such behaviors as “selfish.” Other human behaviors seem motivated by desires that we consider to be higher or purer, and we often classify some of these behaviors as “selfless.” Everyone understands the colloquial application of these two terms, so there is no need to expand on it. Suffice to say, as long as we are not speaking literally, these terms are viable; in other words, it is in their connotation rather than their denotation that their usefulness lies, since society already has a well-formed functional meaning assigned to these words.
Now, by conventional definition, to perform a “selfless” action is to do something for the sake of others rather than for the sake of oneself—there are many expressions for it: to put others before oneself, to love others more than oneself, to sacrifice one’s own interest for the greater good. All these describe Altruism,* which is (by popular standard) generally synonymous with “selflessness;” I, however, consider true selflessness to be different from altruism, as I will explain later.** At first it might seem like common sense that altruistic behavior is not only ideal but also occurs on a frequent basis. People seem to take for granted that altruism is real and true. But what is really going on when someone makes a decision? What are the actual forces that influence the choices people make? The hard fact is that people do what they do because those choices made them feel good at the moment the choice was formed.
When a person is in the process of making a decision, their brain attempts to create an option that will maximize its immediate utility, meaning that the person feels inclined to do whatever they perceive will give them the most satisfaction at that precise moment. Someone can say, “I’m gonna do such and such just for the hell of it!” or “I’m gonna choose the opposite of what I would ordinarily choose just to throw you off,” but the fact remains that the reason that they do these things is because those were the options that were most appealing to them at the time. Make a careful note that this is not to say that a person does what is ultimately best for them. To the contrary, people obviously make decisions that actually hurt them, both in the long run and the short run, all of the time. This is because a person always does what they feel most desirous of doing (whether it is desire to indulge in hedonism, or desire for self-denial and asceticism), and it is wisdom that determines whether that desire is in line with their ultimate wellbeing. Regardless of whether a decision is harmful to oneself or to others, the decision is made because, and only because, it gives the most appeal of satisfaction at the deciding instant. Perhaps later on (a few seconds, days, or years afterward) one may come to believe a different decision may have been better, but that is irrelevant.
Many objections are raised when altruism is questioned, so let us examine some of them. All along, you must ask yourself, “what have I ever done that I did not do for myself?”
When explaining their reasons for a supposed “selfless” act, people often say things like: “I could never forgive myself if…” and “I couldn’t call myself an honest person anymore if…” and “I would never again be able to look my son in the eye if…” and “it makes me happy just to know that…” and so forth. This really shows patently that during the decision-making process it is people’s own feelings that they are truly concerned about.
One hears all sorts of expressions for people who do “selfless” things, such as giving with no expectation of getting anything in return. But the same could be said of bullies. A bully freely gives a knuckle-sandwich with no expectation of receiving anything except the satisfaction of having asserted her dominance (e.g., Helga Pataki). Similarly, a true philanthropist freely gives an anonymous donation with no expectation of reward except the satisfaction of having done a charitable act—the “selfish” motivation is the same. Rest assured, if no personal satisfaction came from acts of charity, no one would ever commit them. It is solely for the pursuit of personal satisfaction that anyone performs “altruistic” acts. In other words, it is only in self-service that service is done for others.
One example of long-term altruism is the suffering and toil that one person willingly endures so that another may be spared such hardship—trading a lifetime of servitude for a loved one’s freedom, for instance. At any point they could renounce the contract and free themselves, but every day they choose to place the happiness of the loved one above their own. There are at minimum two reasons why they do this. First, it makes them more satisfied to know that someone they love is happy. Second, they probably would feel great shame and self-loathing if they let the other person suffer while enjoying their own freedom instead. Both of these reasons elucidate the fact that their decision maximizes their own satisfaction, even if it increases their suffering. Obviously satisfaction and suffering are not mutually exclusive; someone training to win gold in a triathlon increases their suffering in order to increase both their sense of short-term satisfaction (a productive workout session) and their long-term satisfaction (a successful athletic career and another gold metal in the trophy room). The maximizing of immediate satisfaction does not equal the minimizing of suffering, nor does it equal the maximizing of holistic utility.
Another example of popularized “selflessness” is in A Tale of Two Cities when Sydney Carton gives his life so that the life and livelihood of others may be preserved. Making “the ultimate sacrifice” is usually seen as the pinnacle of altruism. But there is no price a person is unwilling to pay to seek personal satisfaction. The following is a direct quote from sparknotes.com:
“[…]Carton dies with the knowledge that he has finally imbued his life with meaning.” [And later] “Carton becomes a Christ-like figure, a selfless martyr whose death enables the happiness of his beloved and ensures his own immortality.”
It is fairly clear from the book that Carton chooses to die so that he can actually feel good about himself. One could offer the counterargument that, in his nihilism, he did not really care if he died one way or the other, but nevertheless if it did not make him feel personal satisfaction then he would not have chosen martyrdom. It can only be fact that the option which gave him the greatest prospect of immediate personal utility, and which he consequently most desired, was self-sacrifice. He did it for himself and only for himself. From this particular case one can generalize to all possible instances of altruism.
You may come to admit that the majority of our decisions are self-based, but still hold that we have our occasional “selfless” moments. And still, I would dissent, maintaining that there is no mechanism enabling us to serve anyone other than ourselves; it simply is not possible. You might get saucy and object, raising the case of heroic actions that took place in the spur of the moment. You could call a specific event into question, such as when you were walking down the street, looked up, saw a child about to run into the street to fetch a ball while a car was zooming in your direction, and without a moment’s pause jumped in front of the car and pushed back the child to save her from a catastrophic collision with the oblivious driver, suffering the injury in her stead. You would say, “I threw myself before an automobile just to save a child, and I did so without any deliberation at all. Surely this is an exemplary case of ‘selflessness’.”
Well, if I sneak up behind you and suddenly roar like a lion, you may flinch and cover the back of your head with your hands. You would have done this without thinking about it, simply because it was instinctual. Also for example, let’s imagine you were at a fast-food restaurant and you asked for a water cup (which is free) along with your food. You walk up to the soda dispenser and decide that if you sneak lemonade into your cup no one will really notice anyway, and besides, it’s not like you didn’t order anything at all. If, right as you were furtively pouring lemonade into your water cup, I turned on the sound of a police siren, you would likely experience a small jolt of fear and stop what you were doing at once and switch to water instead without even thinking about it. Your reaction would not make much logical sense, since a police car would not have just driven right into the restaurant at that precise moment and somehow spotted your clandestine activity of all things, but our instantaneous reactions do not have to be based in higher reasoning. Both of these examples demonstrate that it is not in any way valid to conclude that an action was “selfless” merely because it occurred intuitively, instinctually, or without much prior conscious thought.
You might concede this point, but further argue that surely there are some actions that are beyond the label of “selfish” in that they are too automatic and/or thoughtless to be meaningfully categorized so: going to the bathroom, blinking one’s eyes, scribbling randomly, or even sleep-waling for instance. And I would partially agree; perhaps some actions cannot meaningfully be called “selfish” or “selfless” in any relative sense at all. Yet the conclusion still stands—any conscious decision that we make is, and can only be, made out of personal desire in an effort to achieve some sort of immediate satisfaction or positive feeling. How could it possibly be otherwise?
So I submit the question again: what have you ever done that you did not do for yourself?
Now that I (may or may not) have destroyed your faith in humanity and your self-worth, let me at least try to build them back up again before the end of this post. You see, if you look at the bigger picture, you realize that conventional “selfishness” and “selflessness” are rather simple-minded concepts to begin with. Or rather, the popular interpretation of them is misguided, as it is inexorably based in dualism. But if we adopt a non-dualist philosophy, then self and other lose distinction and are ultimately recognized as one.
Life is full of actions and happenings that are all interconnected such that every one event is related intimately to every other, making a web of fate (one could call it) that is the dance of form. This playing-out of form subsumes all of space-time and experiential reality. It is futile to attempt to localize causes and effects and distinguish what is beneficial or detrimental for who, for separation is ultimately an illusion. Some things superficially appear to help people while other things superficially appear to harm people, but the qualification is subjective and incomplete since all actions can be said to help and hurt all involved. In reality there is no final way of distinguishing what is actually good or bad for others as opposed to ourselves because the divine interplay of life and interwoven destiny transcends that. However, there is indeed a type of selflessness that can change the world for the better if we work toward it.
As we have seen, all actions are motivated by and for oneself, so the question is not who the object is but what is the quality of one’s actions. It is the ego that is responsible for the evils that permeate life and the vile aspect of selfishness that we are familiar with in popular terminology. A more enlightened interpretation is that selfishness is the will of the ego while selflessness is the will of the soul (or simply our self without self); selfish action is directed by the ego, selfless action is directed by the soul. Thus, the literal meaning of selfless (“without the self”) is not exactly altruism but is precisely the state of being free of the ego. Of course, when the ego is neutralized, an altruistic nature becomes the natural consequence; i.e., altruism is not a synonym of selflessness, it is a byproduct. To let go of the self is to remove the blockade of egoism and allow unconditional love to flow through you. When we free ourselves from identification with the ego, we renounce all of the negative tendencies and behaviors that cause strife in the world: jealously, greed, lustfulness, rancor, aggression, defensiveness, neediness, and fear, to name a few. In this newfound freedom, the happiness of others will be our happiness and it will be in our best interest and our desire to exude love and good will. This is our inherent nature, though such fraternity is too often stifled by the work of the ego.
The amazing possibility (and reality, in my opinion) is that human beings can have an interconnected selfhood such that what is best for one is best for all (see [One Actor, Many Roles]). To hurt others is to hurt ourselves, and to hurt ourselves is to hurt others. Reflexively, to help others is to help ourselves and vice versa. Of course, mathematicians, economists, and psychologists will generally refute this notion and claim that the opposite is closer to the truth—that humans are innately destined to vie over resources because of the evolutionary hard-wiring in the brain caused by survival of the fittest, etc., etc. But the possibility remains that this conflict can be mitigated over time through relinquishment of individual and collective egoism, perhaps to the point that we can create utopia and together evolve to a higher state of being.
If we hope to improve life upon this Earth and lift the human condition from the darkness that we have known so long to a better, more beautiful state of being, then we must learn to dissolve the primitive ego and all the madness it causes in its blind and animalistic drive for self-preservation. The egoic, tribalistic, and carnal parts of the mind are all vestigial structures from the rough journey through the more primitive stages of our evolution. Only one with little imagination could think that such levels of self-centeredness are still (and will always be) necessary for human life.
So the real question to be left with is: will you free yourself of the self, or will you mire yourself in the self?
*Note that “altruism” as used here must not be confused with “ethical altruism,” which is a doctrine of ethics describing moral imperatives. This article is not concerned with discussions of morality, but only with the reality of human selfish intention.
**In this article “Selfishness” with quotes refers to the conventional definition. Selfishness without quotes refers to my definition: service of the ego.