The Imaginary Line Between Selfishness & Selflessness

What does it mean to be selfless? To be selfish? Are the two necessarily opposite, or do they, in fact, usually intermingle? It has been said to me, somewhat recently, that it is irrelevant. The motivational distinction was said to be of no importance, and only results were worth examining. I cannot help but think that the speaker, in this case, was simply taking the easy way out. There must be some importance attached to how a self will be effected by an action, and if that effect was considered before the action was made. If for no other reason than the fact that “selfish” carries with is a negative connotation. Implicit in that negativity, there is some sense of optionality. Some other way of acting could have been chosen: perhaps a less selfish way; perhaps a a more selfless way.

Micro-economists have a fairly simple notion of why people do anything: to increase their “utility”, which I am told roughly translates to “happiness”. This has always bothered me, because I felt as though, at some point in my life, I have done things I did not want to do. Things that did not make me happy. Here, the economist might reply, that I did what made me the least less happy. More colloquially, one might say: I chose the lesser of two evils. Fair enough, the term can be stretched enough to envelop all human action. I am not, however, satisfied just yet… I’ll come back to this.

In a play, The Good Person of Szechwan, there is a character with two personalities. A woman that helps the poor and needy some days, but runs a ruthless tobacco operation other days under the guise of a fictional brother. The story is not so unique, surely you know someone who donates to a charity some days and, to earn the money for charity, contributes to killing people other days. I am assuming most people know some soldier with a “good heart”… or a politician.

Now, consider you do not take it quite that far. You bake your mother cookies. Cookies, that you do not enjoy and will not eat. You hand them over, and presumably you feel good watching mom nibble her cookies away. How selfish! Baking cookies so that you can feel good about giving them away. What’s next, voting down public welfare programs so that you can feel good about your personal contributions to the homeless man on your street corner?

Now, instead, suppose you do not bake mom those cookies, because you do not want to waste time baking goodies you will not consume. Well then, selfish you! Worried only about your own consumption, your mother will never again eat her favorite cookies. Give her your favorite, peanut brittle, as a substitute… and then what have you become? Selfish still because of your original choice, or saved now by your own sacrifice of much-love peanut brittle?

Taking our hypothetical example to extremes, imagine that you decide to take the feel good route and bake mom her cookies after all. After hours of work you deliver to cookies to mom, who proceeds to scream at you. She calls you a stranger, rejects your cookies, and you go home pitifully sad. Your mother was not being selfish or selfless: she is plagues by memory loss outside of her control. You, however, have to make a choice. Do you make more cookies and try again later, or do you give up? If you know that 95% of the time your mother will reject your cookies and leave you feeling terrible, but you do it anyway… then you might actually have some negative expected utility value. Maybe then you can act selflessly. In the face of the unknown, may you and your mother both be able to escape selfishness?

So then, perhaps you hate buying Power Ball tickets, but selflessly decide to fund your state’s education. You buy one-hundred tickets a week, and of course, you have a negative expected return. Now, it is hard to imagine you are indeed acting outside of selfish motivation. For one, you know that you are bolstering your state’s educational budget. For two, you may win quite a bit of money. In some sense, there is still some unknown result, but it is not as unclear as the previous example… it is just clear enough to make you seem somewhat selfish.

How little information must you have to be selfless? And isn’t that very notion, of having to be less informed, counter intuitive? Throwing hundred dollar bills out of your car as you drive, completely randomly, around Chicago… is that selfless? Or does your imagination, creating some scenario where a poor homeless woman benefits, make you selfish still? In reality, all of your money may end up in the hands of thieves or drug dealers, but is that reality what is motivating you? It is possible to act without motivation? To what extent is art selfish?

To exercise my (sense of) free will, I occasionally try and do things that make me less happy than alternatives. I might eat grits instead of pancakes, walk instead of take a bus, climb stares with arms full, as opposed to taking the elevator. While carrying out the less satisfying action, there is a part of myself that really detests me. Hostility sometimes surfaces, but when the forced action is completed… I have a sense of will power. I am not not taking the easy way out, and not trying to maximize short-term utility. But I know what I am doing, so it would seem that proving things to myself must be selfish, because the outcome it not unknown… because I would be more unhappy in the long-run doing everything I wanted to do.

Aside from that potentially bizarre motivation, my quasi-conclusion remains: that all informed activity must be selfish. Maybe even if there are no alternatives. Mental justification can make all action selfish. The only selfless scenario I have been able to fathom is one where the actor is demented. When the actor loses what makes them human.

Selfish. Human. No escaping the connotation or the motivation.

3 Responses

  1. Martin says:

    The word selfish has a negative connotation. I mentioned some time ago that you might read “Illusions.” Here’s a quote from one of the main characters, “Anybody who’s ever mattered, anybody who’s ever been happy, anybody who’s ever given any gift into the world has been a divinely selfish soul, living for his own best interest. No exceptions.” People act in their own self interest doing what they do in order to satisfy their needs. I didn’t say wants or desires because those are the result of need: and sometime happiness is not involved. People are some times conflicted and thus exhibit conflicting behaviors. You have no “sense of” free will; you have free will, with some exceptions, along with all of the benefits and consequences in the exercise thereof. By the way, you don’t need much information to act. On a base level it’s about satisfying needs with benefits and consequences being out of the consideration loop. Also throwing $100 bills out of the window is an indication of stupidity and/or the sophomoric need for entertainment that is more likely to get some old lady killed by some fine citizen scrambling greedily for the bill. Or perhaps she’ll be at the top of the food chain. You’ve seen little old ladies knock children down to get to some worthless pair of Mardi Gras beads haven’t you? When was the last time you baked your mom some cookies? Plant the okra.

  2. Martin:

    Do tell, who wrote Illusions? I looked it up on Amazon.com when you first suggested it, but am not sure if I found the right work.

    That okra will go in as soon as the ground thaws. 😉 You never did elaborate on the chia pet idea… in fact you’ve neglected quite a lot of questions I’ve asked recently. Regardless, thank you for stopping by… I always enjoy your comments.

  3. Martin says:

    Illusions was written by Richard Bach. Chia pet was from my comment on your “What to do yesterday” post. The okra will suffice. You’ve indicated that you have a passion for cooking. I don’t get the impression that you’ve spent much time getting dirt on your hands. Planting and growing something has the potential to be a transformative experience. Perhaps not on a grand scale but transformative just the same. Planting and growing a child is on the upper end of the scale of transformative possibilities. Then as a cook/chef, depending on your level of vanity, there is scarce epicurean experience that compares with preparing a meal with freshly harvested items. Items here also include meats and seafood. Shrimp fresh from the water are like no others. A dish of freshly dug potatoes and just picked green beans will make a meal you won’t forget. Then there is the getting dirty aspect. If you didn’t make mud pies as a child perhaps it’s time for the experience. Soil is a sensual experience.
    I don’t recall too many unanswered questions directed toward me except that one on identity. How might my identity change this relationship?
    You do ask questions of your readers but most of your questions seem to be for yourself. Then there is the time factor to answer each query.
    Let’s take this one.
    “What’s next, voting down public welfare programs so that you can feel good about your personal contributions to the homeless man on your street corner? Does that mean a complete shutdown of public welfare (my question)? Does it mean that people who pay taxes to fund these programs don’t feel good about “contributing?” There have always been homeless for a variety of reasons. But there have not always been government financed programs to deal with the problem. Did all of those homeless before government welfare programs just shrivel and die? I recall people of my parent’s generation telling stories of people coming to the door begging a meal, usually in exchange for doing some work, “will work for food.” They would provide a sandwich or perhaps a plate of food often in exchange for some small job to be done, raking leaves, chopping wood, etc. As a child I can remember my mother making sandwiches, if we had enough, for beggars at the door. We did not always have enough. Churches, synagogues, and civic groups helped as well. This also begs the question shouldn’t the financing of this government program be spread equally among the citizenry so that none feel left out of their support for the homeless? Shouldn’t we all get to feel good? From an economic perspective though wouldn’t it be cheaper to just put these folks on a boat or plane and send them to some third world country where we could feed them for 50 cents a day? If one is homeless, environment shouldn’t be that big a factor. And on the bright side, we could feel good about these folks would get a vacation they would otherwise be unable to afford. How may Americans have taken the opportunity to visit another country? Uh oh, there’s the fly in the ointment.

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