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.