There was once a man named Abraham Lincoln. Now, Lincoln is known for a few things, like abolishing slavery, owning dapper hats, and a posthumous distaste for the theatre, but one story that is slightly less known is that one day Abe and a buddy were riding in a carriage discussing altruism. Lincoln was saying that there is no such thing as a truly selfless act, and his buddy was saying, yeah bro, there is. All of a sudden the carriage came upon an adorable little pig stuck in some mud. Abraham Lincoln demanded the carriage driver stop, leaped out of the carriage with his coattails all a-flutter, rolled up his sleeves, and rescued the pig. Dusting himself off, Abe climbed back into the carriage. His buddy, triumphant, declared, “Saving that pig did not affect you in the slightest! That was a truly selfless act!” and Abraham Lincoln, being the wise-cracking mother fucker that he is, smirked and replied, “If I hadn’t saved that swine, it would have bothered me all day.”

Do I agree with good ol’ Honest Abe? That there is no such thing as a truly selfless act? No, I don’t. I’m using this story to illustrate the fact that people who do nice things for themselves are smug assholes.

Too often do I hear people say to do nice things, and nice things will happen to you. Or to do nice things because it’ll make you feel good. Or do nice things and people will finally respect you. These are the reasons that Abe Lincoln claimed that a truly selfless act is impossible. Doing nice things for personal gain or self-image doesn’t make you nice. It makes you a dink. You’re like those people who are always so God damned cheerful, but everybody knows that it’s just a ruse and they’re really a creep. Just because your actions might be considered nice or beneficial to others, it doesn’t make you a saint if your justifications are self-serving.

A Batman once said that it’s not who you are underneath, but what you do that defines you. That may be how others will judge you, but it is not who you are. Your essence as a person is not based on the opinions of others, but on your consciousness alone. If the quality of that consciousness is based on self-serving motives, then regardless of how many pigs you save, you’re still kind of a twat.

The obvious alternative is to do nice things for other people. That is also stupid. There is no way to predict the outcome of a “nice” act, and so to rely on the reactions of other people to dictate the merit of an act will constantly vary. Did you ever give a gift you felt sure would make somebody happy, and have it rejected or met with apathy? It’s the thought that counts, right? The thought to do something nice for someone else? What good is a thought if everybody loses? An act cannot be judged based on its outcome because the outcome will never be known prior to the act itself.

So if the consequences of an act don’t define it, nor does its intent, the only thing left is the act itself.

But Dan, don’t actions lack any inherent value?

That is an excellent point, italicized text. We as subjects create the value for every single act, but that does not exclude the possibility of projecting that value outside of ourselves when it comes to morality. Therefore when we act, we do it not for ourselves or for others, but for the deed itself. This allows us to abstain from self-righteousness, as well as foregoing the risk of a moral quandary due to unanticipated consequences.

This does not mean that we are obligated to hold others to account under our morality, for it is still our own and will always be unique to us. Just because we project it outside of ourselves does not mean that we must forget its original source. Neither does this mean that absolutism is the answer, and projected morality does not have to be rigid, but can be just as fluid as the situation merits.

Hold on, so we’re just supposed to pretend that something that comes from within us is actually outside of us? How can a form of ethics be based on make believe? 

All forms of ethics are based on make believe. Ethics is impossible to nail down; hence why it’s one of my favourite things. This is just a theory of mine to prevent people from being terrible, and also to help them realize that deeds are not necessarily the only method of defining somebody’s character.