Archives for posts with tag: selfless act

There is a fairly cynical worldview out there called Psychological Egoism. What this means is that every human action, regardless of how altruistic, can only be motivated by some kind of personal gain. A common example is the story of Abraham Lincoln, of all people, saving a pig stuck in some mud, and then explaining afterward that he would have been bothered all day had he left the pig stuck in its predicament. It’s probably not a factual depiction of history, but it gets the point across.

Some go further than the uncomfortable feeling one might possess if they had not rescued a pig in distress. Complete self-sacrifice, such as throwing oneself onto a grenade in order to save one’s peers, has been argued to be selfishly oriented as well. The story goes that the person is of such a disposition that the life they would have led had they not sacrificed themselves would be less agreeable than death. It is a selfish act because they choose for themselves the less painful of the two options. The introspection and regret would have been too much, and so to avoid that personal suffering, they selfishly kill themselves, saving everyone else.

Charming, right? Such a lovely mentality.

I want to take a different approach. Since those who argue for humanity’s inherent selfishness look to the altruistic paragons in order to tear them down, I’m going to look at the most selfish behaviour, and see if I can’t argue that it is inherently selfless. Since I want to look at the worst of the worst, I will of course be examining the Trump family.

The Eric Trump Foundation’s charity golf tournament, which raises money for children with cancer, falsely tells its donors that 100% of their donations go to charity. Eric Trump alleges that his father Donald allows them use of his golf course for free, when in reality, the Trump organization charges them for everything, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars “donated” by unsuspecting philanthropists. Surely this must be a selfish act!

Eric Trump connives and takes advantage of cancerous children for the sake of his family. He has no interest in himself, but spreads the wealth that he steals from charity to the people he cares about most. He would risk his name being dragged through the mud, vilified for his deeds, in order to bring in extra money for the only people that matter to him.

Now you might think, the Trump family already has enough. As president, Donald is seeking to eliminate the only taxes that he appears to have to pay! Surely they do not need the extra cash. Yet I expect that the Trump family believes that they would make better use of any funds given to them, bettering the world by making sure that those who best know how to utilize money are the ones given the opportunity to do so.

Those who routinely decry taxation as theft, who would rather spend less on the property tax on their vacation home, do so because they believe that they know how to spend their money better than some government. They believe firmly that the world would be better off if they had the choice on whether the money they earned sends poor children to school or buys a second vacation home, rather than have that decision made for them.

The natural human lifespan necessarily requires altruism. Leaving a legacy, preparing a dynasty, we as individuals always leave this mortal coil, which means that a portion of our life is inherently dedicated to who and what we leave behind, but let’s say that Donald Trump was not going to bequeath his vast wealth to his children when he dies. Let’s say, after he has stolen so much from so many, he burns it all, rather than dispersing it to anyone, loved ones or otherwise. This would obviously be because he believed that the world would be improved without this money in it. Why else would he burn it if he didn’t believe the world would be better off?

Every act we take is based on helping the ones we love (even if it negatively impacts others), and improving the world based on the personal standards that we hold it to. Even if others might disagree on those standards, we cannot help but abide by our own.

Perhaps you might think my examples far-fetched. The Trump family is a difficult sell as decent human beings of any sort. Yet my story is just as plausible as the soldier jumping on a grenade for selfish reasons. We can come up with speculation to justify or betray any behaviour.

In all honesty, there are certainly selfish behaviours, just as there are selfless ones. Trying to confine the complexity of humanity into one is just as absurd as confining it to the other. How we judge and perceive the actions of others is more determined by what story we are willing to tell. If someone perceives every action as selfish, I believe that speaks greater volumes about the accuser than it does about our human nature.

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.