Student ,


This conversation is closed.

Are all of our actions motivated by our selfish nature?

Sure, there are the obvious things: making money, self-entertainment, sex, but even things we supposedly do for others are selfish to a degree. We serve others because we want to be good people, so these acts make us feel better. We even help others at our own expense for the same reason-- to be good people. Even our obligations are selfish to an extent. We did chores, for example, because it was in our best interest in the long-term, not just because it was a necessity.

Is it possible to commit a fully selfless action? Are we, by definition, completely selfish beings?

  • thumb
    May 8 2011: can we theoretically be selfless? we only know things that we sense. our brain sits in our head, and gets input only through the nerves. everything we do is aimed to change either our minds or that inflow of information. in that sense, we can not do anything that is not selfish.

    so this frame of thinking is not very useful. if we do something to help another being, and then we feel better because of it, it should not be classified as selfishness. it is, by definition, selflessness. and thus the answer to the question is a definite no. we very often act selflessly.

    so what you did here, is a tricky play on the definition of the word. you defined it to include everything, and then asked if there is anything outside of it.
  • Comment deleted

    • May 10 2011: Nice moderation, Ed!
      Sounds quite attainable in theory, but to"show other people kindness, love and respect" one must have this, and if one does, everything will come with. The question is how to get to this point?
  • thumb
    May 8 2011: I would say no, not all actions are motivated by selfish desire. Sometimes people do good things because they are the right thing to do. The warm fuzzy feeling is a bonus, if it's there. Some selfless acts can be heart wrenching, terrible burdens accepted by one to help another. Any good feelings gained by doing the good deed are far outweighed by the price paid for them, and the goal isn't to gain those feelings. And that warm glow, if it's present, isn't about "Look what I did", it's about "The person deserves/needs this". The motivation to do good is not feeling good - it is to do good. Why? because it's the right thing to do.
    • May 8 2011: Hi Daniel. Thank you for the response.
      Good point. I can see how our satisfaction that results from such actions could be thought of rather as a bonus.
  • thumb
    May 14 2011: Yes the "Feel Good" factor for self is always there that I feel.
    When this "Feel Good" factor brings good for others, that I want say as a bit selfless action, contrary to it becomes an "Selfish" one.
  • thumb
    May 14 2011: Not all actions or people are selfish. Take for example Mother Teressa, Do you think she did all she did for selfishness? If so then I'd say we need more of it.
  • thumb
    May 14 2011: There is need for a distinction between an act that may benefit us in the long run and a selfish act. Selfishness is determined by intent that precedes action. If I only look at my own self-interest, I am less likely to see another clearly and less likely to be truly helpful. We cannot think of self interest and be in touch with the needs and concerns of another.

    I believe it is in our nature to be compassionate and empathic and to connect with others. Selfishness is a distortion that has arisen in the last 10% of human existence. Selfishness brings short-term gain and illusion of success but it does not lead to lasting fulfillment and satisfaction. I have worked with a number of people who are facing death. No one wishes they had been more selfish. None have tried to become more selfish in their last days. There is a natural tendency to focus on relationship and how well we have loved. Selfishness is the opposite of love.
    • thumb
      May 14 2011: "Selfishness is the opposite of love'. Isn't it interesting that someone else can capture in words what your own heart could not?- Thank you Bob!
    • thumb
      May 14 2011: "Selfishness is a distortion that has arisen in the last 10% of human existence." How do you figure? You think the nomadic tribes were more civil then we?
  • May 9 2011: We are selfish, but there's also one thing that sometimes we seem to be altruistic, and perform deeds for the sake of others, some even sacrifice themselves... Is there an explanation?
    It wouldn't be correct to speak about altruism of a washing machine, washing someones' dirty socks. Only actions that a performer is aware of can be called altruistic. Altruist does good not for his joy, otherwise it would not be altruism. As the result of such a deed, a performer, instead of satisfaction, can get permanent ban from life(for example when a man pushes a girl out of cars' way and dies)

    Altruism has been researched on the basis of great historical material. So, it evolved from herd instinct. One individual doesn't have any chance to survive w/o group. I will omit information about the nature of altruism and give its' definition. Altruism is genetically determined behavior, aimed at providing animal species more opportunities to survive, despite the harm to some individuals. You can find lots of illustrations to it.

    And the answer to 2 of your question is: "no"
    And to another question is: "yes"
    Now guess what questions i mean :)
  • thumb
    May 8 2011: I am not sure I agree. Let me use an example.

    A building is on fire. You do not know the people in the building. You hear young and old people crying for help. You have a sense that you can rescue some people. At the same time you are aware that you could be putting your own life at risk. What would you do?

    Some people selflessly would go into the fire and start rescuing people. Some people who do this die in the process.

    If, as you say, all actions are motivated by a selfish nature how do you account for acts of heroism?
    • thumb
      May 8 2011: Aaaa yes, but then there is the argument that you are motivated by the potential guilt of not having gone in to save those people. Perhaps such 'selfless' acts occur when the personal want to avoid such guilt outweighs the want to, more assuredly, preserve your own life.

      I'm not even one for selfishness, but as I've said before, perhaps we need a re-definition of 'selfish' or a neologism to describe the arguably 'selfish' yet 'selfless' motive.
  • thumb
    May 8 2011: I think we are instinctively selfish . . . it's in our genes.
    • thumb
      May 8 2011: i can't source it, but i heard a speech by a hungarian ethologist, and he said that actually it is the exact opposite. human race is special because its extreme tendency to help out each other. in group animals, weak members are left behind. human groups never do that. they carry the sick, the old, the infant. they survive or die together.

      so yes, selfishness is in our genes, just like every animals' genes, but much less so.
  • thumb
    May 8 2011: "Are all of our actions motivated by our selfish nature?"


    Does that make us bad?
    • thumb

      E G

      • 0
      May 8 2011: yes
      • thumb
        May 8 2011: can it also make us good?
        • thumb
          May 8 2011: Oh No! Say it ain't so!
          Tim do you belong to the dark side of total self interest?
          I cannot believe that the man who engaged me in dialogue about schemas and led me step by step to see things more clearly was motivated by self interest. I perceive that your intent was to help ME on that occassion even though you couched it in exploring your own thought processes.
          Am I misreading?
      • thumb
        May 8 2011: Debra: I think Austin put it pretty well:

        "We serve others because we want to be good people, so these acts make us feel better."

        Why is that bad?
        • thumb

          E G

          • 0
          May 8 2011: no, it can't
          "We serve others because we want to be good people, so these acts make us feel better." isn't it selfishness: to want to be good people ?
          in my opinion we hardly ever continue to do something which make us feel bad ........... so again selfishness.
        • thumb
          May 8 2011: Tim, I think that there is a disconnect in the reasoning. It is a kind of circular logic.
          My observation is that you did a good deed. I do not thiink it was to tell yourself or others that you are a good person- do you?
      • thumb
        May 8 2011: Debra: We have a model in our mind of what is good behaviour. This serves as a filter for our actions. We tend to behave in ways that conform to our model of goodness. We avoid people who don't have models of goodness that conform to ours. I think they would benefit by modifying their model to agree more with that of others. It would serve their self interest. Don't you think?

        Circular reasoning? Or a coherent world-view?
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: "I would think they would benefit by modifying their model to agree more with that of others. "I am not certain how to interpret this sentence.

          We previously discussed schema modification and that it causes us some anxiety but in some strongly held schemas there is very little that can assail them. (You have encountered that with religious thought.) One thing we did not address though, was that there are many many schemas and they do combine into a complete world view. You can have circular reasoning in any one domain without using it as a general tool in life.

          The concept of goodness is one of that caliber. I cannot imagine many people simply altering their 'goodness' schema to conform- at least seldomly upward (peer pressure usually brings goodness downward, no?) Even then if a person was trying to impress someone like a boss or a date their goodness compromise would be situation specific not permanent.

          You are no wuss so I am having fun pushing you a bit- did you have anything whatsoever to gain from being kind to me- a woman you never met and probably will never meet?You know that I am one of the hold outs that believes altruism exists! I do not deny that everyone of us exhibits selfishness at times. I just believe that there are people whose goodness lifts to the level of selflessness.

          Remember that plane crash a few years ago where that man stayed in the freezing water to help others out?
        • May 9 2011: [Sorry to interrupt... but]

          I would like to know your definition of "selfish", because I was originally under the impression that "selfish" simply meant having regard for one's well-being in a given decision (regardless of how much regard they have for others). But now I'm getting the impression that "selfish" is defined as someone being concerned with the well-being of him or herself more than the well-being of others.
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: Valid question Austin and you are not interupting- we are all in this exploration together.

          Here is the definition of the word

          self·ish   /ˈsɛlfɪʃ/

          1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.
          2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself: selfish motives.
        • May 9 2011: Ah, ok. Going by those definitions I can agree that we are not always selfish. But-- I am hesitant to believe it is possible to commit a completely "selfless" action. Because everything we do automatically carries a degree of concern for ourselves, considering we want to do it.
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: There is an entire body of research in psychology on altruism that goes back and forth on this issue and I am firmly on the side that it exists and that its dismissal is very important to the people who have justified their world view on self interest.

          There are examples of altruism everywhere- many people just dismiss them, fird them too painful to observe or explain them away.
          The most profound examples come from children's behaviours. How do we explain the little girl who stays silent in the face of sexual abuse because the victimizer threatened to do the same to her little sister?
          Or the child who directs the attention of an abusive parent onto himself because wants to save his younger siblings?
          Or that man who stays in the freezing water to help the other vicitims of an airplane crash out of the water.
          Or the man who faces down the invading patrols' guns to preserve his family.
          Who can really believe that any of these did this to get some kind of glory, feel good about themselves or promote the continuation of the species. I could never be that cynical.
          If they are merely preserving their schemas and world view- I maintain that they have a world view based on UNSELFISHNESS.
        • May 9 2011: Hi, Debra, In Christianity there is an idea,that hardship, suffering is the inevitable precondition of human growth, of the evolution of consciousness. In suffering our human self transcends our present limitation, and gain the ability to see oneself as a part of the whole.
          Could it be what we call " altruism " ?
      • thumb
        May 9 2011: Have you guys watched this?:

        Starting at time 0:46 is a description of MRI experiments about empathy (both chimps and humans).
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: Tim, I had seen this before and as my studies have mostly been in these areas, I am familiar with the research.
          These are the very facts that make my heart sing and my world view optimistic. I think we are primarily formed for attachment and caring. Something is very wrong when those inate qualities go off the rails.
          For me, the ways societies have functioned until now is the good has conformed in the face of small but powerful forces who are malfunctioning human beings. Those who are broken have the powerful coersive force of violence on their side (hence the idea of 'you and whose army?')
        • May 9 2011: Tim,thank you for the link, Ive met this idea before in different teachings, but for the first time presented like this. This is the idea of collective reality of pooled human consciousness ( not separate as in ego, but together as in true communion.)
          One cannot cause pain to another without causing pain to oneself.
          In John Donne's famous words
          "No man is an island ,intire of itself:every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...
          any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind;
          and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls
          it tolls for thee"

          The measure of our failure to understand this is the measure of our immaturity as species.
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: Hello Natasha! I'm happy you are jumping in to work this out with us!

          Here is the definition of altruism.

          al·tru·ism   /ˈæltruˌɪzəm/ Show Spelled
          [al-troo-iz-uhm] Show IPA

          1. the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others ( opposed to egoism).
          2. Animal Behavior . behavior by an animal that may be to its disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind, as a warning cry that reveals the location of the caller to a predator.

          I would agree based on the definition above with the idea that we would see ourselves as part of the whole. I am not in alignment with the idea that suffering necessarily brings it about. If you have the opportunity please see the great video Tim posted below from RSA in Britian on the topic of empathy as illuminated by neuroscientists. I think the preponderence of evidence indicates that we are hardwired to belong to and care for one another. The role of suffering is a huge theological issue which, to me, indicates that suffering can tear down the selfish tendencies if we have previously chosen them as ways of interacting. Suffering can make us actually FEEL what another feels is we do not voluntarily choose or do not have the capacity to choose to engage with empathy. Am I making any sense?
        • May 9 2011: Thank you, Debra, what you've said does make sense, as always, but the question is:
          How can we understand, really understand, the inner sensation that reflects and communicates the state of near-perfect communion with all people and even more, -all creation?
          The truthfull answer is that we cannot.
          Human consciousness must evolve to the state of no boundary between self and other.
          " Thou art that" state.
          Then there will be no altruism or sacrifice, actually,no torment of choice, you do what is obviously better for the whole.

          I asked you as a specialist in the field, is it possible for human concsiousnees to make that quality shift under the extraordinary circumstances? Maybe there is something in Christian idea?
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: You challenge me to think even more deeply, Natsha and I really embrace the challenge. First let me say as I have said to Tim: the further you dig into things the more comfortable you get with saying 'I don't know'- and I do not have definative answers. The Christian ideals definately shaped my thinking and now I include good bits of insight from many sources such as the charter of compassion but because platform is so divisive I usually do not stand on it.

          So to stop squirming and actually answer your question- I think Christian principles of the self in relation to mankind have 'something' important in them. Personally, I hate to suffer. I have done too much of it. Often I found out what I was made of in such times of physical suffering and usually I found that I was pretty much the same person as I am in these posts under duress. I do also know that sometimes I suffered at the hands of people in ways that made me resolve that I would NEVER do such a thing to another person. (I was the first woman in a nontraditional field and I came to realize that I was not fully human to the people who tormented me- I was some other category in their mind that permitted cruelty -even among people who would have treated their own wives and daughters far differently). Thus suffering at the hands of people taught me much about selfishness and to have a wider and wider inclusiveness in my world view.

          Having children shaped me even more. I am obviously an optimist to have 5 kids. If I had not believed that the world was very beautiful I would never have deliberately chosen to share the world with them and them with the world. But it was in the epiphany of their preciousness that I realized that everyone must be precious - that echoes the idea of one lost sheep and their relationship to God.

          I am not sure what ultimately brought me to believe that doing what is best for the whole is the only way forward but I know that it is.
        • May 9 2011: Thank you, Debra, you are great! Honestly! I appreciate your sharing very much! I do not have answers either, as somebody put it wisely--
          There are no answers, only choices.
      • thumb
        May 9 2011: Concerning the definition of selfishness. I agree we were mis-using the term. The definition in wikipedia actually says "excessive self-interest". So by definition, since anything in excess is bad, selfishness is bad.

        But I think what we are really debating is whether our actions are guided by self-interest. We can discuss a few exceptional cases, but generally, the answer is yes.
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: Given the way you are phrasing this and that I earnestly want to find common ground, I agree that in the normal day to day activities it is simply a fact that as independently functioning individuals we pursue self-interest. I choose to communicate here with all of you because I find it a stimulating and pleasurable experience. But what we do when our interests intersect is for me the point at which the theories apply. I do not think that most people ever expect to elevate their own interest over another's except in the instances of scarcity, danger or societally imposed schemas For me these are disease inducing states like infection.
      • thumb
        May 9 2011: "I do not think that most people ever expect to elevate their own interest over another's except in the instances of scarcity, danger or societally imposed schemas For me these are disease inducing states like infection."

        OK, so here is where I think we differ in our interpretation.

        I think we typically elevate our own interest over others.

        Although I don't subscribe to the libertarian ideology as a basis for constructing a government (or deconstructing a government?) I do think their interpretation of human nature is pretty accurate.

        In general, we are so biased by our self-interest that we tend to minimize the effect of our actions on others. This, perhaps, is an inherent liability to being an independent sentient being.
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: I fall back on a fundamental human experience to answer your points and ask: If it is possible to love any other - your beloved, your children, your mother with as much or more interest in their well being as your own- could it not be possible to expand that circle outward and choose to work for mutual well being with many others?

          I know that I am focusing on microcosms while you bring me evidence of macrocosms but I believe that the microcosms inform the ways the macrocosms can develop.
      • thumb
        May 9 2011: What if we look at it this way:

        Recognize that we are fundamentally self-interested, but also have the capacity for empathy. So structure our social systems around the dominant motivator (self-interest) and draw on empathy where possible.

        Of course, you could attempt to stress the Golden Rule and try to structure a society around that as a foundation. But I think the Middle Ages showed how useful that approach is.
        • thumb
          May 9 2011: In spite of all the idealism you read spouting from me I am actually a pragmatic woman. I too believe we should work toward the best while dealing realistically in the present with the system we have in place.
          Your suggested approach is the one I feel that we have to take. There is NO endorsement for imposing one right way in me because no one could have forced me to think a way that I did not choose for myself (perhaps you noticed : ))

          There are too many ways of thinking and too many people to ever be the 'thought police' to -so the pragmatic way is to hold up the ideal, call out to others and listen to the inspiring voices while going about our individual business in the best way we see fit. Those who climb to the highest ground become beacons and our Extreme athletes of spirit who we can be inspired by.
  • thumb
    May 8 2011: The idea that 'human nature' governs all we do is fuzzy because no-one has a clear definition of human nature. If you're talking purely of genetics, then perhaps yes it is more likely that we are governed by 'selfishness' in our actions, at least when we are children. However, arguably humans are equally definable by their rational minds which, when paired with the strength of the empathetic mind, can motivate completely unselfish acts.

    Furthermore, the ability to empathise makes us not purely selfish. As Daniel has said, the goal isn't to get good feelings in many empathetic acts and empathy creates 'community'. Perhaps a tighter definition of 'selfish' needs to be introduced?
  • thumb

    E G

    • 0
    May 8 2011: Yes in my opinion we are completely selfish beings .
    I think is possible to commit a fully selfless action but not by our nature.