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Jun. 3 2010 - 9:37 pm | 284 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

The Myth Of Selflessness

A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum London

I remember one time when I was maybe fourteen or so, coming to the conclusion that there was no such thing as altruism. I didn’t know the word “altruism” at the time, I don’t think, so when I walked into my dad’s office to challenge him with the idea, I phrased it something like this: “Everything that anybody ever does is selfish.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Well.” I had been thinking about this for a while. “People control their own actions. We choose what we do. And even when we do something nice for someone else, we get something in return. We’re rewarded for doing the nice thing. And that’s why we do it. Even if the reward is just a thank you. That makes us feel better about ourselves, so that’s why we do it. Even if the person you help doesn’t say thank you, you still get a reward. Even it’s just a smile. Or even if it’s not a smile. Even if it’s nothing you can see. Just knowing you helped someone can be the reward. It feels good to help someone. When I do something nice for someone, something that makes someone else happy, or feel better or something, that makes me happy. It makes me feel better about myself. I know this and that’s why I ever do anything nice for someone. To make myself feel good. I choose to do it, to get something, this good feeling, for myself. So it’s really totally selfish in the end.”

He considered it for a minute and then disagreed. “No, I can think of times where I do something totally for someone else,” he said. “For you. And your sister. There are times where I do things for you not because it makes me happy to do it, but just because it makes you happy.”

“But making me happy makes you happy,” I said. “Otherwise you wouldn’t do it. I mean, you choose to do it.”

“No, there’s a difference. And I don’t expect you to necessarily be able to understand it. But there are times when I do something that I really don’t want to do, just because it makes you happy. But not because it makes me happy to see you happy. It’s something else.” He cited giving me money to buy expensive clothes. It was the ’80s, and I’d developed a taste for Polo by Ralph Lauren. “It doesn’t make me happy to see you happy about something like clothes. But I do it anyway. It’s hard to explain. It has to do with being your parent.”

I didn’t like this answer at all. I didn’t like him making a claim to some mysterious secret knowledge that I didn’t have access to.

Thirty-five years later, with a kid of my own, I found myself thinking about this recently when my kid told me that he didn’t have to listen to me or his mother or his teachers. “I listen to my brain,” he said. “My brain tells me what to do.” Great, I thought. But I couldn’t very well disagree, and resigned myself to years of what is so often the futile system of reward and punishment we use to get the human lab-rats around us to do what we want.

But I think I understand more of what my father was talking about now. I think he was talking about the difference between seeking happiness and fulfilling parental obligation—and I agree there’s a difference, and one I could not have known about before my kid was born. As I’ve written here before, the feeling of living more for the kid than for myself was a revelation I experienced upon first looking at him in the delivery room. It’s held up to a large degree, and like my dad had said, it is not always happy-making. I can’t cite anything as concrete as buying the kid something even though I find the joy he finds in it distasteful—that seems like a more advanced parent-to-teenager type of misery than I’ve yet discovered in these first five and a half years. The most selfless obligation I can think of is probably more like carrying the kid up three flights of stairs and the two blocks home from the subway just because he’s fallen asleep on the train. I’ve done this a number of times, and not because me happy. In fact, it makes my back hurt. And it’s not for pleasure I might get out of making the kid happy. It doesn’t make the kid happy; he’s asleep and doesn’t know any difference. Is it the pleasure I get in the avoidance of making him unhappy? Like, it’s easier to carry him than deal with his crankiness upon waking. That would be a form of seeking happiness, I think, seeking relative pleasure. But I don’t think it’s that, either. He’s usually not so grumpy in such a situation. And even if he was, I wouldn’t mind it more than the sore back. It has to do with the obligation I feel simply to let him sleep. Because sleep is good for him. And I feel a strong and ever-present pull to do what I think is good for him. I guess you could wrap this around to something like: Submitting to this pull, the fulfillment of this obligation, does in fact make me feel happy, or some vaguer form of positive emotion. Or, at the very least, it avoids the bad feeling that would come from not fulfilling the obligation—and that’s a grade of comparative happiness. And in that regard, I guess I’m back to my original 14-year-old assertion that there’s no such thing as a selfless act. It is my brain, after all, that’s telling me what to do. But I think there is actually something different and more complex going on. Because the way it feels, when my back is hurting as I carry the kid up on the elevator and into our apartment, it’s almost as if it’s not my brain telling me what to do. It’s something else, it’s for him.


3 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    I would take it simplier.
    Isn’t it nice that doing something nice for someone makes you happy? Although it is not selflessness, it is a positive selfishness.
    It is all about semantics.
    Not all the people feel happy when helping others. Some like to make people suffer. Some just do not care for the people around them.
    So the point is what makes you feel good.

  2. collapse expand

    This isn’t a new idea. I had the same thoughts as a cynical child. People donate to charity so they can feel good about themselves. Every action is self rewarding. The problem is, this leads to a closed loop ideology that outputs only to depression. You’re not so much espousing this argument as begging for someone to disprove it for you. A cry for help one might say. Which intrinsically proves the idea is false. If pure selfishness was true you wouldn’t waste your time mulling the issue but simply apply yourself to self betterment.

  3. collapse expand

    Saying that every action done by someone is selfish is similar to saying everything someone does expends energy. Accurate, but useless.

    I think you may have a semantic problem. By definition, everything you do relates to self and somehow contributes to self. So, yes, everything one does may be “selfish,” even if it produces a bad outcome for the self.

    But what use is a tautology in this case? How does it help you live your life? What do you gain from it? My concern is that this particular construction of “selfish” creates an excuse not to attempt to connect, understand, empathize with, nurture and support the Other, (everything that is non-self). Its an excuse to indulge in the fiction of solipcism.

    Interaction with the Other is always self-referential, (selfish if you will), but the focus is not the self, but on the perception and relation with the Other. This is selfish, and not selfish. Which renders the term useless for communicating anything.

    However, If one defines “selfish” as “focused on self-preservation and self-enrichment” as opposed to “relating only to the self,” your argument doesn’t hold and your Dad was right.

    I just spent 4 days with 30 members of an all-volunteer search and rescue crew locating a missing plane and recovering the bodies of the pilot and passenger in heavily timbered, mountainous terrain in the rain and light snow. We gave up safety, comfort, food, warmth and entertainment to recover bodies to bring closure to two families and to assist in official investigations. In the process, we almost lost a person and a helicopter during a last-second mishap raising the bodies to an helicopter. I can tell you that there was nothing “selfish” about working 20 hr days starting at 5 am trying to locate bodies in what would most likely be in an unpleasant condition when found. Having an alarm ring after 3 hrs of sleep on the third day of dealing with miserable weather in very rugged terrain, for no intrinsic reward strikes me as being the opposite of being self-focused. Granted, some of our crew did it to be able to say, “I did it,” but a number of folks there have done it already, and it was simply a fulfillment of their sense of obligation to their community. Anyone of that team would have put their lives at risk to help out another one of the team if anyone had gotten in serious trouble. To me, that is the definition of, “not selfish.” And it’s a useful distinction to be able to make when you’re deciding who you want to have on your team.

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    I've been writing and editing for hip-hop magazines for fifteen years. I live in New York City with my wife and kid. You can read my other writing over at The Awl:


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