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Is there such a thing as a selfless act?

February 7, 2011

In lecture today, we discussed the idea of selfless acts. After looking at both sides, the selfless and selfish deeds,  I realized that I don’t care.  The deed produced something good. If only one side benefited from it  then mission accomplished.  If both sides benefits then great,  it’s a bonus.  Why do I need to label  a good deed as  selfish or selfless?  I prefer to focus on the good that the deed brought rather than trying to define it. But for the sake of this post I’ll pick a side.

People can be selfless. It is incredibly hard and most are unable to achieve this, but it is not impossible. I think you can do something without having any intentions of helping yourself. For example, seeing someone about to fall down a flight of steps and trying  to catch them would be selfless. This split second decision is not enough time for one to think about how selfless they are or if this deed is going to make them feel like a better human.  Overall, it is the intentions that make a difference. Selflessness comes from what your original motive/intentions are. Knowing later that you did a good thing is the aftermath which doesn’t define the selflessness of the deed.

Joey v. Phoebe(Friends): Selfless deeds So what do you think? Are you on Joey/Hobbes’ or Phoebe’s side?

6 Comments
  1. Melissa Boelstler permalink
    February 7, 2011 9:07 PM

    First of all, good find on the video, I really liked the link it provided. Secondly, as I was pondering this question, I decided to look up the definition of selfless just to make sure I fully understand the concept. One was “concerned more with the needs of another than ones own”. A second I checked for good measure defined selfless as “having little or no concern for oneself”. Now, from these definitions I have to think yes, selfless deeds are possible. They do not define selfless as something in which there is no positive feedback for yourself, and if that were the case, then arguably no deed would actually be selfless. Instead, that good feeling someone may get when they volunteer at the soup kitchen does not consider it a selfish act, because they are more concerned about the needs of others than themselves, even though they also do get something in return. Therefore, I do think selfless deeds are possible, when the definition of selfless is thought to be one of the two above as found in two dictionary entries.

  2. Austin Spaulding permalink
    February 8, 2011 1:48 PM

    I agree with the last blogger that selfless deeds are possible. However I feel that we cannot truly judge other peoples actions without truly knowing their intentions. An act could appear as selfless but the person may have other motives. On the other hand a seemingly selfish act could actually be deemed selfless. For example the character Robin Hood who stole from the rich could be deemed selfish in the rich man’s eyes, but he is actually giving his stolen goods to the poor, making him selfless. All I am trying to say is we shouldn’t be to quick to label an act as selfish or selfless unless we know the whole situation.

  3. February 9, 2011 2:31 PM

    I think that it was great that your video was about Joey and Phoebe in Friends because that was the first thought that came to mind when I started reading your article. I also agree that there are certainly such acts as selfless acts and that knowing good in the aftermath doesn’t always define selflessness. The intentions of you helping someone that is in need is not always to reap benefits, but sometimes it is just because that someone is in need of help. If you feel good about yourself after helping someone, this does not change the fact that feeling good was not the original intention of helping that person.

  4. nehajain permalink
    February 9, 2011 7:34 PM

    Like the others have pointed out, your choice of video was perfect. I also have to agree with your arguments in this post. When the class was having the discussion regarding this topic in lecture, I couldn’t help but wonder “Why does this matter?” If the resulting outcome is positive, then who cares whether the means are selfless or not?
    I think Austin makes a good point by stating that we can’t know whether the act is considered “selfish” or “selfless” without knowing the person’s reasonings or intentions. Like we witness in the video clip that Melanie posted, Phoebe’s act of having the babies for her brother could be seen as selfless, but could also be interpreted as a very selfish act, as we see in Joey’s reaction. Given that the audience does not know her true intentions, the interpretation is up to us. So although I don’t personally believe it matters if an act is selfish or selfless, so long as the result is good, but for the sake of argument, as Austin pointed out, it is best not to classify something as “selfish” or “selfless” without knowing the full story.

  5. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam permalink
    February 10, 2011 4:13 PM

    I think that it’s a common mistake to conflate what others see as a ‘selfless act’ with the intentions of a particular individual and how he/she sees his/her actions. After all, only an individual actor will know the true intentions for his/her behavior so while we can label an act as being ‘selfless’, we can’t gauge that the ‘selfless action’ sprung out of ‘selfless intentions’. I’d like to point out that in most cases, even the individual actor might not necessarily be aware of the motivations for his/her actions since, more often than not, we behave in a certain way because we’ve become habituated to the positive outcome of behaving in a specific way. For instance, if I see somebody falling, I might immediately reach out to catch him and it’s arguable that while my split-second response was not made after a lengthy evaluation, we shouldn’t forget that I might have, in previous occasions, after helping another, felt really happy because I appeased my conscience, hence, I reached out to catch the falling person because I’m subconsciously aware that I’d feel happy after saving his life.

    It’s something like Classical Conditioning. Watch this really cool video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eo7jcI8fAuI

    Finally, to play the devil’s advocate here, I’d like to quote an excerpt about Abraham Lincoln:

    “Abraham Lincoln illustrated the philosophical issue in a conversation with another passenger in a horse-drawn coach. After Lincoln argued that selfishness prompts all good deeds, he noticed a sow making a terrible noise. Her piglets had gotten into a pond and were in danger of drowning. Lincoln called the coach to a halt, jumped out, ran back, and lifted the little pigs to safety. Upon his return, his companion remarked, “Now, Abe, where does selfishness come in on this little episode?” “Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have no peace of mind all day had I gone and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs.”

  6. Alexandra Davis permalink
    February 21, 2011 11:10 AM

    My question is, is there the possibility for a 100% selfless act?

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