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What Would You Do?

February 8, 2011

What would you do if you were waiting in line at the grocery store and the person ahead of you didn’t have enough money to pay for her groceries? Or what if you saw somebody steal a waiter’s tip off of the table at a restaurant, would you confront them? ABC asks this question every Friday night on their primetime show What Would You Do? 

The show puts everyday people into the middle of tough situations, like the ones mentioned above. ABC hires actors and puts hidden cameras into place in order to carry out the situations. From there, we watch as everyday people are faced with a moral dilemma on whether or not they should help. 

Here is a video of one of their experiments

The well-known Thomas Hobbes claimed that there is no such thing as a selfless act. He claims that even if we do something for someone else, we are still doing it out of self-interest. So, according to Hobbes, the people who stepped in and confronted the unwanted guy, in the above YouTube video, were not doing it for the girl but rather for their own selfishness.

Even though I don’t agree with Hobbes, I am going to play devil’s advocate for a minute. How do we truly know the reasons for the intervention from these customers? How do we know that they were really trying to protect this girl? Maybe they were only doing it because it is not socially acceptable to watch something like that happen without doing something about it. Society tells us that we must intervene, and we cannot just watch. The people might not have wanted the negative social consequences of just letting the flirting happen. Or maybe they were just uncomfortable. Maybe, because they were so close, they didn’t want to feel uncomfortable while they were trying to enjoy their drinks.

Even though I have offered the groundwork for the Hobbes side of this debate, I disagree. I believe that people are actually good in nature. I see too many good things being done by innocent bystanders in today’s world to believe otherwise. Whether it is the simple act of holding the door for an old lady, letting a women cut you in line, or calling the cops when a dog is locked in a car, people do selfless acts all the time.

We want to believe in the good of people and we want the world to be a better place. That’s why most of us disagree with Hobbes. Who knows how often we ever get put in these situations, but inevitably we will. And when that time comes, whether or not it is being filmed, just think… What would you do?

  1. Brett Pere permalink
    February 8, 2011 9:04 PM

    I really enjoyed the utilization of the youtube video to better establish and explain your point. That being said, I find myself agreeing with Hobbes when he says that there is no such thing as a selfless act. I understand what you’re saying about people being good in nature, but I feel that the good nature that people possess is a product of nurturing and learning. From the youngest of ages, most people are taught to behave and act, for lack of a better word, “good” and good behavior and actions yield rewards (whether its a physical treat or just recognition that it was a good act) while bad behavior yields punishment. Because of this conditioning, I feel that most people feel somewhat obligated to help the girl at the bar because they know that not doing anything would be considered bad behavior and would be punished by knowing they didn’t do the right thing.

  2. Anna Gwiazdowski permalink
    February 9, 2011 9:43 AM


    Although I understand your argument, I, to an extent, must respectfully disagree. You mentioned actions such as holding the door open for an old lady, letting a woman cut in front of you in line, or calling the the cops when a dog is locked in a car, are selfless. However, Brett made a good point. He said “the good nature that people possess is a product of nurturing and learning,” and quite honestly I agree with him. People inherently do things to reap some sort of benefit. You mentioned holding the door open for an old lady – as a child you were probably taught that it is the “right” thing to do. Same goes for letting a woman cut in front of you in line; but would you ever let a man cut in front of you in line? Growing up in a society, like Brett mentioned, people are taught to do what is good because they reap some sort of benefit and they are also taught to avoid what is bad because there will be repercussions. I am not trying to turn this into a gender divide conversation. However two of the examples you gave reflected men doing something nice for women. Your actions are more reflective of a product of society, than a selfless act.

    On that note, how do you define when an act is truly selfless? Even the tiniest bit of satisfaction goes directly to Hobbes’ argument, that every action a person takes is for their own benefit. To add to that, as both Brett and myself have mentioned, growing up in a society that praises the good and scolds the bad is not a clear cut way to define acts such as calling the police when a dog is locked in a car. The video you posted did help you to establish your point. However, I believe that the interventions by those people were not selfless because a protective instinct took hold. When that happens and the victim is “saved” their is a sense of relief and happiness from the protector. But their is also a sense of “good job, you saved him/her.” Even the slightest pat on the back is considered, by Hobbes, a benefit. Therefore the act is not selfless.

    Overall, I believe that humans take action in order to gain some sort of benefit for themselves. For those who disagree, think about how many times you’ve done something purely selfless. It’s harder to be selfless than selfish, but that seems to be the trend of human nature. Whether that’s good or bad, it holds true to most people’s actions in today’s society.

    • Zack Orsini permalink
      February 9, 2011 3:30 PM

      In addition to society’s normative decisions on what is “right” and what is “wrong,” I also think that human beings have (within their genes) an innate urge to do good for other human beings.

      This seeming “selflessness” is a direct result of the evolution of our species as a group. As a species, if we all truly desire to help each other survive, our human genes would be more likely to be passed on to the next generation than if we only care about ourselves individually. We are all interdependent upon each other for the advancement of our genes to the next generation; this is an inescapable fact about us (humans) that is made manifest today after thousands of years of evolution and is, in my opinion, the beautiful reality of human nature: we legitimately WANT to help each other become happier, more effective human beings.

      So really, is it that bad that we are so “selfish” all the time?

    • Joe Godlew permalink
      February 9, 2011 11:37 PM

      The examples Justin gives are rather convincing, but social psychological theories seem to favor Hobbes’ position. If one sees a dog locked in the car, the right thing to do is call the police and save the animal’s life. You are not obligated to call, and you probably won’t receive any explicit benefit for your actions. However, think about what would happen if you didn’t call and the dog died. Your actions create a feeling of cognitive dissonance (a feeling of discontent caused by the disparity between your actions and what you believe is right). Humans are inherently motivated to reduce cognitive dissonance, and as such saving the dog becomes a “selfish” act because you did so (consciously or not) for your own mental benefit. I completely agree with Anna, and psychological research appears to back up our position.

  3. noahgordon10 permalink
    February 9, 2011 11:19 AM

    I’m going to be cynical and agree with Hobbes (and Anna). Saving the damsel in distress may be selfless at that very moment, but what do I hope to get out of it in the future? Perhaps I want my friends in the restaurant to respect me, or even hope for something in return from the girl herself. Inevitably I am going to tell my friends about it and reap the benefits from my “selfless” action. Something that seems totally selfless, like donating thousands of dollars to charity, can come back in a good way to the benefactor either through public respect or tax write-offs. Having said that, all of the actions I mentioned help both people in need and the person who did something nice. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I guess what I’m saying is, as long as you are helping people it’s ok to be selfish.

  4. Zack Orsini permalink
    February 9, 2011 3:18 PM


    Excellent work, my friend. You have dared to venture into the land of questioning Mr. Hobbes. (And oh, what a daring venture it is!)

    I agree with Hobbes; everything we do is selfish. Without a proper motivation to commit a certain behavior, people will not commit said behavior; people will always act in this selfish manner. As a result, every person does what he/she wants to do.

    For example,

    as mentioned in lecture, if someone points a gun to your head and asks for your wallet, you would LIKE to keep your money, but you would also LIKE to keep your life a little (actually, probably a lot) more than you would LIKE to keep your wallet; thusly, you WILLINGLY hand over your wallet because you ultimately WANT to do so. No matter how ridiculous it may sound, you still could have chosen to take a bullet in the face rather than hand over your wallet. Your free will was still intact as the person was threatening your life (your decision was simply made blatantly obvious for you).

    This DOES NOT mean, however, that the person to whom you willingly handed over your wallet was unjust in taking the wallet that you freely gave him/her. He/She was wrong in the first place to threaten your life for your wallet, and, as such, has no right to keep your wallet, which you would not have given to him/her in the first place had you possessed an alternative (to handing over your wallet) other than being violently murdered. Although the wallet was not technically “stolen” from you, the person would still be legally bound to return it to you based upon the fact that it was unjustly received. (The person should probably be placed in prison as well. And when I say probably, I mean definitely.)

  5. February 9, 2011 5:32 PM


    I really enjoyed the YouTube video and the point you bring up. I myself was actually questioning Hobbes’ theory because I also believe that there is such thing as a selfless act. Don’t get me wrong, there are bad people in this world, but there are all a sufficient amount of good people. While we can never actually know the true motives of why people perform “good deeds”, I think we have to assume that at least some of them are doing it out of the goodness of their heart. For those that agree with Hobbes, are you willing to say that you have never done anything just because it was the right thing to do? I don’t mean to seem like I am calling those people out, but I can say for myself that I have performed an action because it was the right thing to do. There have been times when I have performed community service just because I had to for school or something else, but this is not the case every time. That is why I think the statement “there is NO such thing as a selfless act” has too much of a drastic wording. I would agree with Hobbes is he said most people do not perform selfless act, but it is not fair to put every single person into one category.

    • Zack Orsini permalink
      February 9, 2011 8:16 PM

      —“For those that agree with Hobbes, are you willing to say that you have never done anything just because it was the right thing to do?”—


      I agree with you; people definitely do things simply because it is “the right thing to do.” I would argue, however, that acting in such a way is selfish in nature. You do what you think is “the right thing to do” because you want to do what you think is “the right thing to do.” This applies even if you are individually harmed by your own righteous act. Your innate desire to “be good” outweighs your desire to protect yourself from harm. If you did not want to do what was “right,” you would not do it. You are satisfying your will by doing “the right thing” (as you see it). This satisfaction of your own will is inherently selfish. Thus, selfishness in human acts is completely unavoidable. Really, though, is this a bad thing? If we “selfishly” desire to help other people and we decide to satisfy this “selfish” will to do good, doesn’t that simply mean that we truly do care about our fellow human beings?

      The problem with the disagreement with Hobbes here, I believe, is a matter of definition of the word “selfish.” A “selfish” act, in the common sense of the word, usually describes an act that totally disregards the needs of society/other people and only focuses on the wants of the actor (almost as if the actor was completely unaware of the importance of respecting the needs/desires of other people in regard to his own safety and effectiveness as a human being). It essentially describes an “anti-social” act. The “selfishness” that Hobbes is referring to is a bit different than this everyday selfishness. We are all interdependent upon one another for our own survival/effectiveness as people. As a result, we realize that we are actually acting in our own favor by taking the needs of society/other people into account in our actions. According to Hobbes, we are, in effect, acting selflessly for selfish reasons. This more absolute definition of selfishness is very different from what we normally consider to be selfishness (in the former, more common sense).

      To answer your question, although I do believe that I have done things simply because they were “the right thing do,” I also believe that I have never committed a selfless act; and I couldn’t, even if I wanted to (because by wanting to and by satisfying this want, I have committed yet another selfish act).

  6. jeremykucera permalink
    February 9, 2011 6:23 PM

    I am going to play devil’s advocate with all of you. I disagree with those of you who say that all people are selfish and those of you who claim that people can act in selfless ways. I think this question is not black and white. I don’t feel that there is even an answer. I believe it is impossible to classify if someone did something for selfless or selfish reasons. Think about it more closely. When somebody acts in a selfless way, how do we know what their motivation for it was? Was it for the selfish glory of being deemed “selfless,” or was it for a truly selfless reason. If you asked them why they did it, they may say they did it just to be nice, and they might actually, one hundred percent believe they did it for a selfless reason. But how can we, or they themselves, be certain they didn’t act selflessly because of a subconscience motive for glory, which would be a selfish reason? My point is NOT that all people are liars, and they will tell anyone they acted selflessly. I actually believe that most people are good and would not lie in this situation. My point is that the doer of the good deed shouldn’t even be able to answer the question in the first place on account that they don’t even know the answer. Was it a subconscience longing to be thanked for their deed, or was it truly because they felt they needed to act and did not care if they were thanked or not for it ?

    Thus, I am not going to agree nor disagree with Hobbes, or anyone else who has commented here. The only assertion I feel comfortable making is that people don’t truly know deep down why they act they way they do.

    • Layne Simescu permalink
      February 9, 2011 9:00 PM

      I agree with your statement Jeremy. I do not believe there is an “answer” to this question of selfish vs. selfless motives. I believe the whole idea of political theory is to make you think. I think Hobbes wants to make us think about human nature and our own lives. There is not a” yes” or “no” answer to Hobbes’ question of motives, nor is their one answer to any theory of politics. That is precisely why they are theories and not facts. I also agree with jlanger989 when they say “That is why I think the statement ‘there is NO such thing as a selfless act’ has too much of a drastic wording.” I definitely think that this wording is too drastic. The statement makes it seem like an absolute fact, which is not for certain. I believe a lot of people, maybe even the majority of people, do good things for selfish reasons. But I think that it IS possible to act out of pure selflessness. While it is very hard to give an example of a purely selfless act, I think this is a good one…
      A mother and infant are stranded in a snow blizzard. The mother gives all the food she has to the child in order to keep it alive. She wraps the baby in all the blankets and warmth available to keep it from freezing…I cannot think that there would be any selfish motive in this case. A mother will do anything to protect her child. I don’t think it is to make her feel good about herself or gain praise from others. I think that it is pure love for the child that is the motive. I believe that this act is purely selfless. In conclusion, I believe that there isn’t an answer to this question of motives that Hobbes suggests. I don’t think there will ever be an answer. It is a theory. I don’t think there is any way of knowing truly what makes people do good things. While there are many selfish acts, I believe there are still some selfless acts in this world.

      • Emily Slaga permalink
        February 9, 2011 11:16 PM

        I agree with you Layne and Jeremy. I don’t think there’s a definite answer, or at least I find myself having trouble finding that answer! To some extent I think Hobbes could be right and everyone acts out of selfishness. Even the most selfless acts can be seen as selfish if you consider the idea that they are acting to get “good karma”. I think a lot of people do the “right thing” in order to feel good about themselves. If they see something terrible or awkward happening, like the girl being bothered at the bar in the video, they’ll feel bad if they do nothing. That will be stuck in their minds and they may feel guilty. To avoid this, they do “the right thing”. Thus, acting selfish though seeming selfless. Or donating money to Salvation Army during the Holidays. I think a lot of people just do it because they want to feel better about themselves, though it is nice! (I’m not saying don’t donate money!!! It’s a good cause!!)
        On the other hand, I’d truly like to believe people are selfless by nature and willing to help someone with no gain for themselves. I think (and hope) that there are absolutely people like this out there. But, as it’s been pointed out, it’s difficult to tell people’s motives, so proving someone selfless and genuine is nearly impossible.

  7. Kendall Rhode permalink
    February 10, 2011 7:41 PM

    I really liked this post. I remember watching these clips in psych thinking what I would do in a situation like this. I think that the worlds population is made up with two kinds of people. A select few are good natured and some are just simply not good natured. Most people who are good natured actually feel a “natural high” after helping others whether it be feeding the homeless or simple holding the door open for someone. So Hobbes is right when he claims that we are always acting out of self-interest in helping others because of this natural high we achieve in doing so. It is socially expected that you will help others in need, but “not good natured” people can bypass helping others with the bystander effect. Instead of helping people and taking a stand, a lot of people expect and know that one person there has to act courageously and help.

  8. Andrew Colman permalink
    February 11, 2011 12:30 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this post and watching the video clip. The way I look at this, in relation to Hobbes, is that although it may seem like “there is no such thing as a selfless act” it’s probably because in this video, the actions are selfless and selfish at the same time. Although any ordinary person would feel the need to jump into this argument between the guy and girl at the bar, the women never directly asked for help. Therefore everyone who jumped in to protect the girl committed a selfish act because “they wanted” to jump in and protect the lady and she might not have wanted help. At the same time I believe these acts were also selfless act. Any person with morals would jump in to protect this lady out of pure selflessness. So, in conclusion, I agree with Hobbes but disagree at the same time

  9. lapinsk12 permalink
    February 13, 2011 1:31 PM

    Regarding the first question about helping out someone pay for their groceries I don’t think I would do it. The reason is a little selfish on my part but I am a college student and I need all the money I can get for various needs such as school tuition, housing expenses, food, school books and on and on and on. I might suggest to her that I’ll watch their groceries as they run to an ATM to get more money or just to use a credit card. But on the other hand I guess it depends on how much they need. If it’s $10 or under I probably would help her but the nearer the amount creeps to $20 the less likely I am to help pay.

    The second scenario depends on where I am seated to the incident. If I’m only a few seats away then yah, I’ll say something to the guy stealing the tip but if I’m across the room and spot it happening I don’t think I would want to yell across the restaurant for a few dollars. All this is purely speculative of course and I have absolutely no way of knowing how I’d react in those given situations until I’m actually involved in one.

    Now to the relating Hobbes to these situations. I believe these acts are selfless in my eyes because giving $10 to someone or watching their groceries while they run to the nearest ATM is a inconvienence for me that outweighs the little shred of good feeling I’ll get. So to me, these acts are pretty selfless. Although Hobbes would argue that the little shred of good feeling I get out of it is still a positive for me and he would consider it selfish. No matter how much of an annoyance it is to me if I get even a tiny amount of satisfaction from it then I’m acting selfishly. To summarize, I don’t agree with Hobbes but I do understand his train of thought.

    • lapinsk12 permalink
      February 13, 2011 1:32 PM

      ^^Brendan Lapinski

  10. Anthony Sinishtaj permalink
    February 13, 2011 4:47 PM

    I would have to agree with Hobbes in that all actions are self-interested. However, I wouldn’t go as far to say that people are selfish. Since selfish has the connotation of only caring for one’s self, it makes it seems like all people are pushed solely by self-interest. There is self-interest in either paying for the groceries or not. If you pay for the groceries, it makes you feel that you did something good, and also others who see you do it will like you more. If you don’t pay for the groceries, you have money that you can spend on other things. However, the latter I would consider to be selfish, as opposed to the first. Both options are good for the person deciding to pay for the groceries or not, but one action benefits other people and the other only benefits the decider. Paying for the groceries benefits multiple people, and though this decision was made with some sort of self-interest in mind, it is not selfish. Selfish, in my mind, is when an action solely benefits the one making the decision. This difference in definition also brings up Hobbes’ problem for arguments. It is hard to make an argument if people cannot decide exactly what selfish means.

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