In Defense of Selflessness
I would not have braved my rather humble faculties to take up a line against my peers, whose arguments here show them so much my natural superiors, did I not detect among their responses the strain of an idea whose danger I am made familiar by brighter minds than my own. If I am permitted my small conversance with this topic, then what little knowledge my experience provides is offered up not from a desire to please myself, but instead from a duty towards my fellow creatures in staying the loss that comes from renouncing the most soulful parts of their nature.
I send forth my attempt at the great personal cost of being wrong, or worse, of earning the ridicule of my peers, that I may enter the timeless tradition already here begun: to sharpen the knife of our best discovery and strike deep into the bones of an idea so that with some luck we may all land upon the pith of truth. A most selfless endeavour indeed.
To those who deny the possibility of human selflessness, there seems a dual reasoning running through your most discerning rejection. The first of which is the unknowable nature of the unconscious will that may or may not govern our actions, despite, of course, our deliberate intent-- a quite reasonable consideration in an age burgeoning with the curiosities of modern psychology. The second part of the opposition comes according to the logic which says that any instance of selflessness is de facto selfish because it emanates from a personal desire or ‘wanting’.
On the first head of the argument:
To assign a reason to something is and must always be to recognize the most conscious force that determines it. There is no sense in decommissioning the concept of selflessness because the actions that it inspires do not occur under the complete purity of its name, that there may be some unseen influence which acts concordantly to it, in a lesser or greater capacity no one can tell; just as there is no sense in refusing to see a mother’s tenderness as ‘loving’ because there is a Darwinian theory which states it her “maternal instinct”. Is it not good enough that what she sees reflected in her mind is an irrefutable and conscious devotion to her child whose strength rivals all of earthly gravity; must we even consider the unintended effects of hidden and concealed biological stimuli before we can affirm that she is ‘loving’? So it must be with selflessness. When has anyone ever uttered the word, or any other for that matter, especially those which describe human states of being, with the purpose of carrying it beyond its first most relevancy; namely, the conscious reason which governs it? If they are to remain useful to us, we cannot expect our words, themselves merely title descriptions of reality, to push past their most intuitive rendering into subtler and subtler degrees of possibility, becoming so blended and irresolute along the way that they thereby lose all their power. At the level in which we see and comprehend the world, it is vital to preserve the forms, the categories to which things do or do not belong, assembled in our comprehension of them through language which reflects our deliberate aims.
No one can see to the end of their unconscious will, so then can nothing be properly given a label of intent? Every label describing a human condition is imperfect, as do we judge and think imperfectly, if only because it would be impossible to trace into the infinitude of ramifications comprising every feeling and motivation. We give precedence to the most dominant intention, to the one that represents the foreground view, and we do not strip ourselves of descriptive concepts because there is an inevitable background of unwitting effects. The same argument can be used against selfishness in the same way: ‘The greedy banker hordes his money not because he is selfish, but because he has been socially conditioned to seek money, which is operating in his subconscious unbeknownst to him.’ The same undoing resulting from this argument applies to anything, really. In other words, our theories of the unconscious mind cannot be rallied together as a case against the meaning of the word itself, especially as we all find good and proper service by it in our characterizations of the people and world we live with.
On the second head of the argument:
You must forgive me if I am reminded somewhere in this discussion of the solemn epiphany usually accompanying a juvenescent acquaintance with Ayn Rand. Not that I would accuse any of you of having such simple philosophic tastes, but I see in your reasoning the same tendency of using semantic limitations to arrive at what is rather a quite trivial observation. The logic runs similar to Rand’s objectivistic selfish virtue: Since everything ‘I’ do is done because I ‘want’ to do it, ergo everything is ipso facto ‘selfish’. This should not be taken as some revolutionary syllogistic achievement, but perhaps something more akin to a logical fallacy. Yes, unsurprisingly, there is a funny paradox of language here that plays out as a truth to selfishness, but we are quite more advanced in our understanding of language than this to not know that ‘wanting’ is a linguistic construct that has important nuances. It seems there is some confusion of the terms of reference. A ‘want’ is simply an impulse that emanates from the self, as any conscious feeling does; a ‘selfless want’ is that determination to act for another’s sake, primarily; whereas a ‘selfish want’ is that kind which is concerned only with one’s self, also primarily. No self-directed action can take place without its subject ‘wanting’, or to use a term which means precisely the same thing, ‘willing’; this, however, does not mean we should get tripped up when we see ‘want’ or ‘desire’ because of its affiliations in describing selfish behaviors. Never can there be a free act undertaken, selfless or otherwise, without its creator agreeing in his own mind to do it; and this agreement must by syntactic necessity follow the formula, “I want to”. Is this really the same as that selfishness we know to exist in some crude and vile individuals who carry out their will wholly with a penchant to their own self-regard? Something is not selfish because the person who carries it out ‘wants’ to do it, or derives some pleasure by it, rather because he thinks only of himself while doing it and concludes upon the matter with himself alone in mind. Similarly, a sign of selfishness is not to be found in the first-person singular; how else can someone take part in anything, especially love, without first invoking “I”?! A lack of regard for another and a refusal to enter them into your consideration: this is what selfishness must mean if there is to be a shadow of a hope in preserving any sense to it.
I doubt there is a single thing formed in the animus of one’s free will which does not accord him some pleasure in the doing and some measure of gratification in the obtaining. We need only recommend ourselves to Freud’s pleasure principle in confirming this. Yet, I do not see the confliction between this and selflessness; can you not find pleasure in accommodating yourself to another’s interests without it attaining to selfishness? Does it inexplicably revoke the selflessness inherent in attending to another, to the sacrifice made for them, and to the freely given service put out when many another activity would have pleased you and you alone? Doubtless there is personal reward in many things thought to be classic examples of selflessness, and so do they still come about through much suffering and toil. The ancillary feelings of delight that arise as a consequence to selflessness exist alongside it as well as subordinating themselves to its primary quality which remains intact. With much relief then, compassion in its essence remains, even with many supplementary pleasures kept as private comforts. Have we forgotten how to hold two opposites together in admixture? Elements of both the selfish and unselfish can exist jointly in a single act without it having to be reduced to either or, and while still allowing one trait to become the defining feature. All proper classifications of any kind are accorded this way. If someone gives selflessly, though they are warmed by it and acquire satisfaction through it, is it fundamentally still not worthy of that titled generosity if its express purpose is to help? Surely it is not hard-won in the acknowledging that what strikes us at our basic integrity when we partake of the neighbourly grace and instinctive charities of the soul, instructed by our most human sympathy, is the given impression that there exists selflessness in our better nature.