• >People are fundamentally egotistical, but not selfish. It is quite clear that certain courses of action favour an individual, are favoured by the chooser and are, by a loose definition, 'selfish'. People like to seek pleasure – broadly defined – and most would spend £10,000 on a new car than anonymously give £9500 to charity and live off the rest for a month.However, selfishness is often incompatible with egotism and subject to it. Adam Smith, for example, though famous among neo-conservatives and bashed by lefties as a purveyor of a kind of unrestrained moral capitalism (it is, after all, to the 'self love' of others that we appeal for our daily bread), but is, in reality, nothing of the kind. Such simplicity is not born of great minds, and Smith's was a great one. To Smith, adult morality is a kind of empathetic egotism – recourse to what another, the Impartial Spectator, might think of one's actions. Hence, the frequency with which we hear even the most apparently unscrupulous individuals wring their hands and wonder 'what will people think?' Hence the nauseating protestations and self justifications that often follow the most selfish of actions. The very fact that these questions are often asked, these justifications made, suggests to me something more complex than pure selfishness. Selfishness is careless of the world around it; it wouldn't begin to imagine what the Impartial Spectator might think, nevermind worry about it.'Selfless' deeds are possible – usually in extremis (sacrificing oneself in a burning building, taking a bullet) – but, in their pure form, rare. What is most common is a kind of empathetic egotism – most people care what others think, and this reins in their selfish urges and often leads to acts that are more – though not totally – selfless than selfish (philanthropy, for example). As is often the case, men are not extremophiles – they inhabit a moral world between pure selfishness and selfless altruism.

  • >I'm more inclined to think the opposite: that more people are selfish than egotistical. To be egotistical means that you think about yourself a lot, but plenty of people pursue a selfish desire to help others, thinking solely about those others who they want to help.Smith defined a group of people very well, but he did not define everyone. This is the biggest problem with questions of this kind; because we don't have solid data with which to answer the question. We extrapolate based on personal experience. For instance I know based on my experience that many people don't always think "what will they think?", at least not on a conscious level. And I can think of many circumstances where I've acted thinking solely about how I can help, rather than about what helping will do.The second biggest problem is with definitions and boundaries. I often move back and forth between whether I agree that selfless deeds are possible or not. The thing is that you can always argue a deed is selfish. Helping others makes you feel good. Even dying for someone, or taking a cold and rational decision that self-sacrifice is better for someone else, can be seen as selfish. This is because that action will very likely accord with the sacrificer's image of themselves, or their idea about what the perfect human being would do. Dying in an act of perfection, with the belief that everyone will remember you as a hero does have its merits.

  • >'To be egotistical means that you think about yourself a lot, but plenty of people pursue a selfish desire to help others, thinking solely about those others who they want to help.'It's semantics I know, but that's a muddle. To be 'selfish' is to consciously and relentlessly pursue self interest, either directly or, as you hint, by proxy (to feel good by helping others). However, if you think *solely* about others in commiting an act then you, or at least the action, simply cannot be selfish. This also solves your dilemma – if you believe such motives and actions are possible, then selflessness does exist. I'm still Smithian on this – man is self-centred, but not selfish. The very fact that, consciously or not, most are concerned with the perceptions of the Impartial Spectator means that they simply cannot pursue actions that are purely in the self interest but contrary to that of others. By following such morality man is egocentric, concerned about his image, standing, status, posterity and so on and on, but not necessarily selfish.Your analogy of rational self sacrifice – dying a hero – is not selfishness, for the selfish action would be self preservation. If it is a vice at all, and I accept there could be a perverse element of vice, it is one of egotism.Oxford shorted dictionary: Selfishness – 'lack of consideration for other people'. Self sacrifice cannot, by definition, be selfish.Egocentric – 'centred in or arising from a person's own individual experience or perspective'; egotist – 'excessively…absorbed in oneself'.By these defintions, I would argue, self sacrifice could easily be an egocentric or egotstical act, but never a selfish one.

  • >In fact, scrap that.To commit an act, providing it goes against your pure material or physical self interest and its outcome is not, at worst, neutral upon you, then to commit an act with the hope of feeling good about oneself isn't selfish either. Again, egotism is a more fitting description, I think.

  • >I disagree with your assertion that thinking solely about others when commiting a good act makes it selfless. Firstly, we have to separate intentions and results. Secondly, we have to separate conscious and sub-conscious thought. The separation of intentions and results is perhaps unsuitable, for it depends on whether you think a result can be selfish, as well as an act. However with the second, it is perfectly possible to act rashly, thinking you will be helping, and then belatedly realise that you actually wanted to act in that way anyway, and the act benefited you i.e. your sub-conscious intentions could have been selfish.My point about a dying hero and whether or not the act is selfish was made precisely because the common presumption is that such an act is selfless. Yet it is easy to think of the act from another perspective. If and when we act in a selfish way we do so for one of two reasons: to increase positive emotions, and/or to avoid negative ones. It is perfectly possible that someone dies a hero in order not to suffer the negative emotions that come with shame, guilt, and a sense of not acting in accordance with their ideals about who they want to be. The person could even die a hero without thinking very much of others at all. A bodyguard would be a good example of this case. A bodyguard might die to protect a client, but they most likely wouldn't do so out of love for that person if they're on a temporary contract. They'd do so for reasons of duty, and in order not to suffer negative emotions if they run away (irrelevant of whether these negative emotions stem internally from their own self-perceptions, or from their imaginations about the external, and what others will think of them).Now I'm not saying I think we're always selfish, as I don't think I am myself. But my point is that it's in my selfish interests not to think I'm selfish. Selflessness accords with the image of who I want to be, and I would therefore be more inclined to act the hero, than someone like Dr. House, off the TV series, for his image of himself is more logical. In other words it's difficult to separate egotism and selfishness, but selfishness can always be argued to fit.

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