Welcome to the Philosophy Forums! If you are not a member, please join the forums now. It's completely free! If you are a member, please log in.

Is Selfishness Compatible with Kindness?

Discuss morality and ethics in this message board.
Featured Article: Philosophical Analysis of Abortion, The Right to Life, and Murder
  • Author
  • Message
Offline
User avatar

Scott

Site Admin

  • Posts: 3705
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: January 20th, 2007, 6:24 pm
  • Favorite Philosopher: Diogenes the Cynic

Is Selfishness Compatible with Kindness?

Post Number:#1  PostApril 2nd, 2008, 11:14 pm

Is Selfishness Compatible with Kindness?
by Scott Hughes

Many cultures and moral philosophies have promoted so-called selflessness, such as the ethical doctrine of altruism by Auguste Comte (who coined the term altruism). Perhaps as a result, some other philosophies have promoted so-called selfishness, such as the ethical doctrine of Egoism and Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

Putting prescriptive morality aside, I contend that the self-interestedness supported by pro-selfishness philosophers does not necessarily conflict with the kindness supported by pro-selflessness philosophers.

The two philosophical viewpoints appear to directly oppose each other, but that appearance stems from the use of divisively confusing terminology.

Firstly, let's look at the use of term selfish. Generally speaking, what most pro-selfishness philosophers call "selfishness," I would just call self-interestedness. To most people, 'selfishness' generally refers to acting upon especially greedy, uncompassionate or narcissistic motivations. In contrast, 'self-interestedness' can simply refer to acting out of one's own interests, including indirect interests. Many people, including myself, argue that all people are inherently self-interested because, by definition, a person desires and values what he or she desires and values. Those desires and values also develop into goals, and the person makes their decisions in an attempt to most fulfill those desires, values, and goals. While everyone is self-interested, the label 'selfish' is usually reserved only for people whose interests are more greedy, uncompassionate or narcissistic than other people's interests.

Now let's look at the use of the term selfless. Generally speaking, what most pro-selflessness philosophers call "selflessness," I would just call kindness or compassion. Using the term 'selflessness' seems to absurdly suggest that an allegedly "selfless" person does not have any desires, values or goals or at least that the person does not try to act out of his or her desires, values or goals at all. But that is probably not what most pro-selflessness philosophers mean. When they call a person "selfless," they probably just mean that the person has compassionate desires, values and goals, in that the person likes to help other people and other people's happiness makes the person happy. In contrast to the misnomer 'selfless,' referring to such people as kind and compassionate more accurately portrays that the people each have kind and compassionate interests which they each act out as opposed to not having interests or not acting out of their interests.

In conclusion, so-called "selfishness" and "selflessness" can actually be compatible because the former can mean 'self-interestedness' and the latter can mean 'kindness.' And self-interestedness is compatible with kindness. In fact, I believe it is in most people's self-interest to help others, not only because others may return the favor, but also because we naturally love each other. We empathize and sympathize with each other. We feel good when we observe others feeling good. We feel bad when we observe others feeling bad. We feel enjoyment and satisfaction by helping other people and by making other people feel happy.

What do you think?
Online Philosophy Club - Please tell me how to improve this website!

Check it out: Abortion - Not as diametrically divisive as often thought?

Did you know?

  • Once you join the forums and log in you will get to enjoy an ad-reduced experience. It's easy and completely free!

Offline

number96

  • Posts: 3
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: April 4th, 2008, 3:59 am

Post Number:#2  PostApril 4th, 2008, 4:08 am

Nice article!
I have often thought of the same issues... The more deliberate on it the clearer it becomes that selflessness is very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Every good act you perform serves some form of self achievement, whether it be the feeling of satisfaction, hope for good returns, or reaching some sort of goal... I once read about 7 types of charity for which the first 6 are really quite self serving. The seventh is giving anonymously, to a person trying to achieve universal good who you do not actually know.
-Ray
Offline
User avatar

bittercrank

  • Posts: 44
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: March 3rd, 2008, 1:26 am
  • Location: Minneapolis

Post Number:#3  PostApril 4th, 2008, 9:39 pm

Dear Scott,

Ayn Rand says of self interest: "Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."

The Catholic Encyclopedia says of Comte's altruism: "The first condition of individual and social well-being is the subordination of self-love to the benevolent impulses. The first principle of morality, therefore, is the regulative supremacy of social sympathy over the self-regarding instincts."

Ayn Rand's statement calls for individuals to seek their self-interest, while not sacrificing others, or viewing others as the means to their own ends. There is no reason that I can see why being kind to others would be incompatible with pursuing one's own happiness. Comte, on the other hand, relegates self interest to a decidedly secondary position. Seeking the good of others comes first, one's "self-regarding instincts" should be second in line. Of these two positions, I think that Rand's is more likely to produce psychologically healthy (and happy) individuals than Comte's. As a rule of life, subordinating self-love to other's needs is more likely to deform than elevate most individual's personalities.

I think these two systems of prescriptive morality do have differing consequences, and it is ironic that the selfish system might have more humane consequences than the altruistic system. The key factor between the two is that Rand's system openly acknowledges the self-interest of the individual, and allows each to define how to achieve happiness (as long as you doesn't sacrifice others to your own ends). Comte's system is very other-directed. The other individual's needs are subordinate to your needs. You, apparently, are not to give too much thought to your own happiness. Others will take care of it? How would you know what they need to be happy? How do they know what I need to be happy?

The risk to healthy personalities that can arise from always putting other interests before one's own, is that one might attempt to achieve one's own self-interests by turning altruistic assistance into a way of sacrificing someone else. For example, an agent might generously help a young actor to over-achieve so that the agent can advance in his or her own career. The young actor gets lots of work as a result of the agent's "altruistic" extra attention, true, but perhaps at the cost of physical injury, failure in school, or loss of a normal family life. The young actor may be seduced into being a means to other people's ends.

Real life is not driven by prescriptive systems of morality, fortunately. One good thing about Comte's system is it apparently emphasizes feeling (emotions) more than Rand's does, and emotions play a hugh role in behavior. Yes, I think we like to be around other happy people, and we generally like making other people happy - a mutually beneficial situation. I bring a loaf of home made bread, you visibly enjoy eating it, and that makes makes both of us happy. Both self-interests are served by altruistic behavior.

On a certain level, philosophy becomes irrelevant as we play out the scenes of our lives. Take sexual adventure as an example: Suppose that serendipity has brought you and an attractive partner together in a setting where sex can happen if both of you want it to happen. Even though both of you have, on other occasions, said that you disapprove of casual, anonymous, totally irresponsible sex, both of you may proceed, full speed ahead. You may enjoy it immensely, and the next time you have the opportunity, you will again proclaim your opposition to this kind of behavior. It might be hypocrisy, or it may just be that lust, and not reason, steers the stars.

Some things are even more shocking than anonymous, casual sex! People have been known to set aside long-standing animosity and actually help people they dislike intensely, just because the person needs help. And they felt good about it later!

One of the reasons I dislike the preaching of very rigid Christians (Moslems, Jews, what have you) is that they have a way of turning the milk of human kindness into a sour, stultifying dogma that must be obeyed precisely. That is the problem of obligatory altruism.
Offline
User avatar

Samhains

  • Posts: 193
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: December 15th, 2007, 2:56 pm

Post Number:#4  PostApril 4th, 2008, 11:48 pm

the thing is according to peoples personal ethic system - is what they see selfishness as. There is a fine line between taking care of ones self and being selfish, as in "Do what thou will lest it hurt non" this includes yourself, and if extending a kind act is going to leave you "short" then perhaps best not be done...as in if you needed to buy milk for the kids and it was your last 5 dollars, but as you where leaving your house a hungry homless person asked if you could spare some change on a cold wintery day...in the back of my mind I say,

" I had to eat at the shelters and soup kitchens a time or two...get in line"

You wouldnt give away you last beer would you? Perhaps to a thirst man, but there is plenty of water in the tap..help yourself.
Offline

josip

  • Posts: 8
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: April 5th, 2008, 1:51 pm

Post Number:#5  PostApril 5th, 2008, 2:01 pm

Dear Scott,

Frankly, I do not know what to think. It’s rather obvious what you are trying to do (correct me if I’m wrong) – divide the two sets of meaning, ones that have been, for what ever the reason, glued together: ‘selfishness’ with ‘greed, uncompassion, narcissism etc, and ‘selflesness’ with kindness, compassion etc. And so, you say, once we separate these two sets, it’s easy to see that selfish person can be kind. You state that ‘selfishness’ is same as ‘selfinterested’ (I’m not making a pejoration, I’m simply stating your equation), and you are able to separate the two because it can be in selfinterested person’s interest to care for others, to be kind?

Further more, you state that “all people are inherently self-interested”. I’d like to go back that moment. You say:

Many people, including myself, argue that all people are inherently self-interested because, by definition, a person desires and values what he or she desires and values. Those desires and values also develop into goals, and the person makes their decisions in an attempt to most fulfill those desires, values, and goals. While everyone is self-interested, the label 'selfish' is usually reserved only for people whose interests are more greedy, uncompassionate or narcissistic than other people's interests.

So, you start from the definition of a person and his or her goals. But could we take one step back: what about the person that doesn’t feel himself or herself as a person? I know it sounds absurd, but it seems that people who are most kind and compassionate are the ones the least think of themselves, or in other words, of their own desires and values, their goals. And instead, they develop goals which are not by some chance shared with others, but by interest for others primaraly. Whether or not that that is naïve, or rare to be found, is not in question here – but rather, can a person not feel himself, and therefore his desires, values and goals? It think it is possible.

And so, backing up one step is the one way (I don’t know if it’s the only way) you could separate the two. Because if – as you did – start from the definition of a person, you will ultimately end in self-interestedness. And from that point, I believe, only a pure chance will get you in alignment with others’ interest. Empathy and sympathy, which you have offered, are also in that chance, are they not? Can they be practiced? These are not retorical questions, I honestly don’t know much on the theory of the two (I glanced the Blackburn’s ‘Dictionary’, seems an open question).

Hope I was of some help :?
Josip :)
Offline
User avatar

Samhains

  • Posts: 193
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: December 15th, 2007, 2:56 pm

Post Number:#6  PostApril 5th, 2008, 2:45 pm

Selfishness Compatible with Kindness, is like compairing the darkside of the moon to the light side.

"They, like love and hate, are just polar oposites of the same emotional state."

(thats what the divine source tells me when I ask them the same question you have just posed)
Offline
User avatar

bittercrank

  • Posts: 44
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: March 3rd, 2008, 1:26 am
  • Location: Minneapolis

Post Number:#7  PostApril 5th, 2008, 6:14 pm

Josip said:

So, you start from the definition of a person and his or her goals. But could we take one step back: what about the person that doesn’t feel himself or herself as a person? I know it sounds absurd, but it seems that people who are most kind and compassionate are the ones the least think of themselves, or in other words, of their own desires and values, their goals. And instead, they develop goals which are not by some chance shared with others, but by interest for others primaraly. Whether or not that that is naïve, or rare to be found, is not in question here – but rather, can a person not feel himself, and therefore his desires, values and goals? It think it is possible.


I think you are correct. The people who are most compassionate think less about their own desires. But they probably think more (than most) about their values and goals.

Have you heard of Dorothy Day? She started the Catholic Workers movement, a radical response to the homeless, the hungry, the drunk, the mad. This was back in the 1930s. She died in the 1980s, very old. She was trained as a journalist and wrote quite extensively. She was also a communist and had a child out of wedlock (bigger deal back then). She struggled to follow Christ and writes extensively about how difficult it is to practice compassion and selflessness. It was very tough indeed. But, it can be done, she, among others, did it.

However, it seems that those who are committed to selfless compassion are also very much in possession of themselves. They engage themselves in this struggle to be good. Whether we plan on doing good or evil, we can't just "check out" of our selves and proceed, unless we are disassociating to a rather extreme degree. In which case, we would probably be under professional care.

BC
Offline
User avatar

Scott

Site Admin

  • Posts: 3705
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: January 20th, 2007, 6:24 pm
  • Favorite Philosopher: Diogenes the Cynic

Post Number:#8  PostApril 8th, 2008, 1:05 am

number96, thanks for your reply! I agree that charitable acts are also forms of self-achievement.

bittercrank, thanks for your reply! I think you are right that ignoring one's self-interest can be dangerous by leading to people sacrificing other people's interests for the supposed greater good. I also like that you point that decisions are made in real life according to one's realistic feelings and desires as opposed to moral philosophy. And I like when you say that strict, religious morality turns "the milk of human kindness into a sour, stultifying dogma that must be obeyed precisely." In fact, I would say that of almost any prescriptive morality. When we drop the dogma from prescriptive morality supporting so-called selfishness and prescriptive morality supporting so-called selflessness, I think we can then not only see the compatibility of self-interest and kindness, but also convince people to interact in mutually beneficial ways--not because it it supposedly morally good but because it is in their own interests.

Samhains, I think you have made a helpful point: It can be counter-productive for a person to help others so much that the person weakens his or herself into being unable to provide more help to others.

josip, thanks for your reply! I think that you are right that people develop interests for other people primarily. I think that is true. But, instead of saying that the person is not defining themselves as a person or is ignoring his or her own interests, I would say that the person wants other people to be happy. Also, I do not think it is rare. I think there is a natural feeling of love and compassion between people that makes them naturally interested in helping each other. Of course, how a person defines themself can change which of their desires become dominant, and humanitarians may tend to define themselves as something more fundamental than just a single human body. For example, lovers often say that they fell that they have "become one." The philanthropist (lover of people) may similarly define him or herself as being at one with humanity.
Online Philosophy Club - Please tell me how to improve this website!

Check it out: Abortion - Not as diametrically divisive as often thought?
Offline

Possibilities

  • Posts: 3
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: May 26th, 2009, 3:32 pm

Kindness is selfisness

Post Number:#9  PostMay 26th, 2009, 3:42 pm

Yes selfishness is compatible with kindness because kindness is selfish.

A kind act could be see as altruistic, but altruism does not exist, as Emile Durkheim stated "altruism is merely a concealed egoism". On that premise kindness does not exist, there is only self-interest, there is only solipsism.
Offline
User avatar

ontologic_conceptualist

  • Posts: 518
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: April 3rd, 2009, 9:59 am
  • Location: Mobile, Alabama

Post Number:#10  PostMay 26th, 2009, 3:56 pm

"Kindness" is not completely Selfish...

Yes, it can be selfish, a person usually of low self esteem or a very defensive person may use acts seen by others as kindness to proove him/her self or make feel better, but most just commit acts of kindness just because they can.
Who I Am Is What I Am
What I Am Is Why I Am
Why I Am IS Who I Am...

The question you should be asking is...who are you?
Offline

ape

  • Posts: 3323
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: April 6th, 2009, 9:55 pm

Re: Kindness is selfisness

Post Number:#11  PostMay 26th, 2009, 5:01 pm

Possibilities wrote:Yes selfishness is compatible with kindness because kindness is selfish.
A kind act could be see as altruistic, but altruism does not exist, as Emile Durkheim stated "altruism is merely a concealed egoism". On that premise kindness does not exist, there is only self-interest, there is only solipsism.

Hi Possibilities. Selfishness is compatible with everything since we can't do anything without ourselves.
The real culprit is a word that sounds very similar:
self-hate-ishness or selfhatishness.
The selfhatishness in kindness is when we hate ourselves and others as unkind.
It is the selfhatishness that makes genuine altruism not exist.
But with Love for oneself as kind and unkind, altruistic and unaltruistic, for those who love you and for those who hate you, there you have it: true altruism: giving away the most precious priceless pearl of Love for nothing, for no price, for no reason other than giving Love away...without hoping for anything in return. Luke 6:35But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Isaiah 55:1Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy [the] wine and milk [of Love] without money and without price.
"True Love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright,
Gazing on many truths; 'tis like thy light,
Imagination!
....
[Even when we]Narrow
The heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, [we still have] the spirit that creates
One object, and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its [the widest] eternity."

Epipsychidion by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Offline

Belinda

Contributor

  • Posts: 10276
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: July 10th, 2008, 7:02 pm
  • Location: UK

Post Number:#12  PostMay 27th, 2009, 4:06 am

Scott, I agree entirely. I have heard that what you describe is called 'enlightened self-interst'. If niot the only component of kindness, it is certainly a wisdom that leads to kindness.

Politically, enlightenend self interest leads to socialism or the shared interest of small communities rather than capitalism.For instance, it is the enlightened self interest of small towns in Westerns that leads them to elect a sheriff to administer justice in the interests of all the townspeople.
Offline

Possibilities

  • Posts: 3
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: May 26th, 2009, 3:32 pm

Altruism

Post Number:#13  PostMay 27th, 2009, 4:08 am

There is no such thing as a selfless act, altruism therefore, does not exist. There are only grades of difference between selfish acts but there is no antinomy such as kindness vs selfish.
Offline

ape

  • Posts: 3323
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: April 6th, 2009, 9:55 pm

Re: Altruism

Post Number:#14  PostMay 27th, 2009, 8:26 am

Possibilities wrote:There is no such thing as a selfless act, altruism therefore, does not exist. There are only grades of difference between selfish acts but there is no antinomy such as kindness vs selfish.

Because there are self-Hateless acts or self-loving acts when, and because, a person first loves himself as all others and so loves all others as himself, and hates himself as no one and so hates no one as himself, and then acts in that self-hateless Love, altruism or being all Love-true and through does exist. Therefore also, there are not only grades of difference between selfish acts but there are also automatic but no direct antinomies nor antipathies between such words as kindness vs selfish, good and perfect.
"I am in you and you in me, mutual in divine love."
William Blake
Offline

Possibilities

  • Posts: 3
    ( View: All / In topic )

  • Joined: May 26th, 2009, 3:32 pm

Altruism, for the very last time

Post Number:#15  PostMay 27th, 2009, 11:23 am

I've just joined this web site but am going to leave as judging by the replies to my post this site appears to be a spiritual (verging on the theological) site.

There are no self-less acts, as so called self-less acts make one feel good about themselves, ergo , they are not selfless.

To quote Durkheim again; "altruism is merely a concealed egoism".
Next

Return to Ethics and Morality

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Roel and 2 guests

Philosophy Book of the Month Updates

The January book of the month is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Discuss it here or buy it here.

The February book of the month is Moral Tribes by Joshua Greene. Pick it up, read it and discuss it with us as a group!