Selflessness

You are definitely an other, otherwise you would be able to predict what I will say next, and vice versa. Even if our minds were hooked together, we would be able to recognize “self” thoughts from “other” thoughts (because, for one, you undoubtedly think things I would never think of, and vice versa, due to each of us being surrounded by different information). Therefore you are separate from my self, and my self is separate from you, and this is not an illusion. However – if our brains hooked up indefinitely… rather than eventually not being able to tell eachother apart thought-wise, perhaps we would keep generating uniquely different thoughts unpredictable to eachother, because it would be impossible to merge our selves together? Anyway, the burden of proof is on you when it comes to whether or not ‘separate self’ is an illusion… And it really is irrelevant to a discussion on selflessness/selfishness. Because if our selves were to merge, there would still be others, and the discussion would remain – unless all selves everywhere were to merge. Until then (not that it will ever happen)…

Selflessness is the reason we are still alive right now. Without the other-focus of our mothers (or dads, where applicable… or another family member, friend of the family, stranger – some other human, basically), we would have died as infants. It is good to care for yourself the same reason it is good to care for others (self is equally important as others), but this is not selfish unless it is to the exclusion of others.

Ayn Rand said that it was wrong to be selfless, and that selfishness got a bad rap. When I was an atheist I used to say that to be completely selfless is to be completely dead. But that is based on a misunderstanding of what it means to be selfless. Acts of love toward others can be rewarding. The reward, whether or not accompanied by rewards in this life, is a spiritual one, and those are the rewards you should seek, because rewards rooted in the temporal do not last and miss the point. Does this mean being “selfless” is being “selfish” — no — not if you understand that “selfish” does not mean you love (uncorrupted love) yourself as you should — and selflessness does! Rand would’ve said it like this: “acting in your own rational self interest”. Selflessness, if understood correctly, better serves the individual (as part of a whole) than selfishness (even Rand’s idea of selfishness), which is seen in the first sentence of your quote directly below. Rand gave selflessness a bad rap, gave it meaning it does not have, for how can you love others as you love yourself, if you don’t love yourself? Ironically, I used to use that little insight to defend her definition of selfishness, which is devoid of uncorrupted love.

It isn’t about being rewarded, and especially not in the ‘selfish’ sense. Ayn Rand says that altruistic/selfless values require it to be ‘bad’ to experience blessing – that is wrong. When you are motivated to perform an act that is good for someone else (because you’ve experienced the love of God, and you want others to experience it), and you are glad that it is good for them (whether or not it is good for you), roses bloom in your spiritual garden, the fragrance is astounding, the birds are all singing… love is in the air. The more you share this garden with others, the more it blooms, the more they can sense the fragrance, and before you know it, their garden is blooming, the whole world is a garden… filled with random acts of kindness… and even an Ayn Rand can see how it works to everyone’s best interest…. I can’t do this on my own… none of us can. On my own, my garden turns into a sewer. I imagine it would’ve gotten a whole lot worse if God hadn’t intervened – but that’s just my imagination, because obviously God never intended on not intervening.

Rand said that selfishness does not require sacrificing others (but it does, though not at the level of the brute, and in so doing, requires sacrificing a more genuinely happy self), but would not grant that selflessness does not require sacrificing self. She built a lot of straw men that are not found in selfless values (for example, “that man’s desire to live is evil—that man’s life, as such, is evil”). Selflessness can include self-sacrifice, but doing a good deed for someone else doesn’t have to be difficult. And if you are motivated (from love) to go out of your way to do these selfless acts, from which you benefit only in knowing that someone else was made happy (or otherwise improved) by it, whether or not it involves self-sacrifice, how is this wrong? How is an outpouring of love wrong? It isn’t. Rand was just not motivated to do it, didn’t want to be motivated to do it, and took offense to those who made her feel as if she should be motivated to do it, so she rationalized her way out of it. I did the same thing to excuse my behavior as an atheist – until I no longer cared about excuses. She admitted she could not practice the altruist morality (her explanation for her cynicism) – and like I said, none of us can. For that, we need God, and we need to know that He loves us, warts and all, which is why He sacrificed Himself for us. See my “Faith vs. Works” thread for a fuller discussion on the fact that acts of love are the output of one who has come to know God’s grace (and not a way of earning that grace). First grace, then acts of love.

Moulding the subject matter of this article: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/zimbardo07/zimbardo07_index.html to fit a discussion on selfishness/selflessness and how it relates to the will – heroism is a selfless act, whether by intention (free will) or by nature or habit (blind will) (another category is being led in the Spirit, which is not the focus of the discussion). A selfless act is focused on “other” whereas a selfish act is not. Loving oneself is necessary in order to love others as one loves oneself. Rand said this: “the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action” – if only she had meant that “the other” is a reflection of the actor… but she didn’t mean that. She meant that an act you yourself do not benefit from is a wrong action (a sin, evil). She contradicts herself by implying there is no sin, no evil, no wrong actions of this sort, because “A ‘selfless,’ ‘disinterested’ love is a contradiction in terms.” However, that is based on an incorrect understanding of “selfless”. It doesn’t mean “disinterested” – it just means the interest is focused on “other”. I like the Zimbardo page because it pretty much means the smallest selfless act is an act of heroism. You want to see a hero, look at your mother (assuming she was an overall good one). His point about ‘superhuman heroes’ making us feel as if it is pointless to try to be a hero – is a good one. In the quote you provided, he says there is little known about the psychology of heroism, but elsewhere in his paper he makes reference to what studies have revealed on selflessness (a concept which was not included in that first use of the word “heroism”). Did you read the rest of his paper? If it wasn’t enough for you, I can dig up the empirical data you requested previously (but so can you). As to why “more religious people with socially-politically active parents did nothing to help” – well… there are so many factors, but if I had to guess — some people claim to be “religious” who do not have the mindset that selfless acts are just the way things ought to be done. Not all religious people are at the same leg of the journey in their walk with God. Plus, it isn’t called a “narrow road” for nothin’.

Thinking here…

Intentional sin is only possible if you know the will of God but reject it. Sin is what goes against the will of God (which is love). So you can do something unloving, against the will of God, you can sin – unintentionally. When you come to know what you’ve done, you will look back with regret. God’s forgiveness covers all of it… intentional and unintentional. And it is what you intend that really matters to Him. In the case of giving/loving… it can’t be done on accident, you’re right. Otherwise “losers weepers” would read “givers weepers” (somewhat of a lame example, I know). The difference between selflessness and selfishness is fundamentally “focus” – is it primarily on others or self? And focus, of course, is intentional.

So — Is focus intentional, or can selfless heroism result from blind will?

Or… is intention compatible with blind will? No, and yes. Habit conforms to a pattern of intention. Such patterns shape our response to various drives/instincts. This is the explanation behind obese people who eat even though their brain has released hormones which signal “I’m full.” They intentionally ignore the signals (becoming more and more desensitized to them) — they instead intentionally pay more attention to indulging themselves with tasty morsels. At least, that’s my theory.

This is one reason why it is so important to make selfless choices by habit (in behaviour, and in thought… see “meme” thread), so that in the heat of the moment, or when your guard is down, your behaviour confirms a pattern of selfless past intention, rather than resulting in something you look back on with regret. Walking closely with God guarantees a selfless pattern of intention.

So, focus is not necessarily intentional. It may just be from habit which confirms a pattern of past intention, and it could be influenced by instinct — but as far as we know what influences us habitually/genetically/biologically, we have the power to counteract it wilfully (the freer our will). We can ignore signals to focus on self like we can ignore signals which say “I’m full.” Knowing when to ignore the signals and when to wilfully obey them comes with knowing God.

It is interesting that you can not love unintentionally (if you grant that habitual love conforms to a pattern of past intention, and if you grant intention to animals who love… insofar as it is not against their will to show affection or perform selfless acts of heroism… if you grant that level of love as love, and I do), but you can sin unintentionally. I guess you could unintentionally conform to God’s will if you didn’t know that loving is God’s will. The only problem with that is the love of which we are capable apart from God is a mere hint of the love He desires to share with us, and in turn share with eachother.

One who suggests that “giving, or generosity, is fundamentally about the giver,” is really asking whether we love because the person is inherently lovable or deserving of or needful of love – or whether we love because we’ve got love to give. There is selfish giving (which isn’t really giving) and there is other-focused, selfless giving. Sometimes we do what we call “love” not out of ‘having love to give’ but out of a deficit (read Plato’s Symposium). Other times, the best times, we love because God gives us His love, and we’ve got plenty left over to share. A good analogy is the well of creativity. Some seem to have bottomless wells, others’ dry up easily. God’s well of creativity and love is infinite and one-and-the-same, and we draw from it when we walk with Him. His power (love, creativity) is perfected in our weakness (deficit) (2 Cor 12:9).

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About Maryann

Maryann Spikes is the past President of the Christian Apologetics Alliance. She blogs at Ichthus77, and loves apologetics and philosophy. In particular she loves to study all things Euthyphro Dilemma and Golden Rule. A para-educator (autism) for five years, she holds a Certificate in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, an AA in Humanities via Modesto Junior College, and moonlights as a freelancer. You can follow her on Twitter @Ichthus77, connect with the Ichthus77 community on Facebook, or look her up on Google+.
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