I’m not certain where I stand on the whole ‘no such thing as altruism’ debate.
Actually, I’m fairly sure. I find it annoying but probably largely true. But that largely thing is actually very complicated.
Basically, I think that most acts have some kind of selfish basis, but that doesn’t make selflessness impossible. I think people will always view things from their own perspective, and a lot of good deeds will be done to make people feel good about themselves, or at least to assuage the horrible feeling of having not done the right/good/selfless thing.
And actually, right there, we’re pointing directly to not just a drive to selflessness, but an instinctive one. Most people feel bad if they behave like dicks. I think the only reason some people are capable of behaving like dicks without feeling bad, is because their worldview doesn’t allow them to see the impacts they have (or reduces those impacts enough that they don’t balance out the personal gain).
Those people may well be dicks.
But they can probably be helped. And they could probably change if they opened their eyes.
I mean. There must be something in our brains that makes us understand that some things are good and some are bad, otherwise ethics wouldn’t be a philosophical field. To say all altruism is selfishly motivated is to miss the point of the fact that altruism in itself is a concept, and something that people strive for. However you slice up their reasoning, they are still trying to do good.
The concept of good. The concept of looking after others. The concept of selflessness. These are miracles that prove themselves everyday.
And the most selfless thing someone can do?
Well, bearing in mind that there may well be selfish motivations for the actual good things that result, I think the most important thing is that first step.
Open your eyes. Really wide. See things from the perspective of people who you aren’t. The people next door, the people far away, the hypothetical people you could imagine.
Once you start looking at the world through a perspective not limited by your self, selfless behaviour becomes inevitable.
Being attentive and aware, reaching across divides and into other people’s shoes, and the proverbial shoes of the nonhuman entities we share the earth with. That’s selflessness.
Noticing that we are part of a world full of people and plants and animals and landscapes. Noticing how small we are, and how lucky we are to have found ourselves in this huge web, existing, percieving, being.
Selflessness is about awareness. It’s expanding your viewpoint to cover other things than yourself.
It is also about self awareness, noticing your own actions and motivations, and how that fits into grander patterns and worlds.
It’s just about paying attention. It’s about awareness of everything from breathing to death. It’s about awareness of everyone from kings to beetles, everything from the sun to the centre of the earth.
Get outside your self.
Illustration by Lucy.