I used to believe that everyone was selfish. I had believed in a sort of “black and white” view of human nature- even seemingly altruistic acts, like someone protecting a child, was due to selfishness, in my view. There were, however, problems with this view of human nature that  I had not realized.

Firstly, it was extremely superficial. I only believed that people were selfish, because that is what I had seen through studying history, and because the media was saturated with selfishness. When we think about history, we tend to think about  the “great” events, and the “great” events tend to be atrocities- the Holocaust, for example.  But now, I realize that even the Nazis were selfless in the sense that they were willing to sacrifice themselves for Germany. At least, those who did not feel pressured to do so because it went against their conscience.

Secondly, it failed to fully explain the concept of self-sacrifice. A selfish person, no matter how  selfish, would desire to preserve the self, even if that meant others would be harmed in the  process. This pattern of behavior does not apply to those who do sacrifice themselves, and put themselves in harm’s way in order to protect other individuals. I will grant that it may make sense to say that someone is selfish if they wish to sacrifice themselves  only for some reward in the afterlife, or if they only do what they think is right because they want to go to Heaven.  But overall, the overriding factor in someone’s decision to sacrifice themselves, is due  to selflessness. If someone is willing to sacrifice themsleves, as opposed to preserving the self, they are “selfless”.

Thirdly, it did not take into account that many people’s motivations may be completely ideological. Someone may believe that what they were doing was the “right” thing to do. They may have been brought up to believe that acting in a certain way was the “right” thing to do, so whenever they found themselves in a situation where they had to act, they did so. This happens very often, and history is full of examples of it that I had completely  missed.

Fourthly, not everyone values the self as highly as everyone else. There are many people who donate blood, or help out in soup kitchens. Some people join the Peace Corps. Some people donate organs, money, etc to various organizations, for whatever purposes.

Fifthly, some people don’t value their self at all. These people tend to be suicidal, or depressed. Not all selfless deeds are necessarily heroic.


~ by theuncynic on July 29, 2012.

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