Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Is There Such a Thing as Selflessness?

UG says man is selfish to the core. In fact, one of the articles written on him many years ago in a Kannada newspaper in Bangalore which he showed to me had the caption of a quote from him, “Only selfishness is real, selflessness is an illusion.” UG always proclaimed that man “is selfish to the core.” My answer to the caption at that time was, “Yes, it’s a selfishness which does away with the very self!.”

The questions of egoism and altruism arise in the context of morality. Any moral theory must reconcile the conflict between self-interest and duty – at least that’s how it is traditionally conceived. Hobbes is a philosopher who claimed that man is like an animal driven only by self-interest, by desire which “only ends in death.” Some theories like that of Hume argue that there is basically no conflict between interest and duty and that if one only looked deeply enough into self-interest one would discover that duty is included in it. Similarly, Joseph Butler’s moral theory claims: Every particular affection, even the love of our neighbour, is as really our own affection as self-love; and the pleasure arising from its gratification is as much my own pleasure as the pleasure self-love would have from knowing I myself should be happy some time hence would be my own pleasure.(Quotation from Internet sources.) The extension of this is the modern theory of enlightened self-interest.

Various forms of utilitarianism attempt to reconcile the conflict in different ways with varying degrees of success: a more recent one, proposed by Rawls, includes self-interest in its notion of “acting under the veil of ignorance,” according to which, people when they constitute themselves as a society should opt for such policies of the state that they would accept not knowing which position (high or low) they would be occupying in the society. (Rawls, Theory of Justice) This notion seems like a version of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

The political theory of Adam Smith, the theory of laissez-faire, believes in the Invisible Hand which guarantees that if everyone in a society acts for his own self-interest, the interest of the society is automatically taken care of.

My interest here is really not to address the issue of the conflict between interest and duty, but to inquire into the degree to which man is selfish: particularly to discuss the thesis that no matter what man does is really for his own pleasure (or self-interest). This is the thesis of psychological egoism. There are two problems with this thesis in the realm of morality: one is how is it possible that if by nature one is not endowed with an ability to act sometimes in the interests of other people, which is required by morality. The second problem, which is related to this, is that only one theory of morality becomes possible and that is ethical egoism. Ethical egoism leads to self-contradictions in contexts where two people’s interests conflict and according to the theory they both must be right.

Now, rights and wrongs aside, the question must occur to anyone inquiring into human relations, the question whether other people’s interests have any role to play in our lives except as promoting our own self-interest. Of course, we sometimes act contrary to our own self-interest, particularly when we don’t know what it is – we think it is one thing and it turns out that it is not truly to our self-interest. And we also act for other people’s interests – interests of our friends, relatives or strangers when we act charitably. When we do so we enjoy our action. We find them in some way gratifying or fulfilling.

But can we act selflessly and contrary to our self-interest when the situation (and you might say, morality) demands it? The answer pretty much depends on what we mean by selflessness. Do we mean by it acting contrary to one’s self-interest? If that’s the meaning of selflessness, one might answer that such actions are really born out of our self-interest, because we act charitably (or contrary to our self-interest) only when it suits us, when it gives us pleasure. When we no longer get the pleasure we seek in giving to others or in sacrificing our interests, as for example, when we don’t get the thanks we expected or our actions are not appreciated or when the recipient turns hostile instead of being grateful. The opponent here will constantly seek for the hidden motive of seeking pleasure even when it is not apparent on the surface. Then the thesis that whatever we do is for our self-interest (or pleasure) becomes tautological.

I think this approach (of psychological egoism) probably misses some points. More specifically it ignores the mechanisms of our behavior, particularly our goal-seeking process. Our normal procedure is that we want things (or avoid them) and we direct our actions to achieving what we desire or avoiding what we don’t want. Whatever we desire we desire because we hope it gives us satisfaction or pleasure. If our action gives us the desired result, we feel satisfied. If we perform the action repeatedly and it no longer gives the satisfaction we expect out of it, the action tends to drop off, unless it is a long-standing habit and quitting it seems more painful than keeping it. Masochism, although it seems painful on the surface, is pursued only because for the psychological pleasure we get in physically inflicting pain on ourselves. Here pain is pleasure.

Now, to repeat, my question here is, when we think something is right and it is not really according to our self-interest or gives us pleasure, would we still do it? If we can, then altruism and morality are possible. If not, then only psychological egoism is true and morality is not possible. The answer below explores the psychological process of action, goal-seeking and the self.

It’s the mechanism of thought which has the built in process of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Everything it seeks, including doing good to others, has to fit into this scheme in order for it to be meaningful to us. The values we seek and the things we desire are what give us satisfaction. They enhance our self. The thought process, in other words, is the process of the self. Through desire and fear, the thought process reinforces the self. All actions, even those we intend to help others, must form part of this ‘self (or mental) economy’. Even when the actions we perform don’t seem to give us satisfaction, or only give us pain, we would still do them if they conform to our values or concepts of what we want to achieve. The self, among other things, is a hierarchy of values we have built for ourselves whether consciously, or simply absorbed from the influences around us through osmosis. As values are bound up with our notion of our selves, we would do something painful, because, as a value, it is bound up with the notion of our selves. In other words, we sometimes do things for others even though they are painful, not as much because we gain some hidden pleasure or self-interest, but our very identity may be at stake, and not to pursue that value would amount to loss of self to that extent.

The present pain is tolerated for a future satisfaction of a value or a goal. When even that fails, and the goals or values are not achieved, we quit the whole enterprise, or console ourselves saying that we have tried, or tell ourselves that the goal is not worth it, or that’s not what I really wanted, or that we will try for it another time when conditions are more in our favor, or who needs it anyway and so forth. More often than not, we replace one goal with another. But constant striving for goals we never quit, because we have an underlying belief that our happiness or fulfillment lies in achieving things which are out there, outside of ourselves.

When we become disillusioned with that too, then perhaps not only the striving drops off, along with it our goals, but also the thought process which is geared to achieving them. But that almost never happens in people.

Short of this total collapse of the self, which is perhaps possible in principle, at least temporarily, whatever we do is for gratification, directly or indirectly, of the self. Only when such a collapse occurs, we are truly selfless. But then is there any action? (I am speaking here of action other than automatically satisfying one’s biological needs.) Or would a person’s movements be merely random? If there is action, (I can’t deny there is), it wouldn’t be premeditated, or based on some moral or other rules or laws, but would depend on the situation. It might even seem self-centered to others and no rules can be made out of such actions as they are so specific to a situation.

You might ask, why would one even act in such a circumstance? There is no answer to that question, for an answer presupposes a motive on behalf of the person, and that by definition is precluded in a selfless state. The action is gratuitous. It’s just as if the person had no choice but to act that way. It is as if the action is extracted out of him, forced out of him by the situation.