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Ego and Altruism

Started by LARA, February 29, 2008, 05:04:39 PM

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Let me preface this by saying this a quite a nice forum, I enjoy it greatly.  I have a feeling I could get myself into a quagmire by starting this debate, but anyway here goes.

From what I recall, Ayn Rand promotes a philosophy of selfishness, saying that it isn't a bad thing as all actions are based in selfish causes, even ones seemingly altruistic. We give to others to feel better about ourselves.  All good things at their core have ego as their basis.  Therefore selfishness in and of itself is not a bad thing.

I would have to debate what exactly is meant by selfishness here and what the true meaning of the word is.  When I look up a dictionary definition of selfishness, there is inherent in the definition that the selfish action is a detriment to others.  There is self-love, there is pride, there is ego and there is selfishness.  By definition of the word selfishness, doing good, even if it feeds your ego, is not selfish.  You would be creating a logical contradiction by the very meaning of the word.  Actions that are detrimental to society are not actions that are good to society. You can't have A and not A, at least not at the same time.

Altruism may feed the ego, but the consequences of the action are not intended to be detrimental to others.   Whether, in reality, some altruistic actions can actually be unintentionally detrimental or some selfish actions can end up being unintentionally beneficial, is an entirely different debate altogether and related to the level of scope, i.e. individual, societal, ecosystem, universe etc.

There may be times that true selfishness rules and actually results in self preservation, and we might assume that the preservation of this sort of life is a good thing. But this is the state of lower animals and dinosaurs with pea-sized reptile brains.  Out and out greed is not a place for higher mammals capable of philosophy.  If it is, they won't remain higher mammals for long, at least in the time frames suitable for evolution.
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
                                                                                                                    -Winston Smith, protagonist of 1984 by George Orwell


I think the word 'selfish' is really quite misinterpreted. Kinda like fuck, shit or whatever. People generally prefer them not be said but they are forgetting something, errr not thinking---they are just words and only broadly used adjectives or nouns. At leasy every one know what they mean/can mean. Can be bad, cannot be. Generally considered bad though.

But like that line 'do unto others you would like others to do unto you.' Or somethin, it is always said a little differently. But yeah if you haven't noticed, the last four words. Any philosopher will probably state that to be a selfish statement. You treat others the way you do purely for personal benefit [to be treated well].

Kinda tangent. I dunno, selfish is always considered a bad thing because it is used the way it always is. I think philosophers tend to use it in the way of saying you put yourself before others---regardless of the circumstances.

I dont know if you got anything outta it lol. Next forum!
Me, my projects and random pictures, haha.

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I think Ayn Rand, in the sense that the truth is contextual and ever-changing in an endless pursuit to seek a whole truth, is right.  It is within our biological design to have a perfect balance of selfishness and selflessness.  We need to be selfish enough to become competent, individual thinking human beings to be able to contribute to our communities, societies, and specie as a whole.  People who try to endlessly help others to satisfy themselves usually perform actions that have unintended negative consequences.  Good intentions are never enough.  Selfishness is kind of an illusion.  When you help another individual, you feel better about yourself, but because of this we are contributing to society as a whole.  We shouldn't fester so much about how much you gain from helping others because as a whole, we are confined to this function to survive as a specie.  I tend to try not looking at helping people as individuals,  but performing these selfish/selfless acts to help humankind develop in an increasingly harmonious manner.  I mostly do this by improving upon myself.  It is a difficult life to live when devoted to personal growth and improvement, but my view of this path is to gain the ability to help others through things such as influences of social thought, helping others become individuals so that they might be able to do what I hope to do one day.  We are an organizational specie and if everybody spent their whole lives just trying to help each other without actually being independent enough to gain abilities that can actually help people, we'd just be a community of missionaries that will die quickly.  People need to be selfish enough to improve upon themselves as gain abilities that can actually help others and humankind as a whole.  In a way selfishness and altruism are the same (perhaps I should use independence instead of selfishness) within our biological design.  Focus as much on yourself as you can and you will get to a point where you can actually be efficiently altruistic.  All you have to do is try to find out who you are deep down and how your individual variations can be used to, both, survive in society and help advance it.


If I won the lottery and I gave someone a whole bunch of money then I would feel joy having done that. I probably would not anonymously give money away without knowing who it went to. Not because I was worried it would not go to the right person, but because I would want to feel the joy of helping someone. And I would not give all the money away...Yeah I suck, but I am sure I’m like most people.

I don’t open doors for people because I like it…I do it because I like to know I just helped someone. I don’t like opening doors for people that don’t say thank you. And I would not quit my job and go hang out at some store opening doors all day for people. Just enough effort, just enough reward.

I think life is symbiotic and altruism though nice, does not exist.
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. -cs


I basically agree with wjkreuser, which means I'm also agreeing with Ayn Rand.  I don't know how to completely describe my own personal "philosophy", but I'd say that I have serious resemblance to an "ethical egoist" or a "rugged individualist", or whatever you want to call it.

I think the dictionary definition is symptomatic of dictionary definitions in general in that the dictionary attempts to define how people use a word.  If people use "selfish" in such a way that it deliberately carries a negative connotation, namely "harmful to others", then the definition in the dictionary will attempt to convey this.  Having said that, I can assure you from personal experience that dictionary definitions cause me no end of frustration - I tend not to like them.

Here's an apropos example, from, the definition of "atheist" is:

a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.
Well, okay.  But compare this to the definition of "innocent":

1.   free from moral wrong; without sin; pure: innocent children.
2.   free from legal or specific wrong; guiltless: innocent of the crime.
3.   not involving evil intent or motive: an innocent misrepresentation.
4.   not causing physical or moral injury; harmless: innocent fun.
5.   devoid (usually fol. by of): a law innocent of merit.
6.   having or showing the simplicity or naiveté of an unworldly person; guileless; ingenuous.
7.   uninformed or unaware; ignorant.
Now, consider why the definition isn't something like "denying any wrong", or "denying guilt"?  There is a connotation inherent to these definitions, and this is the part that bugs me.  Saying an atheist is a person who "denies ... the existence of a supreme being" is troublesome to me.  If this is true, then why isn't an innocent person one who "denies guilt"?  Seems to me both innocent and guilty people tend to "deny guilt".  :wink: