Home > Life, Neuroscience and Psychology, religion, science > Can We Be Unselfish?

Can We Be Unselfish?

A column in The New York Times asks, “Is Pure Altruism Possible?”

Of course, a lot depends on how you define “pure” and “altruism.”

Altruism means acting unselfishly, for the benefit of others or for the good of society. But does that mean it can’t benefit you? Or does it just mean that your motivation must be unselfish?

And our motives are usually complicated. Does “pure” mean that no part of our motivation can be selfish? That almost never happens. I might do volunteer work and get a good feeling about helping others. But my main motivation was still just to help.

Actually, I like something my grandmother said:

A good deed only counts if nobody knows you did it.

If you do a good deed and keep it a secret, then you can be pretty sure you did it for the right reasons.


Copyright 2010 by Rinth de Shadley.

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  1. David
    October 26, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I would amend what your grandmother said to “A good deed only counts if you don’t beat your chest about how great you are.” People will know you did it. Some may care, some may not. I did one the other day. I talked myself into having an excuse to buy an really nice HD camcorder in order to video speakers in our parish speakers series. Bought it and had it in my possession. Especially wanted to video this first one coming up. But when I asked the speaker if we could videotape the talks, he said no. So my excuse dried up. I already had this dream camera, and could have kept it with no noise from my wife. (She’d say I’ve been working so hard, I deserved to keep it) I made the decision after two days to return it. And I did. Good deed to our finances, my wife knows I did it, she knows I did it with a pure heart. It’s still a good deed. I’m not going to lord it over her about how good I was to return it-that would make it not-so-good.

    • October 26, 2010 at 10:48 pm

      I’m glad that you did something that you feel good about! But I agree with your wife: I would have let you keep it. 🙂

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