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Are All Good Deeds Inherently Selfish?

Mensch

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When politicians, activists, and/or ordinary individuals attempt to make life more enjoyable for those less fortunate around them, isn't it true that in most cases (if not all cases) the good deed is done to make the generous individual feel better about him/herself? Under any normal circumstances, the kind soul who gives a dollar to a peddler on the street knows full well that the money will be wasted on toxic substances rather than spent on vital necessities. The act of giving a dollar to a beggar on the street is no more "good" for the beggar than it is "good" to reward others for the mistakes and/or harmful habits that they themselves create.

Under normal circumstances, individuals have the capability to rise out of poverty and to improve the lot of their own surroundings. Given that a person is not born with blindness or disability, or acquires a debilitating condition later on in life, the resources and opportunity is out there if their character is ambitious enough to reach for them. It is up to the individual to make the right decisions and to act responsibility. When they are at fault for their own bad habits, their own careless judgments and their own living conditions, you can't point the finger at CEOs, bankers, and corporations as if they were the masters over the enslaved poor. In some cases, the poor are poor because of horrible, unpredictable circumstances. For the most part, however, the poor are poor because they failed to make the right decisions and/or they failed to break their own bad habits.

Back to the subject of this post: Isn't it true that all the busybodies out there who believe in living a life of selflessness (in order words, living your life for the sake of serving others) only believe in such a misguided foundation because they, themselves, wish to feel better about themselves.
 

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I have discussed this at length here at DP in presenting my "Transaction Theory" of human behavior. Each and every behavior we do is a transaction. We get something out of it, on some level. Here are the basics of "Transaction Theory" as I explained in another thread:

Transaction Theory states that the concept of pure altruism does not exist, at least not in the sense that people will often use it. There is no such thing as a selfless act. Every action that we make is a "transaction". If, for example, I do something for you, I get something out of doing that thing... perhaps a feeling of self-worth, or a good feeling of helping another. This feeling is the "payoff" and may be obtained unconsciously or without the conscious motivation towards obtaining it.. Even choosing to die for someone is not a selfless act. In this case, the transaction would precede the behavior... the good feeling of sacrificing for another. Therefore, it is not possible to put anyone but yourself first. This does not denote selfishness, however, and as can be seen with Transaction Theory, obtaining ones "payoff" often benefits others, sometimes more qualitatively or quantitatively than oneself. Even in those situations, though, the behavior starts with the self.
 

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I believe in the selfless act, although I believe its very hard to achieve. But in my experience I've met people who do good things for no other reason than because its a natural reaction to a situation, and at least it looks that way to me. And if someone can do something good purely out of instinct without regard to how it may affect them, whether it takes a lot of time or costs a lot of money or even it doesn't. Of course most good deeds I think have some selfish aspect, whether to feel good about themselves or because they feel obligated to a religion or self-image of themselves, or in the hopes of getting something in return.
 

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I believe in the selfless act, although I believe its very hard to achieve. But in my experience I've met people who do good things for no other reason than because its a natural reaction to a situation, and at least it looks that way to me. And if someone can do something good purely out of instinct without regard to how it may affect them, whether it takes a lot of time or costs a lot of money or even it doesn't. Of course most good deeds I think have some selfish aspect, whether to feel good about themselves or because they feel obligated to a religion or self-image of themselves, or in the hopes of getting something in return.
I guess that's the safest, most moderate way to put it. The logic denies an intense binary that leaves us with only two forms of expression, and leaves us open with the possibility that a good deed can be made in a selfless act. “Natural” preconditioned reactions to daily situations are not evidence to the contrary. Preconditioned behavior is no more "natural" than the spontaneous acts of selfishness. "Natural" and "instinct" are reputable terms in this debate. The point is that it is extremely hard to come up with an actual example of one person giving to another for the sole sake of the receiver's gain. As the other respondent noted, even the most romanticized image of selfless acts-sacrificing your life for the sake of another individual- is not inherently selfless. So, what examples are you left with?
 

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I would think you to be correct that "All Good Deeds (are) Inherently Selfish", but I do disagree with the following statement:

Isn't it true that all the busybodies out there who believe in living a life of selflessness (in order words, living your life for the sake of serving others) only believe in such a misguided foundation because they, themselves, wish to feel better about themselves.
Just because someone "does good" for the purpose of feeling better about themselves does not negate the value of their good deeds, nor does it mean that they are "misguided", and there is certainly nothing negative about being a "busybody".

Value and productivity can most certainly rise from acts of charity. I really don't think that it matters what the motivation is, all that matters is the result. People who who participate in charitable activities financially or physically have no more and no less merit than people who are equally as productive for any other reason (including greed).

My wife is the president of a 501C charity and both of us put a lot of time, effort, intellect, and money into that organization. I can't speak for her, but I do it because I get something emotionally out of it. Regardless of the fact that I am getting something out of it, the activity that we support is helpful to the lives that the charity touches and tends to lead to a higher level of lifetime productivity for those individuals.

One of the other volunteers has told me before that he does it simply because he "wants to". That is reason enough.
 
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No one does anything without some kind of payoff. No one. It's impossible. Even if that 'payoff' is a good feeling, or negating a bad feeling for not doing something. There is always a payoff of some kind. So there is no such thing as selflessness.

Some people take other people's feelings into consideration when taking action or making decisions, and other people do not take other people's feelings into consideration. It's easy to say that one is more selfish than the other, (and I've done so myself) but that's not *really* the case. Both have their own personal reasons and personal payoff for doing what they do. I take other people's feelings into consideration because that is valuable to me. I get a payoff for doing that. So really, the only difference between someone who considers other people and someone who doesn't is the type of payoff they get for themselves.
 

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When politicians, activists, and/or ordinary individuals attempt to make life more enjoyable for those less fortunate around them, isn't it true that in most cases (if not all cases) the good deed is done to make the generous individual feel better about him/herself?
It depends. Some people do good to do good and the focus is on other people. A good feeling might occur (and it might not, I don't think much of it when I hold a door open for example). This is calling being unselfish.

Some people do good to feel good. This is generally done for reasons of pride. This is called being selfish.
 

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Sure- things benefit the self. . . but are only selfish is they *only* benefit the self.

If you help, support, inspire or protect someone else in some way - even if your main goal is your 'self' then it's not 'selfish'
 

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I guess that's the safest, most moderate way to put it. The logic denies an intense binary that leaves us with only two forms of expression, and leaves us open with the possibility that a good deed can be made in a selfless act. “Natural” preconditioned reactions to daily situations are not evidence to the contrary. Preconditioned behavior is no more "natural" than the spontaneous acts of selfishness. "Natural" and "instinct" are reputable terms in this debate. The point is that it is extremely hard to come up with an actual example of one person giving to another for the sole sake of the receiver's gain. As the other respondent noted, even the most romanticized image of selfless acts-sacrificing your life for the sake of another individual- is not inherently selfless. So, what examples are you left with?
Boy, according to your logic, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't.

I always feel good when I do something special for someone else. Does that make me selfish? Does that make the act itself somehow "impure?" No. I give $$ to the people standing at the exit ramps of X-ways when I pass 'em and it's convenient. I smile to myself because I wonder if they're real or if they've found a pretty fair-to-middlin' part-time job. But it doesn't make any difference. I do it anyway. And I feel good about it, too. And there's nothing wrong with that.
 

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When politicians, activists, and/or ordinary individuals attempt to make life more enjoyable for those less fortunate around them, isn't it true that in most cases (if not all cases) the good deed is done to make the generous individual feel better about him/herself? Under any normal circumstances, the kind soul who gives a dollar to a peddler on the street knows full well that the money will be wasted on toxic substances rather than spent on vital necessities. The act of giving a dollar to a beggar on the street is no more "good" for the beggar than it is "good" to reward others for the mistakes and/or harmful habits that they themselves create.

Under normal circumstances, individuals have the capability to rise out of poverty and to improve the lot of their own surroundings. Given that a person is not born with blindness or disability, or acquires a debilitating condition later on in life, the resources and opportunity is out there if their character is ambitious enough to reach for them. It is up to the individual to make the right decisions and to act responsibility. When they are at fault for their own bad habits, their own careless judgments and their own living conditions, you can't point the finger at CEOs, bankers, and corporations as if they were the masters over the enslaved poor. In some cases, the poor are poor because of horrible, unpredictable circumstances. For the most part, however, the poor are poor because they failed to make the right decisions and/or they failed to break their own bad habits.

Back to the subject of this post: Isn't it true that all the busybodies out there who believe in living a life of selflessness (in order words, living your life for the sake of serving others) only believe in such a misguided foundation because they, themselves, wish to feel better about themselves.
so what? we get something postive out of helping others? why would you have an issue with is? yes, i like to do things for others, and yes, iot makes me feel good. i feel blessed, and want to give back. again, so what?
 

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Everything we do is selfish because it is in accordance with our values. A man feeding the poor is being selfish because he is doing what he thinks is right. In this sense, it is worthless to call our acts selfish or selfless because we always act selfishly. What is more important, then, is how we label our values. There are selfish values and selfless values. So yes, it could theoretically be a selfish act on my part to hand out money recklessly. I would gain satisfaction, I would consider myself wealthier by doing that than by doing anything else (or at least I perceive that to be the case at the time I engage in the action).
 

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Everything we do is selfish because it is in accordance with our values. A man feeding the poor is being selfish because he is doing what he thinks is right. In this sense, it is worthless to call our acts selfish or selfless because we always act selfishly. What is more important, then, is how we label our values. There are selfish values and selfless values. So yes, it could theoretically be a selfish act on my part to hand out money recklessly. I would gain satisfaction, I would consider myself wealthier by doing that than by doing anything else (or at least I perceive that to be the case at the time I engage in the action).
You got a good point. Some forms of "charity" can definately be harmful.

On a sidenote, I just had one of the parents of the charity that I help out to email my wife and tell her that we should be crediting donations that she made to the United Way to her kid's program fee (because our charity recieves some funding from the United Way). I sent her a very nice two page letter explaining why that is crazy. If somebody cant afford their own bills, they shouldn't be donating nothing to nobody (a triple negative is still a negative isn't it?).
 
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Mensch

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I would think you to be correct that "All Good Deeds (are) Inherently Selfish", but I do disagree with the following statement:



Just because someone "does good" for the purpose of feeling better about themselves does not negate the value of their good deeds, nor does it mean that they are "misguided", and there is certainly nothing negative about being a "busybody".

Value and productivity can most certainly rise from acts of charity. I really don't think that it matters what the motivation is, all that matters is the result. People who who participate in charitable activities financially or physically have no more and no less merit than people who are equally as productive for any other reason (including greed).

My wife is the president of a 501C charity and both of us put a lot of time, effort, intellect, and money into that organization. I can't speak for her, but I do it because I get something emotionally out of it. Regardless of the fact that I am getting something out of it, the activity that we support is helpful to the lives that the charity touches and tends to lead to a higher level of lifetime productivity for those individuals.

One of the other volunteers has told me before that he does it simply because he "wants to". That is reason enough.
I was not, under any circumstaces, arguing that the selfish act negates the value of the good deed. I never stated such a ridiculous comment, but merely reflecting on the act of the deed being "selfish" or "selfless" at its core. The value of a good deed is a completely separate topic, which requires we actually take a specific example and consider its value. But I wasn't even going there. Honestly, I had just come to this conclusion that all good deeds are inherently selfish when a woman walked into a restaurant where I work and desperately tried to get me to break company policy by giving cash back, so that she may be able to pay for a motel room for a homeless man. She kept persisting with the request and kept saying, "I just really want to help him out." It was obvious that her efforts to shelter a homeless man for a night was caused by some inner desire to feel better about herself or to validate some sort of solidified image of herself. The value is irrelevant. This was a revelation, on my part, that confirms the Randian assumption that all acts are inherently committed as a result of self-reflection and self-interest. Giving to charity, and creating wonderful generous foundations that provide support to those who need it is absolutely commendable, regardless of the fact that the donator was selfish in his/her decision. As I've told many liberal friends and family who despise Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie for all the selfish, pro-profit deeds they view as diabolically greedy: Look at the RESULT of his selfish foundation. The two men spent more money than all the socialistic George Soross' out there. And their foundations actually facilitated economic mobility for the thousands who attempted to benefit, selfishly, on the charity of others. All is good! Who cares if these wealthy, successful men were assholes personally? Professionally, they managed to benefit millions of Americans and with their foundations, they have improved the living standards and cultural value of this country.

I also want to add that it is completely obvious by everyone that these men only created the foundations in order to lighten their legacy and let future generations know they weren't total misers. Again, so what?! They did it to improve their own self-image and regardless of all their profit, business-driven ambitions, their final legacy has greatly benefitted those who needed it.
 
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Mensch

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Sure- things benefit the self. . . but are only selfish is they *only* benefit the self.

If you help, support, inspire or protect someone else in some way - even if your main goal is your 'self' then it's not 'selfish'
Really? If someone has been preconditioned to act generously in order to maintain a model of socialistic thinking, they are inherently committing all future generous acts in order to validate and/or solidify this image of themselves, and the model image of the values that they live to promote. Also, though there are examples, I would argue that the vast majority of transactions taking place between two human beings ultimately benefits more than one party.
 

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I have discussed this at length here at DP in presenting my "Transaction Theory" of human behavior. Each and every behavior we do is a transaction. We get something out of it, on some level. Here are the basics of "Transaction Theory" as I explained in another thread:
Do you feel the same about people who sacrifice their lives? All they get in exchange is their death.
 

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Boy, according to your logic, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't.

I always feel good when I do something special for someone else. Does that make me selfish? Does that make the act itself somehow "impure?" No. I give $$ to the people standing at the exit ramps of X-ways when I pass 'em and it's convenient. I smile to myself because I wonder if they're real or if they've found a pretty fair-to-middlin' part-time job. But it doesn't make any difference. I do it anyway. And I feel good about it, too. And there's nothing wrong with that.
MaggieD,

Again, my intentions were to diffuse the social myth that generous acts are, or can be, completely selfless. The value of the good deed is irrelevant. We can debate whether or not to give a dollar to a man begging at the end of the highway ramp, and that is a good debate to have. But the whole idea of being generous and committing acts that help those around us who really need it is commendable, in my opinion. This is despite the fact that all selfless deeds are inherently selfish. I don't believe living your life for the sake of serving others. That is essentially voluntary slavery. I swear by my life, and my love for it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine. Our lives are own, and we must enjoy them to the fullest that we can. Living in order to improve the lot of other lives is commendable, to a point. But there is a threshold that even the Dalai Lama won't cross. You give to a peddler in order to feel better about yourself, and you openly admit it. You certainly don't consider the steps you could take to actually improve his life over the long-term. For one, he has to be willing to improve his own life. Second, it would be far more effective to invite him into your home so that he has a place to stay. But I'm sure you won't go there, no matter how selfless you see yourself to be. How about sending him to college? Instead of taking that next vacation, you could give the man some vocational training, or send him to a couple semesters of community college. You could get your friends together and organize some sort of foundation that will be everlasting in its pursuit to effectively improve the lives of the misfortunate. Instead, you give up the dollar when it's convenient, but fail to see that "selfless" people like you are primarily responsible for keeping the poor man in his condition. Yes, you have employed the man to just stand at the end of the ramp and beg. How does that contribute to his productivity or to improving his life in the long-term? It doesn't. In 9 out of 10 cases, the dollar will be spent on the next bottle of malt liquor. The value of the deed, INMO, is minimal at best.
 

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MaggieD,

Again, my intentions were to diffuse the social myth that generous acts are, or can be, completely selfless. The value of the good deed is irrelevant. We can debate whether or not to give a dollar to a man begging at the end of the highway ramp, and that is a good debate to have. But the whole idea of being generous and committing acts that help those around us who really need it is commendable, in my opinion. This is despite the fact that all selfless deeds are inherently selfish. I don't believe living your life for the sake of serving others. That is essentially voluntary slavery. I swear by my life, and my love for it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine. Our lives are own, and we must enjoy them to the fullest that we can. Living in order to improve the lot of other lives is commendable, to a point. But there is a threshold that even the Dalai Lama won't cross. You give to a peddler in order to feel better about yourself, and you openly admit it. You certainly don't consider the steps you could take to actually improve his life over the long-term. For one, he has to be willing to improve his own life. Second, it would be far more effective to invite him into your home so that he has a place to stay. But I'm sure you won't go there, no matter how selfless you see yourself to be. How about sending him to college? Instead of taking that next vacation, you could give the man some vocational training, or send him to a couple semesters of community college. You could get your friends together and organize some sort of foundation that will be everlasting in its pursuit to effectively improve the lives of the misfortunate. Instead, you give up the dollar when it's convenient, but fail to see that "selfless" people like you are primarily responsible for keeping the poor man in his condition. Yes, you have employed the man to just stand at the end of the ramp and beg. How does that contribute to his productivity or to improving his life in the long-term? It doesn't. In 9 out of 10 cases, the dollar will be spent on the next bottle of malt liquor. The value of the deed, INMO, is minimal at best.
Wow. Quite an interesting post. I think I understand what you're saying. But I don't understand where you're going.

Unless you're really willing to do something extraordinary to help a stranger, don't bother. You're hurting instead of helping. In fact, more than that, you are partly responsible for his plight. AND you're doing it for selfish reasons. I don't buy it. I fail to see how stopping briefly and connecting with someone who may need some teeny-tiny evidence that he matters in the world could hurt him. There are social agencies that will do exactly the things you're saying I could do. The homeless man knows they're there and may or may not use them. For me to smile at him and offer him some small token surely can't be seen as selfish. It makes me feel good. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Maybe the answer is that I'd feel badly if I just walked on by...

Your analysis may hold water. Maybe I'm doing it more for myself than him. Maybe that's why everybody does things. On a subconscious level, maybe we're asking, "What's in it for me?" I'm rather glad the world works they way it works, though....that people do kind things for others even if the kindnesses are small. So if that's the real motivation behind those acts of kindness, well, so be it.
 
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What about sacrificing your life to save another? Are you doing that to "feel good" as the hand grenade you dove on blows you into thousands of indistinguishable pieces?
 

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Wow. Quite an interesting post. I think I understand what you're saying. But I don't understand where you're going.

Unless you're really willing to do something extraordinary to help a stranger, don't bother. You're hurting instead of helping. In fact, more than that, you are partly responsible for his plight. AND you're doing it for selfish reasons. I don't buy it. I fail to see how stopping briefly and connecting with someone who may need some teeny-tiny evidence that he matters in the world could hurt him. There are social agencies that will do exactly the things you're saying I could do. The homeless man knows they're there and may or may not use them. For me to smile at him and offer him some small token surely can't be seen as selfish. It makes me feel good. But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Maybe the answer is that I'd feel badly if I just walked on by...

Your analysis may hold water. Maybe I'm doing it more for myself than him. Maybe that's why everybody does things. On a subconscious level, maybe we're asking, "What's in it for me?" I'm rather glad the world works they way it works, though....that people do kind things for others even if the kindnesses are small. So if that's the real motivation behind those acts of kindness, well, so be it.
I have a few points to make in response to your latest statement:

1) All good deeds are inherently selfish, though you tend to be fighting with yourself over this conviction.
2) You failed to respond to the most important point about how the help ($$) is spent. Would you feel bad if you didn't buy a homeless man a bottle of booze if he asked you to (after all, we all need a release from the pressure of daily life)? Obviously, you might consider the fact that he is homeless directy because of his bad habits and poor judgements. I would not think him immoral to have made the life he has, but rather I would just continue on my journey and keep the dollar for my own expenses. Why feed the addiction of others, when it is clearly their addiction that matters when discussing the causes of their own impovershed conditions? Of course, you're HELPING him to a drink, if a drink is isreally what he needs. But in reality, it would be far better for the both of you if you did not contribute. You still contribute, because you make the daily call that he'll use the token for something useful. That's your call. Sometimes, asking for help from a complete stranger is necessary when you're caught between a rock and a hard place. But it is also your responsibility to make the right judgements of who deserves how much. When you're really dirt poor, perhaps this book can give you some inspiration:
3) Judging by your signature, I'm sure your voting records would indicate taking at least a passive stance in the face of forced, governmental charity. How great has the sleuth of Great Society programs helped to improve the lot of ordinary men and women?
 

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What about sacrificing your life to save another? Are you doing that to "feel good" as the hand grenade you dove on blows you into thousands of indistinguishable pieces?
Again, when the behavior is preconditioned through an intense learning process that values servitude for others over pursuing one's own rational self-interests, then what you're left with is a thousand comrades sacrificing their life for the good of the colony. It is selfish in terms of validating one's own ideological/religious convictions and pursuing a self-image of greatness that will be forever embodied in the commemoration of a thousand martyrs.
 

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What about sacrificing your life to save another? Are you doing that to "feel good" as the hand grenade you dove on blows you into thousands of indistinguishable pieces?
You are acting in accordance with your values. It is a selfish act, but a selfless value.
 

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I think your point in #1 is probably correct. I see it your way -- at least to a point. That point being that it's about me as well as the homeless guy. But I don't care. ;-) As to #2, I don't care how the money is spent. If he is an alcoholic and spends it on booze, so be it. That's what he thinks he needs. I'm sure not going to cure him. Your last observation #3, I don't quite understand. I'm a Conservative who believes that our much-abused public assistance programs destroy the very people they're meant to help. Ooops. Am I proving your hypothesis??? Ha! You've given me a lot to think about. Very interesting. But I'll still continue to give a homeless guy a fiver if I've got it. Really, very interesting.
 

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I was pretty interested in this topic, and I'm glad you brought it up, although it can get contentious at times. I think you can say that anything that we choose to do will end up being in some form, I won't say selfish, but will in some way benefit the self. Because we have free will, any choice we make will always in some way serve us or others because we would naturally not make a decision that is detrimental to the self or others, but I don't think that automatically means its a selfish act.


Again, when the behavior is preconditioned through an intense learning process that values servitude for others over pursuing one's own rational self-interests, then what you're left with is a thousand comrades sacrificing their life for the good of the colony. It is selfish in terms of validating one's own ideological/religious convictions and pursuing a self-image of greatness that will be forever embodied in the commemoration of a thousand martyrs.
I was thinking of the counter-example of the soldier saving another soldier's life too. I think you have misinterpreted the motives though. Its not that the soldier has been trained or learned to sacrifice himself for others, its that he would rather see himself be sacrificed than having his buddy get harmed. Is that not as selfless an act as one could possibly be? And if you hear from WWII veterans, they will say they weren't fighting for country the most, they were fighting for the guy next to them and their buddies.
 
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drz-400

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Again, when the behavior is preconditioned through an intense learning process that values servitude for others over pursuing one's own rational self-interests, then what you're left with is a thousand comrades sacrificing their life for the good of the colony. It is selfish in terms of validating one's own ideological/religious convictions and pursuing a self-image of greatness that will be forever embodied in the commemoration of a thousand martyrs.
It is a indirect self interest. You are fighting for the good of your country, not yourself.

Firefighters put their lives at stake because they want to save another person.

Someones eles gain is the persons reward, hence the term selfless. They were not just thinking of themselves when the act was made.
 
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