Selflessness: A Moral Imperative?

Selflessness: A Moral Imperative?

In slightly different words than the title: "Does not being selfless make humans bad?"

I stumbled upon this question a few months ago, and did my best to come up with an answer to it — which I have been sitting on ever since. I had recently read at length about Humanism, so the question will be answered through this lens.

If we flip the negatives in the question, we can make it simpler: "Is it bad to be selfish?" When I say "bad" here, I mean unethical.

Maybe. It depends on your opinion of morality. Since we are focused on Humanism — an idea that emphasizes the value and liberties of humans — the answer is yes, selfishness is wrong.

Why? Let's look at wealth distribution for an example. A selfish society encourages folks to keep money to themselves, when there is still suffering that could be minimized by greater wealth distribution.

How do we know that we could reduce suffering? I think it is fairly easy to see that that poverty causes suffering. Having limited resources to eat, drink, or keep shelter is mentally stressful and physiologically painful. Even applying ideas from meditation does not really work. Maybe someone can choose not to suffer while they starve to death, but we would still have people dying because they cannot afford to live, and that alone is — in this context of improving humanity — a bad thing.

How do we know that wealth redistribution will not cause the distributors to suffer? To be honest, some people reading this might be offended that this question even has to be asked. Why do the wealthy get to choose who suffers? Nonetheless, I can try give a simple answer: We know that wealth distribution from the top will not cause suffering, because we know that metrics on happiness have a ceiling at an income of around $75k.

So, let us recap what we have established so far:

  • Minimizing suffering, from the framework of humanism, is a moral good.
  • Wealth redistribution would minimize suffering for those suffering the most.
  • Wealth redistribution would not cause any suffering to those who are suffering the least.
  • Selfishness decreases wealth redistribution.

Given these four arguments, we can establish that selfishness is a moral wrong.

As an addendum, I only focused on wealth redistribution, but this one narrow focus is not the only one. There are many ways to be selfish, and many ways to be selfless — such as giving your time to advocacy, activism, or other charity organizations.

Lastly, I made some assumptions in my previous argument, like that the opposite of happiness is suffering, and of course, I chose the context in which to evaluate selfishness: Humanism. If we accept this argument, then what remains is to determine if humanism is what does determine or should determine moral right and wrong. This is much more difficult to determine — but perhaps more fun to talk about?

I would also like to give my own, personalized answer to the question of "Why not be selfish?"

For myself, I often enjoy being generous more than I enjoy being selfish. I think selfishness has an upper boundary on how much it affects happiness and I personally feel that I am hitting that boundary already. I am nourished, housed, with friends, and employed. According to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, I am doing quite well — and this assessment matches my own.

What I have left is self-actualization, and I am not convinced that I should continue to only focus on taking care of myself until I feel fulfilled. In fact, I think the opposite is likely true: being generous is a way, if not the only way, to reaching higher fulfillment.

Reach me on Twitter: @NickOnTheWeb.