Is there really a selfless good deed?

Somebody I know likes to donate food and money to homeless people quite frequently and when I ask why, his reply is “To get God’s blessings.”

Which got me thinking.

There is a lot of benevolence around, but just how much of it is selfless? Politicians (or even some celebs for the matter) when they do any charitable work make it a point to call the media and get it telecast or written about in the newspapers to make people see just how “good” they are. These are the good deeds done with an ulterior motive in mind and yes, while the help is not going to waste, isn’t it all just a farce?

The other kind of a good deed is the one done to achieve personal gratification! And I’m not an exception to this. When I look back now, all the good I’ve done is somehow interlinked with what I expected it to make me feel. As I’m writing this, I just remembered that there was an episode of FRIENDS dealing with the same topic!

The third kind of a good deed is done to accumulate good karma! It happens, right? You probably were callous or mean or not at your best in some dealings, so you do a good deed to balance it out! Yay for the karma theory!

And the final kind is of course the popular quid pro quo. You perform a good deed because you expect something in return.  

With all this going around, I realized that true altruism is actually very rare and only very few people have such a selfless heart. I’m yet to exhibit such instincts anyway.

What is your take on this? D’you think I’m wrong or you have a different opinion? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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12 thoughts on “Is there really a selfless good deed?

  1. Love friends and their philosophies! Lol….I do believe if I put good things out into the world, good will be returned to me but I do good because it makes me happy and feel good too know I did something for someone who may be struggling…..is that selfish?

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  2. Excellent post. 🙂 And good questions. I remember first coming across this query while reading the old Dragonlance books. Raistlin, the weaker, sickly, spiteful brother of twins, turned on his brother Caramon, who was strong, good-hearted, selfless, etc., and accused him of protecting him and helping him only because it made him feel good about himself. I remember pausing and thinking, “Hm. Good point to ponder.” Because even when someone “does good because it is good to do”, most of the time they are receiving an emotional benefit. Most don’t go into the deed *intending* to puff themselves up as an angel (and many are unaware they’re doing it), but there is, ironically, such a thing as being proud that you’re humble. This blistering argument from Raistlin made me see “heroic” Caramon in a whole new light in the books. Because when Raistlin’s magic made him very powerful, to the point where he no longer needed Caramon’s protection, his “heroic” brother went into a deep depression. Protecting his weaker sibling is what made Caramon happy.

    So, even if we genuinely want to help others, we do get an emotional reward out of it. When we do something that makes us happy, it is a form of self-gratification. Sometimes pride and happiness in being humble can be amplified and perverted into self-righteousness. It is possible to want to help others so that you are *seen* as a helper, in which case it’s obvious that you’re more interested in your own piety and ego than anything else.

    The karmic take on good deeds is also a false perception of reality: there is no such thing as a karmic bank. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. These events are random. That’s life. … I know of a woman who fed and sheltered the homeless, but ended up being murdered by one of them. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to take care of our less fortunate because murderers exist in ALL social classes. It simply means nothing in life can be that easily predicted or insured. Grant it, treating others with kindness and doing the “right” thing usually minimizes the damage we can do in this world. (Because treating people like doormats and making bad decisions usually comes with bad consequences. Some people call that karma, but I call it common sense to realize that if I hit you, you might hit me back.) Sometimes people will remember your kindness and return it. But “good returned for good” and “bad returned for bad” is not a guarantee. It’s an overly simplified explanation for the true complexity of life. The randomness of good fortune or bad fortune must be included as a “chance” element when deciding which paths to take. No one can control fortune by saving it up for a rainy day.

    Which takes us to the third approach: “I scratch your back; you scratch mine.” This isn’t good deeds: it’s business. Business is a give and take agreement in which both parties gain some benefit. The difference here is that it is contracted. Because when it’s *assumed* that the other person owes you something, that leads to problems. For example, if a guy buys a girl flowers, dinner, and a movie on a date, and then they go back to his place, and he expects her to have sex with him for being so “nice” to her, the guy is making a business deal. He’s operating on the premise that he spent money entertaining her, so now she owes him entertainment in return. If they both agree to this deal, it’s no big deal. They both walk away happy with their deal. But if she’s is in the dark about his expectations, this is where many rapes occur because the expectations were not based on mutual consent. Sorry for the extreme example there, but even on a business level, perhaps especially on a business level, if you expect a reward for doing someone a favor, those expectations should be expressed … not assumed. They’re *not* good deeds if you feel like someone owes you because you were “nice” to them.

    I would agree that true altruism is impossible, because we are ultimately incapable of experiencing life as anyone or anything other than ourselves. But I think most people operate on all three of the above behaviors to some extent … and I think that’s a good thing. Human nature is such that most of us need to feel like we’re making a difference in someone else’s life. Banking on good behavior is smarter than doing whatever you want regardless of consequences. And when it is clear what both parties want, we are less likely to be disappointed or frustrated when someone else doesn’t fulfill our expectations. When we treat people the way *we want* to be treated (which is a selfish act by nature), I think that’s about as compassionate and respectful as most humans can hope to be.

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    • Omg your comments usually rival my posts 🙂 Great food for thought and agreed with everything up there!
      You couldn’t be more truer when you said “there’s something as being proud that you’re humble”.

      As for the Karmic bank, I hate this life philosophy that gets passed around that “if you do good, good will happen to you”. And then there’s the pseudo-spiritual talk like “positive energy” and shit like that!

      Your final comment is the ultimate say on this. We do like to feel that we’re making a difference in someone else’s life. But what I’ve noticed is that this emotional gratification is not extended to non-living things. Like, you feel good when you help a needy person or save a stray dog from the street, but the same amount of satisfaction doesn’t arise out of protecting our environment – like let’s say not littering or polluting a river. We see this as a responsibility instead. Curious, isn’t it?

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      • Heh, Thanks. 🙂 Well, you wrote a very thought-provoking post. And I love discussions that make me think.

        I think what’s interesting about this kind of topic is that it boils down to idealisms and a choice between the individual versus the greater good. A person who cares more about the individual is more likely to appear directly selfish, whereas the person who cares more about the greater good is more likely to appear indirectly selfish or unselfish. But both receive personal gratification and happiness from pursuing whichever “Ism” they feel is the priority. (Be it social causes, religions and gods, plants and animals, or even philosophies.) It’s easier to see the direct selfishness of a politician who feeds the hungry in an election year to win votes or the person who refuses to waste time recycling cans to save spotted owls because her Jesus is coming back with his New Kingdom so it’s nonsense to worry about deforestation and global warming. (Supporting or not supporting a cause can be directly selfish.) But it’s harder to see the intrinsic desire to want to improve the world for the greater good as also being selfish. And yet it is. (Supporting or not supporting a cause can be indirectly selfish.)

        The person who genuinely wants to alleviate someone else’s hunger, the person who genuinely wants to clean up the earth, and the person who genuinely believes/ disbelieves that religions are right/ wrong are all indirectly selfish because their “-isms”, their causes and beliefs, are what makes them happy, makes them feel justified in their behavior and lifestyles, and boosts their self-worth in terms of feeling they are the voice of reason in a crazy world. Sometimes they even benefit directly through practical application: free, healthy food for those in need today means healthier people with fewer medical issues and lower medical bills tomorrow (less welfare taxes and lower medical expenses as a nation), cleaning up the water supply for the fish means cleaner water for humans (less mercury and other crap in your own water tap), and opposing religious or political violence and prejudice might eventually lead to better laws for human rights (perhaps for a relative or friend if not yourself).

        I think in the end, regardless of whatever tangible or intangible rewards motivate us to do what we do, we’re stuck on this planet together with nowhere else to go. So “doing good” usually yields better results for more people than “doing bad”. But “good vs. bad” are also up to interpretation. Some people believe shoving their religion down your throat is “good” because they’re saving your soul or cleansing the world of evil. And some people believe that any behavior or lifestyle beyond traditional mainstream culture is “bad” simply because it’s not a majority demographic. (“Normal” really means “majority”.) So, “doing good” or “looking out for one another” is usually the wiser and more compassionate option, for both others and ourselves. (I might add here that perhaps a better way to distinguish between “good” and “bad” might be to ask ourselves if what we’re doing is helpful or harmful, rather than leaving it to a strict set of man-made morality rules. If your rules are hurting someone, it’s time to rethink your morality codes.) And yet, even in discussing this, we gain personal satisfaction and pride in thinking we can simplify the world’s problems enough to actually solve them. Aaaahhh, philosophy, what slippery, tricksy hobbitses you are. 😉

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      • Maybe we’re asking a wrong question altogether. Maybe we need to start this discussion with an assumption that nobody is good just for the sake of being good and there’s always something that they get back in return even if they don’t realize it. And it eventually helps that we’re that way no matter how selfish/unselfish we are in the process. Loved reading your deep analysis of this intricate subject!
        As for the morals, yes, I would like people to see how hurtful their “good” is and not just basing them on some archaic writings in a holy book. We just cannot live based on these rigid principles of life but that’s a whole different discussion altogether 🙂

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  3. I agree that there is really no selfless good deed. I think most people do good deeds to feel good about themselves. You have already covered this category (achieve personal gratification). In the past few months, I have been watching ‘FRIENDS’ series,especially some episodes, over and over again. I forgot the episode with this conversation. Will watch the series again 🙂

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  4. This was a very thought-provoking post Uday and I have to say that I agree with you, up to a point. As much as I do think that ‘good’ deeds can’t be carried out completely ‘selflessly’ I do think that there are people out there that do have a pure heart and somehow manage to achieve this satisfaction with no personal gain in mind. That being said, I think that because we’re only ever exposed to the people who do charity to promote themselves as having a ‘selfless’ nature that we hardly think about the people who do it, but keep it hidden. It’s sad that we’ve got this way of thinking that any celebrity willing to partake in charity would do it ‘selfishly.’ I don’t even know if this makes sense, hahaha 😂😂😂

    – Ainsworth, Xx 😊

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    • Well on the surface it can seem like some people are truly altruistic but there’s always something that they get out of it. A ‘personal gain’ doesn’t just have to mean a physical benefit, it can mean an emotional gratification at best too. Have you read Melody’s comments to this post? She explains this nicely!

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