Friday, 1 September 2017


I was recently asked whether I thought anyone could really be selfless or if there was always an ulterior motive behind any apparent selfless action. For instance, the person does whatever it might be to feel good about himself or herself or else to look good in the eyes of others. You could say this is rather a cynical attitude but the sad thing is that my questioner was only 15 years old and, if cynical, made so before her time by the prevailing atheistic/materialistic culture in which she had grown up. For after all if we are just the end result of a lot of random permutations of material forces there is no room for genuine goodness. Any altruism must ultimately have some survival motive at the bottom of it. True goodness requires a real individual really putting someone else first without any thought of recompense or accumulation of prestige or any kind of personal advantage, material or psychological, whatsoever.

I replied that yes, of course, I thought there was such a thing as real goodness or real selflessness even though much that passes by that name does indeed belong to the categories cited above. I gave the example of a young boy I knew who asked that his pocket money be given to a homeless person whose plight had clearly touched his heart. He was far too young to be acting from the self-conscious motives we have outlined. His gesture was spontaneous and came from true compassion. And it is these words I think that give the clue to the solution of our little problem. Compassion and the heart. I can't see how either of these mean anything in a materialistic conception of the universe other than as words inherited from a spiritual understanding that remain through habit and custom but don't mean what they say at all. They would just be prettifications of fundamentally base motivations, the putting of a fair mask on an ugly face.

Human beings are fallen. We are spiritual beings in animal bodies which partly explains our pull in two different directions, but there is something else going on too which is the spiritual sickness to which we are all heir. This egotism, for that is what it is, has the tendency to corrupt all our thoughts, feelings and actions. But there is also the truth within us by which I mean the memory of the word of God, a kind of whispering of something good and true and pure which derives from a higher condition than that of the self-centred material being we usually consider ourselves to be. I can't dissociate this from the image of Christ which image I believe is in us all, Christian or non-Christian alike, placed there or, perhaps better put, activated since the Incarnation.

I'm not saying that selflessness was not possible before Christ's advent but I do think it became markedly more possible after that. This is just an intuition but the highest selflessness is surely self-sacrifice in love and this was not demonstrated by any spiritual teacher before Christ even if there are hints of it in myth and some of the Jataka tales of the previous lives on the  Buddha. But the actual demonstration of the sacrifice of self in the purest, most disinterested love was only fully given by Christ and it was this that anchored the image (in the Platonic sense of a living archetype) of selflessness in the world and made it accessible to all.

So I said to my interlocutor that most certainly real selflessness, without any ulterior motive, is possible. Fakes and forgeries only come about because the genuine article exists. The existence of these fakes and forgeries may lead one to doubt that there is anything true beyond them but without a real goodness whose virtue they can misappropriate they would not even have the illusion of goodness to begin with.

And this young lady believed what I said because she recognised the truth of it in her own heart, never mind what the clever theoreticians had told her.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I suspect that this question was wrongly framed, and that this was a consequence of the prevailing modern ethic (a kind of utilitarianism) which reduces morality to feelings, and cannot conceptualise it in terms of right and wrong, good and evil - and motivations.

What makes an action good is that it is motivated to do good, and right - it doesn't really matter what 'feelings' this evokes in the person; no doubt they may be very complex.

It is bad motivations (desire to look impressive, manipulate people etc) that make an action 'selfish'.

Aside, this exact question is very amusingly parodied in a very funny book by Michael Frayn called The Tin Men; where one of the characters is trying to make an ethical robot (a very crude robot, this being the early 1960s).

William Wildblood said...

Bruce, I think what troubled this person was that she had thought through to the implications of a materialistic, Darwinian type universe, the one she had been told was the real one, and perceived that real goodness was actually impossible in that. She intuitively felt that real goodness must exist or we live in a nightmare world in which everything is false but couldn't square that up with her intellectual indoctrination (let's call it by the right word).

As you say, it's motivation that matters but in a genuinely materialistic universe all motivation must finish in selfishness whatever the outer coatings it may have.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - That was what I intended to imply - so often we need to go back to basic assumptions; yet in the heat of argument or the pressure to provide a quick answer - how seldom we do so. Yet when the standard assumptions are materialistic, all the real answers sound feeble.