Selflessness or altruism means putting the interests of others above yourself. Just as “selfishness” has negative connotations in society of self-interest at the expense of others, “altruism” is often thought of as kind or generous acts for others. This view is wrong. It is wrong because the originator of the term himself, Auguste Comte, meant it to mean precisely what it implies: acting for the sake of others with no thought to oneself.
It is this true original definition of altruism that I am using here, and I will use altruism and selflessness interchangeably.
Selflessness is irrational. It is irrational because it demands that the beneficiary of your actions be others. Does it suggest who these others should be? That is a decision an individual would make for himself based on his personal values. But, since altruism dictates that we should hold our interests or values in no regard when acting, altruism actually states that the personal value of the beneficiary be irrelevant to our action! By this “logic” not only would giving money to a drug-dealing rapist be just as moral as giving money to an orphanage, it would be more moral!
Why is that? It comes down to personal values. To suggest that some people are more worthy than others to benefit from acts of generosity implies that one has made a value judgment oneself in such matters based on a personal evaluation of worth. But acting in accordance with one’s personal values is a SELFISH act. Choosing to help your friend over a stranger is a selfish act. Choosing to save the life of your lover over the life of an enemy is a selfish act. Going to work and spending your hard-earned money on yourself and not giving it to every beggar in the street who asks is a selfish act. Conversely, giving help to an unknown over a friend would be selfless. Giving up the life of your lover so that a hated person could live would be a selfless act. Coming home from work and handing out £50 notes to people you see on the street would be a selfless act. Selfless means “otherness”; it means the defiance of personal values.
Clearly, this is not the sort of moral guide most altruists have in mind when they talk about “selflessness” (although many altruists do, such as the religious), yet that is exactly what their “morality” means, and if they disagree they don’t understand their own moral position.
A perfect example of this self-contradiction is in a recent post by the humanist Ebonmuse:
“Instead, what brings happiness is participation – interaction with the world and exploration of all it has to offer, our relationships to friends and loved ones and a larger community, and selfless labor for the good of others.” (Bold mine)
Notice that our friends, our loved ones, our community, our happiness, our interaction are cited as positive things. Positive for whom? Beneficial for whom? For us! These are selfish values. They are a personal value to us, and we act on them because we derive benefit from them. Yet Ebonmuse also insists that our labour be totally unrelated to personal value! So which is it? Should our actions be selfish or selfless? You cannot have it both ways.
Proponents of “selfless morality” (a contradiction in terms) will fiercely disagree and claim that I am attacking a strawman or twisting their position. But clearly I am not: to use any personal values as a guide to making decisions is a selfish act. Selflessness requires the contradiction of personal values; it requires that one act for the sake of acting, for no personal benefit at all. And if you disagree that this is the correct course of action you should not call yourself an altruist or promote selflessness.
The belief that an act (or anything) is good or bad in itself is intrinsicism. However nothing can be good or bad in itself. “Good” or “bad” provoke the question: good or bad to whom? Which implies that someone or something can make a value judgment concerning the objective effect that something in reality will have in regard to their existence. There is only one thing in existence that can do this: consciousness. Moral value judgments arise because of a consciousness’ relation to reality. This is simply, and self-evidently because, for there to be “good” or “bad” – value or non-value, there must be a valuer.
This personal evaluation of what is beneficial or detrimental to a conscious being has to be performed by that conscious being. By identifying the type of being it is and its relationship to reality, a being can discover what is of value to its life and what is not; what is “good” for its life and what is “bad” – and this is what morality is: a code of values to guide actions. That is why true objective morality is not a duty, or set of rules passed on by authority, or a guidebook invented by man. It is something that can, that has to be, objectively discovered by humans; by each human.
For this reason, morality is a personal matter – it is a guide for each of us how to live our lives. It is not an ethereal magical phenomena that arises through social behaviour; it is not determined by social norm or majority whim or evolutionary instinct.
Since morality is a code of values to guide actions, it is necessary that these values be rationally discovered – otherwise they would not correspond to reality and would therefore be useless as a guide to any action. But selflessness would demand the contradiction of our values. It would demand of us sacrifice.
The morality of altruism is the morality of sacrifice: the giving up of higher values for lower ones; surrendering what is of more value to you for what is of less or none. Just as giving up £100 for £5 is irrational, so is sacrificing your values to non-values. But the irrational cannot be the moral, since it is only moral values that can be a guide in our life. Therefore, selflessness and altruism are positively immoral – they require the irrational nonsensical valueless abandonment of our values for a non-existence supposedly intrinsic immanent “good”.
The sacrifice of values cannot result in happiness, since happiness is the lasting joy that arises from achieving our values. Our values guide our actions, and ultimately every action has a purpose, and our ultimate purpose is: life. There is only one alternative: death. And since selfishly pursuing one’s own values is the moral guide to achieve happiness, selflessness is ultimately the immoral guide to achieving suffering. Rational egoism holds life as the standard. Selflessness’s standard is death.