A Value in Itself
A common mistake: actions aimed at building a better society (“better” as deemed by the actors) are not self interested. This is not the case because if they were not we would have a contradiction – i.e. one cannot make something “better” without pursuing self interest since “better” is an assessment that originates from one’s values – that is: what one finds valuable.
Technically, you can only make a fully selfless act when you lose control over yourself, when you are no longer in charge of either your body or your mind. By this definition, a drunk may be selfless, so may a madman or a restrained person since they will be “acting” against their self interest. This is not how most people use the words however.
In common language the distinction between selfish and selfless rests in the effects of an action. Selfish actions are generally those in which one party benefits to the detriment of others. Selfless actions are the opposite: a small sacrifice (or, more honestly: an investment) provides more value to others than it does to you.
Since the terms have no precise meaning, they are generally abused. Self interested actions that do no harm to others may still be labelled selfish by envious parties. Moralizers attempt to establish selflessness as an unqualified virtue – that is, doing good for others without any regard for oneself is a good in itself – which they in turn use to enrich themselves – e.g. donate money to our cause because doing so is a selfless act, irrespective of whether or not you support the cause.
Now, this value in itself attaches itself to other evaluations. An act for the good of one’s colleagues, company, country or society is deemed selfless since one is clearly aiding more than yourself. But this idea is clearly wrong. For example, if you were ambushed by a group of bandits each demanding an equal share of your wallet’s contents, then the act of giving out the money to preserve your life would certainly not be a “selfless” act. Even though you are giving out money to a number of parties other than oneself, your motivations for doing so are clearly self interested. One is simply paying for what one values.
By the same logic, an act aimed at bettering society is simply an act of paying for what you deem valuable. It is not unselfish to work to improve the house in which one lives, just as it is not unselfish to wish to improve the industry one operates in or the society in which one lives. The only difference is scale – something that grows with knowledge – that is: a deeper understanding of the extent of one’s actions. As one gains more information about the world and acquires deeper political and philosophical insights, as ignorance is replaced with knowledge, the scope of one’s actions necessarily grows in size, the rationale for one’s actions begins to encompass long-term effects, not just short-term profits, moving those actions from the sphere of shortsighted selfishness onto the framework of a grander, “selfless” vision.
It need not be said that there is nothing wrong with self interested actions, that the presence of self interest somehow makes the action less virtuous – such ideas are only useful for those wishing to maintain the illusion of selflessness as a value in itself. A better way to think of selflessness is as a common purpose. Common purpose is built on shared values. It is not mandated by an ideology you do not share, nor forced on you by a foggy formulation of virtue. The only way to grow the number of people who share your values is through education. If people don’t share your values, forcing them to accept them won’t change their motivations, it will only make them unhappy and resentful. Don’t tell people to be selfless – show them why they should.