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In the words of Joey Tribbiani “There is no unselfish good deed”. When people help others, they often benefit themselves as well, which gives rise to the question: do these benefits disqualify their good deeds from being truly altruistic? Well, scientifically speaking, an MRI scan of the brain revealed that while performing an altruistic act, our brain’s ‘reward system’ is activated which makes us feel good about ourselves. Henceforth, the mere emotional satisfaction that we get from doing good has led us to believe that indeed, there is no such thing as a selfless good deed.
Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, believed that true altruism could not be passed down through generations. His theories of natural selection claimed that all creatures, be it humans or animals, only perform tasks which benefit their own survival, and thus, some degree of selfishness is present in every action they perform. This may be true for humans, however the behavior of honey bees provides a challenge to his theory: on the surface, it may seem like the bees sting the predator to protect the queen bee; however, a closer look into this phenomenon only brings us to the bitter truth, that no altruistic task is inherently selfless—the bees are protecting their own genes by attacking the predator.
As humans we are not innately selfish, but we are built to feel good about ourselves when we help others. I believe our ethical and moral compass, which in most cases is inclined towards God, is what makes us want to pursue good. Say, you help a homeless person financially or you donate to a charity. You may be inclined to believe in the apparent selflessness of your generosity, but this very feeling of righteousness and fulfillment is what diminishes the ‘selfless’ aspect of it, since it may or may not be associated with, for example, the belief of getting a reward for your good deeds in the hereafter. The way I see it, whether it is the fear of God, or the thought of heaven that drives us to help others, we tend to use good deeds as a way to get closer to Him, which is one of the reasons it is classified as a selfish act.
Society today, no matter how cruel it gets, symbolizes good deeds as acts of heroism. Humans are altruistic merely because they conform to social constructs; performing good deeds fuels our sense of self as bystanders begin to associate philanthropic values with us, which ultimately satisfies us from within.
A man performing countless good deeds would be deemed infallible by most; this trust and respect that develops in unison to the man’s good deeds is subjectively worth more than any reward. And yet once again, the man received something in return for his good actions.
Either way, there are two silver linings to this dark cloud: although we are rewarded one way or another by performing an altruistic act, it still remains up to the individual whether or not to perform it. Secondly, in the end, does it really even matter if it is selfish or selfless? As long as it is helping others, why should we question it?
Still, optimistic individuals like myself, tend to cling onto the hope that somewhere out there in this oh-so cruel world, a truly selfless good deed exists. Whether you sense it in a mother’s devotion to her child, or in the helpful hand of a friend, I believe that selfless good deeds exist; we just have to look hard enough to spot them.