Selflessness in this Monstrous Regiment

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked a question about altruism. I can’t remember the exact words, but she wanted to know if there was such thing as an act of complete selflessness.

I said no.

My answer wasn’t popular with several other responders. Some of those who thought me mistaken gave an example that touched me deeply—one that I found very ironic considering my background. The person suggested that I should think of those in the military; specifically, of soldiers who throw themselves on top of grenades in order to save the lives of their mates.

I continued to say that giving one’s life for another’s was not an act of complete selflessness, especially when referring to a member of the armed forces. It might be an act of love, loyalty, commitment, bravery, efficiency, even of common sense… and of many other things, but not “complete selflessness.” After much discussion, I started wondering if we were just stuck in the muck of superficial semantics. 

The dictionary describes selflessness as “having little or no concern for oneself, especially with regard to fame, position, money, etc.; unselfish.” So does the service member jump on the grenade out of selflessness? 

I had been thinking about the exchange and the dictionary definition for weeks. Looking for answers… Then, while on vacation, I reread Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment, for the umpteenth time, and this quote shaped my feelings into words:

“She could taste metal in her mouth… A slash would be better than a stab. Yes, a good swipe at head height would kill… some mother’s son, some sister’s brother, some lad who’d followed the drum for a shilling and his first new suit… She froze. Down the angle of the path, still as a tree, head bowed, stood Wazzer. As soon as the scout reached Polly’s tree, she’d be seen. She’d have to do it now. Perhaps that’s why men did it. You didn’t do it to save duchesses, or countries. You killed the enemy to stop him killing your mates, that they in turn might save you…” Monstrous Regiment

When I shared the above passage with some of the people who participated in the discussion, one said that there is no connection between “selflessness, killing enemies during war and jumping in front of a grenade to save friends.”

 “See!” I replied. “That’s my point. The person who jumps on the grenade has an interest: saving those she or he cares about.”

At this point, the argument turned into a shade of patriotic socio-political madness that I tend to avoid, so I let it go. Critical thinking can’t survive in a brain-river where the fish is convinced that everything beyond the cage of its skull is either wrong or of no consequence.

I’ve been wrong on many occasions, my Wicked Luvs, but I don’t think this is one of them. So I will borrow from Pixie, and ask: do you believe that there is such thing as an act of complete selflessness? Please elaborate. I’m really curious about this one. Really, really curious…

I refuse to caption this one
and you can’t make me
nope, you cannot
oops, guess I just did
you are so very persuasive, m’Luvs ;-)

38 comments:

  1. Are acts of complete selflessness preferable? I mean, if you sacrificed your life so that someone else lived that would be noble if there were no other solution. But in general, aren't acts of mutual benefit preferable to idealistic self sacrifice?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I completely agree. The idea of someone given their lives when a different action can help the situation is monstrous.

      Delete
  2. I remember this conversation, and if you say that particular act isn't selfless, very few people are in a position to argue.
    I think the trouble with "selfless acts" is that people generally associate it with putting yourself/themselves into a life threatening situation, and the argument that if doing something for someone else makes you feel good your not being selfless is unfair. People often do things with out expecting reward, to me this qualifies as selfless. If the eventual outcome brings happiness then that is a good thing. So my examples ..."She selflessly gave her friend the last cream cake." (good thing) "she selflessly ate the last cream cake to save her friend from gaining weight." (open to interpretation lol) :D XXX

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is one of the reasons why I said that there is an issue of semantics here. What makes things difficult is the "complete" before the "selflessness." Absolutism tend to be wrong. To be completely selfless involves that the person acting gets nothing out of it, and in that situation, I don't believe complete selflessness can be true.

      I'm so eating the cake. ;-D

      Delete
  3. Is love selfish? I guess, it is...very much. So sacrificing yourself or your life for someone you love cannot be selfless...I think. :)

    I honestly belive, that it's a matter of definition, according to the dictionary you quoted - 'little or no' -, selflessness could actually be a thing...but! Let's say you donate a cookie to a starving little girl on the street. Instead of eating it yourself, of course. She doesn't have much to trade for your cookie, only her thanks, which, at most will make you feel good about yourself, but nothing more...It seems legit, right? But you have to take your - the giver's - thoughts into account as well: Did you give her the cookie because she needed it or because you wanted to do something good to make yourself look better? If so, was it intentional or subcounscious?

    Some people only look at the act itself - which is, of course, positive, a starving child got to eat after all -, but I belive, what truly counts is what's beyond the act. The intentions beyond the act.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love this cookie. And repeat what I replied to Gina. It is the "complete" that makes things shaky.

      Now we need to stop talking about cookies or I will have to run an extra mile today!

      Delete
  4. Hmm, I had to really think about this one. Does one ever do anything without expecting something in return? My answer is "I don't think so" Even if the act (throwing yourself on a grenade) is deemed selfless by those saved, etc; its not. That person who through themselves on the grenade is expecting to save lives, the mom or dad who take a bullet for their child is expecting to save that child's life.

    Now don't get me wrong, I'm married to a LEO(Law Enforcement Officer) and also have several LEO's in my family as well as firefighters and former military men & women. I have seen and heard story's of incredible bravery, we have even lost two friends and fellow LEO's in the line of duty; but I would not consider those brave acts selfless either, because they were doing what they did to protect/save another.

    This is just my opinion and I know others may not agree, but that's the great thing about blogging being able to give our opinion and to hear the opinions of others.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey, I agree with you! look at my comment... :-)

      Delete
    2. I totally agree. I also will add that I believe that bravery, loyalty and commitment is often confused with selflessness.

      Delete
  5. Magaly, I agree with you... The one who exudes altruistic characteristics may have those characteristics on the surface.. but let's face it, I am sure they enjoy the glory of their 'selfless act'... don't u think? I will admit that there are times when I will give a gift to someone because I know they may have seen it in a store, or if I know they are feeling down and that it would make them happy... Sure, it lifts their spirits,but in turn, my spirits are lifted as well!. so its a double edge sword as they say...
    BTW, Chrome is driving me nuts.. The pull down arrow to see posts, overview, comments is not working.. It only works on IE!! this is the worse update Chrome has done!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indeed. With this case, I've always given the example of loving another person. Many people say that love is the most unselfish emotion/act. The comment always makes me blink, for I think that love is not all that selfless. How many times do we say, "I would do anything for my dad, my child, my brother... because I love him, her"? We just don't do things for people for no reason. There is something there, always. Even if it's just, I will do it because I don't want them to suffer.

      About Chrome, I've been using Firefox and it works like a wonder. I still use Chrome for a thing or two, but I'm always glaring at it when I need to navigate.

      Delete
    2. "Glaring"? well, no wonder the options don't work for me! lol.... as far as your topic, its human nature... we humans will always mask what is real, even if 90% of the act comes off 'selfless'.. tho I think we who think we give out of our heart are less narcissistic about it.. *wink, wink* lol...the narcissis is just more blatant...

      Delete
  6. Selfless....without self entered into the situation. Hmmmm???? No, I don't believe so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Selfless.... without self" is just less. You are the wisest of them all, my Oma!

      Delete
  7. I read this after seeing an article on my Yahoo homepage about an 8-yr-old boy dying in a fire after saving six of his relatives. He'd gone back in for another of them, and was found next to his grandfather's body. He saved two other children, both younger than him. Complete selflessness? I don't know about the definitions and semantics, but in this boy's case I don't know if they matter, either. He saved six family members. Ulterior motives? He loved them and cared more about them surviving than his own life. I don't know if this counts for your definition of selfless, but it gets as close as anything I've ever seen. Here's the link to the full article, if you want (there's not much to it, though): http://news.yahoo.com/8-year-old-boy-saves-six-in-blaze-before-dying-while-trying-to-save-another-221718265.html

    I think, in the end, acts of true selflessness may be so rare in the world today that we no longer know what they look like when they happen. We just don't know how to recognize them. I don't think that the person throwing themselves on the literal or figurative grenade is really thinking about what he or she gets in return for saving someone. They're in the moment, and the person(s) they're saving is more important to them than their own life.

    My Dragon is as close as I see anyone come to true, complete selflessness. His family has treated him like a complete and utter waste of their time for his entire life. Mother, Father, Sister, and 2 Brothers have all engaged in using him for their own ends, lying about him to make themselves look and/or feel better, abused him in more than one way, and he still continues to do everything he can to take care of them and help them. He doesn't expect anything in return; they have already shown him that he will get nothing from them. I'll be honest, he and I have had fights about it. I hate seeing them take advantage of him. I hate seeing them walk all over him. But he told me once that to do otherwise would be to cease being who he is, the man I fell in love with, who takes care of people because he believes it's right. He doesn't do it for them because he wants recognition or wants to get something back... he does it because that is just who he is.

    We can debate the philosophical and ethical ramifications of the word "selfless" all year long, but I know I've seen people do things that get as close to counting as anyone ever will. I like to believe it can and does happen, however rarely. I try to have faith in humanity, because so few of us still do. In the end, I don't believe the details of defining the word matter; it's the intent in the heart of the being who's committing the act that counts. And that, only the one acting truly can know for sure. In that sense, it's between that person and whatever god he or she answers to (or doesn't, depending).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The boy in this article was a strong, brave and giving soul. I hope he is in paradise running and being loved by everyone.

      About the post, it is not selflessness that it's being discussed, but "complete selflessness." Sacrifice/giving for no obvious reason, expectation and pretty much feeling nothing. I don't know the boy in the example, I haven't even read the article, but I would almost bet that his heart was full of many emotions--love, determination, the knowledge that he might not make it, but others would get the chance to live--I don't think that's complete selflessness. It's a wonderful show of love and humanity, but there is something to be gained.

      I don't agree with you when you said that we have forgotten what it means to be selfless or what it looks like. I just think that every now and again, we let our emotions blind us from what something really is. I'm not sure if you read the comment of Mantan Calaveras, the first comment, I think those words say exactly what I feel.

      Delete
    2. I just finished reading Petoskystone's comment, and I think she and Mantan Calaveras have helped bring out exactly what I was looking for, but seemed to be missing the right words.

      Delete
    3. Then I misunderstood. Sorry about that. I think I do get the definitions now... "complete selflessness" as you describe it, would indeed be monstrous, as there would be no goal, no point to it. And if there's not a point to one's actions, no reason for them, then one becomes the worst of all: an unthinking, unfeeling being...

      Delete
    4. It is exactly what I was thinking. In order to perform an act of complete selflessness a person would have to be... well, not a person. "Unthinking, unfeeling person..." so sad, isn't it?

      Delete
  8. I find that 'altruistic' is used mostly by those focusing on the surface of action(s). Many of those same folk become highly indignant when encouraged to look below the surface & use critical thinking. An act involving self (I did it because it's the right thing to do, involves pleasuring the self) doesn't automatically make such an act less relevant or positive.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You. Complete. Me. You and Mantan Calaveras. And Oma, and so many others. This is what I love about blogging. I could have spent a few more weeks thinking about this by myself, but when we share our thoughts, there are always a few good people who can close their eyes to the emotions for a bit, and she what's there. We do, indeed, do things with the intention of "pleasuring the self," even if we don't even know it. Can you imagine a world in which people are conscious of that and pursue it, too? A world in which everyone felt good about helping others? What a dream... I want it.

      Delete
    2. I was going to attempt something witty and profound (alright, it'd come out more silly from me than anything else) but I think you've got the essence of it right there Petoskystone.

      Delete
    3. I second (or is that third?) Kestril's thoughts.

      Delete
  9. To me the logic is simple and elegant. Whatever "I" do, "I" have decided to do it. "I" is not selfless.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are one wise lady.... :-) (see I didn't mention I)....tho I was smart enough to recognize your wisdom.... (what a vicious circle, eh, Mags?) :-)

      Delete
    2. Wit and humor, my day is now complete. And yes, there is an "I" somewhere in that "me," I'm an Aries after all. :-D

      Delete
  10. There is probably an instinct that kicks in when someone sacrifices themselves for the good of the community. Probably goes back to prehistoric days.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've thought about that, too, Francie. And I think it's absolutely true. Most healthy humans beings would instinctually do what they at the sight of another getting hurt. I like that. It makes me more hopeful about what lies in the heart of us as a race.

      Delete
  11. You always bring up things, that really make me think! I think that's a good thing ;o) After reading what you wrote and what other other people wrote, I think I agree with you Magaly ;o) But, then I was thinking about when a mother or father does anything for their child? They are not thinking of themselves. I know my mom always said, she would do anything for her children and I believe she would and she has!
    I love the picture of you!!!! I love your face!!
    Big Hugs ;o)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yay! For I love when we think together. ;-D

      I think mothers and fathers have a very good motive for sacrificing for their children: love. Would they do the same for someone else's child?

      I love my face in the picture, too. It still makes me laugh, lol!

      Delete
    2. Good question!! You got me thinking again!!!

      Delete
  12. I feel like anything I might have added to this has already been said. I agree with you Magaly, Eliora pretty much wrote what I would have.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Eliora is a wise one, isn't she?

      Delete
  13. Being a Libra, I usually can't decide on anything and prefer to sit on the fence.

    Is a truly selfless act being performed by a person who gives up their life to save a complete stranger (no love involved) and there's no-one else around to see, or ever know of, their great deed (no fame involved)?

    An interesting topic dear Magaly x

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In this case, I think it's very smart to choose Libra, lol!

      Delete
  14. I'm loving your blog so far - and on this note, I have to say I think I agree with you about there not being such a thing as total selflessness. At least not in most cases. People have all kinds of reasons they do things, and regardless of motive, I don't think anyone every does anything truly out of altruism. Nice ideal, but it doesn't exist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am very glad you like it here. The more the merrier, you know? Selflessness is a very complex term, and I think we would spend a lot of time trying to figure out what a person means by it. And it is possible that after everybody gives their definition we might find that we weren't talking about the same thing. Words and meanings, so very delicious. ;-)

      Delete