If we ignore our self-interest, can it be called a selfless act. Only a few of us help and can even die for others, without any motive. Only a few can willingly sacrifice their lives for strangers. Can one remain selfless if his or her survival is not possible by remaining so? Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, for a society to function, its members must perform services for each other. The problem, he envisaged was that those who work for the good of a group are often at a disadvantage compared with the ones who work for the good of themselves. How then do “prosocial” behaviours evolve? What is that hidden motive that prompts our generous deeds?

Prosocial behaviour has been explained by the theory of kin selection. It says that  individuals  willingly  act  to  benefit  those  they  are  related  to.  The individuals are not so eager to pass on the benefits to those who are distantly related, or not related. E O Wilson says that this human behaviour is better explained by group selection, rather than kin selection. According to group  selection theory, the primary competition is between groups of individuals, who band together to build, defend, and provision a nest. It is in the nest, Wilson says that division of labour evolves, with some venturing outside to forage and others staying behind to care for the young.  Group loyalty, according to Wilson, is at the root of both some of our finest and  darkest  impulses  —  our  willingness  to  sacrifice  for  others  and  the xenophobia that underlies aggression against outsiders. Groups  consisting  of  altruistic  individuals  beat  groups  consisting  of selfish individuals. Some find Wilson’s logic hard to accept. They believe the other side of the story, which says that evolution by natural selection should benefit the selfish members of the same group more than altruistic members.

Darwin wrote,  “High  standard  of  morality  gives  but  a  slight  or  no  advantage  to  each individual man and his children over other men of the same tribe.” Darwin saw the solution of the problem at the group level. He said that a tribe with a high  standard  of  morality (such  as  spirit  of  patriotism,  courage  and sympathy), willingly ready to help one another, and for the common good,  will be victorious over other tribes that do not possess such a high standard of morality.

The  question  remains:  What  is  a  selfless  act?  Is  it  ignoring  one’s  own interests at the cost of others? If we are interested in our own payoff by playing fair game, is it also a selfish act? If an act has some purpose, can’t it be selfless?

It is said that a purpose presupposes a mind that conceived it. This means that  one can’t become selfless unless one can conceive a selfless act, and also act on it. It is true that we are ruled by cold logic. It is also true that we are ruled by pure emotions. We are not always one sided. We also value fair outcomes even  if  that  doesn’t  benefit  us.  The  big  problem  is  that  we  are  more concerned  about  what  others  think  about  us  than  what  we  think  about ourselves. A consequence of this problem is that we often do what we are supposed to be doing, and not what we should be doing. This is one of the reasons a selfless act is easy to conceive, but difficult to implement.

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