What is a selfless act? Isn’t it our nature to only act in our own best self-interest?
Si Vales, Valeo
So good to hear from you again after so many years. I hope this correspondence finds you well.
I am not sure that selfless acts have much to do with religion, or with pop-philosophy at all. Regardless of what we have convinced ourselves about our beliefs and ethos, we will never know the answer to questions like these until we are forced to face them. Until then we could speculate, and even stroke our egos about how ethical we might be. But it means nothing until you have been pushed into the realm of the sympathetic nervous system.
This is one hell of a question. Philosophers have been debating it for centuries. And I agree that for the Warrior, his or her death is a constant preoccupation. Furthermore, it causes us to think in more complicated terms what our True Will is. How much of it do we control? How much of it is purely unconscious?
You have a daughter. How would you answer these questions?
Say you are at the lava tubes in Oregon, where people drown every year. Horses have fallen into the river, slid into a tube and have never been seen again.
Your daughter falls in, and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you cannot save her no matter what. Do you jump in after her? Why or why not?
Let’s say the same daughter contracts a disease for which there is no cure, or the cure is decades away. You are a millionaire with ALMOST unlimited resources. Do you spend you fortune trying to prolong her life for as long as possible? Or do you fund research for a cure instead so that other people suffering with the same illness might be saved?
To say that there is no such thing as a selfless act, just because a person also benefits in some way spiritually or emotional does not devalue the experience, the sacrifice or the result. This is how nature has made us. We are hedonistic creatures. We seek out pleasure. So, the nay-sayer, who does not (for whatever physiological reason) receive pleasure from helping someone else, says everything that we do is a selfish act, even though it benefits someone else at one’s own expense. He is right, but this person says it like it is a bad thing.
Now, you might say that in the case of your drowning daughter you’d would know that she wouldn’t want you to give your life if there were absolutely no chance of saving her. And in the case of your sick daughter you could say you know she would want me to put your resources to helping others.
But anything can change the equation. Say that you have a young boy. Your daughter’s brother. Would you still be able to justify not jumping in? Would you be able to live with yourself knowing that your son would forever think you never even tried to help her?
I have asked these questions many times, and you would be surprised by how many people would jump in anyway, because they could not live with themselves if they didn’t at least try to save their daughter from drowning. Or, how many husbands have said that they would give every last penny if it meant one more second of life with their terminally ill wives.
Let’s look at some real-life scenarios where people gave themselves up for their fellows:
On 4 July 1961, the Russian submarine “The Widowmaker.” It has a meltdown at the core, and 3 engineers volunteer to go in there to fix it knowing that they will die. They do it for the comrades. Why did they do it?
Consider Vladimir Shevchenko, a film maker who knowingly filmed his own death at Chernobyl because, in his own words “the world has to know.” Why did he give up his life so that others might know of the dangers of Nuclear Power?
Or Arland D. Williams Jr., who jumped into a frozen river in D.C. after a plane crashed he was one of six people who would have survived had he not passed his turn every time a line was thrown to him to save someone else.
Or the numerous firefighters who have died in Fukishima who went in with full knowledge that it was a death sentence to fight the fire at the towers?
Are these selfish acts? I don’t know. I think that during a life and death situation, the Ego is so wrapped up in its own survival that most people would claw and trample their fellows under foot for one more second of life. The examples above show some mastery over the Ego and their base natures. Some will surely respond by quoting every reference to “the slaves” in The Book of the Law.
So, I think that you are asking the questions that need to be asked, but not sure if we are asking it for the right reasons.
In short, I am unsure if there is such a thing as a purely selfless act. But I would like to think that there are. And the people I have mentioned in this letter, who have accomplished the greatest sacrifice are, in my opinion, Kings. Slaves are the people who knowing better can’t seem to think of anyone other than themselves.
Thank you for the challenging question. This one is going to keep me awake for many nights. I can already tell.