Greedy Goblin

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Logical proof: selfishness is better than selflessness

For years I've been preaching about ignoring the leeching morons and slackers and spend our resources on ourselves and the surplus on "big" goals instead of on lesser people. I've posted countless research and examples how recipients of help abuse and waste it. However I lacked a simple and elegant proof that selfless help of others is wrong. Now I have it.

What is selfishness? The actions of Adam are aimed to serve the needs and wishes of Adam.
This can only be wrong if serving the needs and wishes of Adam is wrong. If it's not wrong, then Adam is right to serve them.

What is selflessness? The actions of Bob are aimed to serve the needs and wishes of Adam.
However we already established that serving the needs and wishes of Adam is wrong, so Bob is wrong to do it.

I can't see why no one (me neither) noticed the paradox earlier: if Adam is wrong to serve Adam, then everyone else must also be wrong if they serve Adam. Claiming that selfishness is bad, but selflessness is good, is claiming that everyone should serve Adam, except Adam which is nonsense.

If we accept that serving Adam is bad, then selfishness is the least bad form to do it, as only his own effort is wasted on serving Adam, while in case of selflessness multiple people can (and often do) waste their effort on Adam.


Eaten by a Grue said...

First off, I think selfishness and selflessness must be defined. Everyone is at least part selfish and part selfless. Everyone must tend to some of their own needs at some point, as we do not have others catering to our every need. Stopping for a meal is technically selfish, but no one will chew and swallow for you. And surely everyone occasionally opens the door for another or does some other kindness that results in no benefit to oneself.

So, let's take selfishness first. So I think when we talk about selfishness that is worthy of being frowned upon, we are talking about extreme selfishness - a person who is almost entirely focused on self-benefit and gives little, if any, thought for the welfare of others.

The point of view you seem to miss is the scaled benefit of mass cooperation. Technically, it would be rational for a person's self interest to steal everything he could steal and get away with. However, if everyone had this view, the burden on everyone in society to secure every possession to the highest degree possible would be astounding. And probably a quarter of more of the population would need to be dedicated to law enforcement, and could we even trust the law enforcers? I submit that society would quickly collapse as everyone tried to exploit their fellow man to the utmost degree.

This is just one example of a mass benefit of a degree of collective selflessness. There are many others.

On a final note, I really cannot follow your argument. If you exhibit selflessness in a way that helps someone who clearly is not deserving of any help, that is clearly a misguided action. Selflessness is only generally praised when it is aimed at deserving causes.

Jim L said...

Like most of your "proofs", this requires a person to ignore certain events.

For example, why if it is right to serve Adam but Adam lacks the resources/time/skills to serve himself?

daniel said...

ok, so adam is a convicted chgild molester and bob spends his free time in a social project that helping/therapising ppl like adam.
selflessness is not really the action of helping an individual to fullfill it's personal needs, but to help/work for a common goal of society.

anyway, "Claiming that selfishness is bad, but selflessness is good" ...
if you make statements like these, you should hand a quote, or something similiar, because otherwise it is that you just made up some statement, claimed that it is common sense, and constructed a theory in your own favor around it - i understand that that is common practice in nowadays science culture, but nonetheless, it is anything but scientific.

maxim said...

Where exactly have we established that serving the needs of Adam is wrong?

At some point you say "but earlier we established", but i don't see where you establish that. You propose a hypothetical scenario in how selfishness could be wrong, but nobody is saying that selfishness is wrong.

Ultimately, you are making two mistakes

1) you are trying to solve a social issue on individual level. Thus you are missing a metric ton of emergent phenomena that simply do not manifest on the level of individual transactions

2) you are implying that selfishness and selflessness cannot be combined. However, they combine rather easily if a person understands his/her self as a part of a larger group of people that he is serving. In that scenario selfless actions lead to selfish benefits and selfish actions can create selfless positive outcomes

In other words, your approach is only valid for people like you, who have determined not to be a part of any larger whole, ever. It is not valid for people who have determined otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Look up reciprocal altruism.

In general I'd probably say "Ya kind of". I mean the argument is correct logically, but it assumes that selfless people help selfish people, which doesn't make much sense most of the time. For example, Jill helps out Sally, and Sally helps out Jill, but both Sally and Jill avoid Bill, who's a selfish jerk. Realistically you end up with clusters of people behaving selflessly towards other people who are also behaving selflessly towards other people who are behaving selflessly, and so on.

Presumptivly I will say that, of course it is correct that when Jill helps Bill to gank her by not fitting a tank on her Skiff, that Jill is acting wrongly, but Jill's wrongness is not somehow imparted to her by the wrongness of Bill's action, it's a thing that she has generated all her own.

Anonymous said...

the selfless people can just help each other while denying help to selfish ones which kills your argument.

Also this comes most likely from back when farm villages where status quo and cooperation without any contracts increased survival chances. The ones not cooperating where the "selfish asshole" because they made life harder for everyone. In example: you played round robin butchering your animal in the village as sharing it with everyone made sure nothing went to waste without a fridge, someone unwilling to participate would hurt everyone’s frequency of meat, this thought process might be selfish in truth but people label themselves selfless for sharing and the loner as selfish.

Anonymous said...

I am confused.

"This can only be wrong if serving the needs and wishes of Adam is wrong. If it's not wrong, then Adam is right to serve them."

So it is fine to serve your own needs, unless it's (your needs are) wrong. This is a conditional statement. It depends entirely upon What sort of needs you have, if serving them is wrong or not.

"However we already established that serving the needs and wishes of Adam is wrong, so Bob is wrong to do it."

However you only established a conditional statement. If your conclusion was that Bob serving Adam was wrong if serving Adams needs are wrong, I suppose that's ok. But it is not a conclusion from the previous statements.

Smokeman said...

Hmm. A fault in the logic:

"What is selfishness? The actions of Adam are aimed to serve the needs and wishes of Adam.
This can only be wrong if serving the needs and wishes of Adam is wrong. If it's not wrong, then Adam is right to serve them.

What is selflessness? The actions of Bob are aimed to serve the needs and wishes of Adam.
However we already established that serving the needs and wishes of Adam is wrong, so Bob is wrong to do it."

The fault is Adam specifically serves himself. Bob, on the other hand, in order to be truly selfless, must serve all others, not just Adam.

Bob, therefore, is not being selfless, he is being subservient. And subservient specifically to Adam.

If Bob was selfless, he would spread himself across many masters and be truly useless to his own needs.

If Bob is subservient, he succeeds only if Adam is truly superior to Bob in every way and grants him that boon.

The optimal path is selfishness 80% of the time, and emulating others (faux subservience) the other 20% when they demonstrate superior capability.

Bob needs to nut up.

Gevlon said...

@Eaten by a Grue: you mix positive-sum vs negative-sum into the equation which doesn't belong. It's true that someone stealing for himself would be a burden to the society, but Robin Hood who steals for others is equally a burden. Then you bring in "deserving" help, without defining it.

@Jim L: are you claiming that those who lack resources/time/skills should be selfish, and everyone else selfless?

@daniel: "selflessness equals helping an individual to fullfill it's personal needs," is common sense. Welfare is called welfare for a reason and it is money given to the person to be spent in a way he likes (so it will be spent for the needs and wishes for that person). I approve fixing a child molester, but most people don't see the prison system a form of help.

@maxim: we established by claiming that selfishness is wrong. If someone claims that selfishness (Adam serving Adam only) is good, than indeed selflessness is good too. But "selfish" isn't a compliment in our society.

@anon: "reciprocal altruism" would be a good thing if it would exist. But the thing is that always the same people receive help (those who lack education or health, usually due to their own mistakes). Trading is a proper form of reciprociating, but it's called evil and selfish for some reason.

@Smokeman: if Bob would serve 10 people including Adam, and Cindy would serve 10 people and Daniel would serve 10 people ... then after 10 people Adam would still get one person worth of help. Simplifying it to 2 actors is a mere simplification. Also, if serving Adam 100% of your time is bad, then serving him 1% is also bad, merely 100x less harmful.

Anto said...

Gevlon, if you are really trying to convince people of your argument (as opposed to just trying to push people's buttons, which we all know you like to do ;)), I would recommend replacing the term "selfishness" with "self-interest."

"Self-interest" not only avoids most people's (confused) moral discomfort with "selfishness," but also conveys better the concept you are trying to express.

You are obviously an Ayn Rand fan (as am I); have you read any of the Austrian economists, especially Mises or Rothbard? I guarantee you will be fascinated by both.

Anonymous said...

What if Adam is a carpenter, Bob is a plumber, Bob has a broken chair and Adam has a broken pipe, they obviously help the other with the skill they dont have. Now expand that to all people and all skills, and we have no need for selfishness or selflessness, just pragmatism.

maxim said...

If we establish something just by saying that it is true, then it is an axiom.

Are you saying that "selfishness is wrong" is something that is axiomatic in your society?

In the society in which i live in, selfishness is viewed as netiher inherently good, nor inherently bad. So we either live in different societies, or one of us is wrong in that one's assessment of how our society views selfishness.

Gevlon said...

@Anon: that case they aren't selfless as they got something in return.

@Maxim: I'm arguing against those who claim that "selfishness is bad". If you aren't one of them, I'm not arguing with you.

Raphael said...

You're looking at this from an individual perspective, when it's a principle that functions at a whole-system level. "Don't be selfish" is a societal taboo. Like (almost) all such taboos, it is intended to preserve the ability of the society as a whole to function effectively.

Forming a society and cooperating on larger-scale activities than a single individual can achieve is a positive-sum process. However, rational* behaviour encourages selfishness, in the form of freeloading whenever possible. Freeloaders are a drain on a society; in small numbers they degrade its effectiveness in serving the other members, and in large enough numbers they will eventually destroy the society outright.** In the absence of some extra factor, this is a classic example of the prisoner's dilemma.

Establishing "don't be selfish" as a society-wide taboo provides (one form of) that extra factor. The threat of expulsion from the society for 'being selfish' significantly drops the payoff for the defector in the defect/cooperate result, and thereby establishes cooperate/cooperate as a second nash equilibrium in addition to defect/defect.

It doesn't guarantee optimal results - there's a strong case that it actually makes perfectly optimal results outright impossible - but it does provide a positive-sum alternative to the zero-sum scenario of Hobbes' 'state of nature'.

You might argue that trading and pure self-interest can create a successful society that does achieve optimal results - in fact, from your blog, I'm pretty sure you do - to which all I can say is "show me". So far as I know, that's never been observed actually happening outside the pages of an Ayn Rand novel, no matter how well it's supposed to work in theory. It's a form of behaviour that is demonstrably very successful when practiced by a small minority living in a large group of 'socials', certainly, but unless it can also function outside that supporting society, it's merely a highly sophisticated form of freeloading.

*Technically this should be short-sighted rational behaviour. I subscribe to Less Wrong's principle that above all, 'being rational' means 'getting a good outcome'; so even if you can logically 'prove' that a suboptimal choice is 'right', the rational thing to do is still to make the optimal choice, logic be damned.

**This is where the difference between 'thief' and 'Robin Hood' comes in. Stealing for personal gain is a negative-sum behaviour from the perspective of the rest of society. Stealing for others redistributes resources but doesn't remove them, and if the inequality between the victim and recipient is sufficiently large then it becomes a positive-sum behaviour (since the resources are worth more where they end up than where they started).

Anonymous said...

Goblin, be rational. And by rational I mean, screw ideology and focus on data and reason.

Calling selfishness or selflessness good or bas is pointless.

Why? Because You arbitrary solves by that every little case, creating binary situation rather than more complex system.

Check out:

Specially the part about many iterations. Its basicly a proof that altruism may evolved in society because -everyone- gains on it. Statistially ofcourse.

Try to attack bad (uneffective) ventures (like certain socialism mechanism), but leave these that are effective, rather than trying to find -one true- ideology for everything.

Remember that not everyone is desinged to become industry mogul. You need a lot of tier 2 people (based on Your 4 tiers) to build society and they works with some selflessness very good.

You can argue, it would be great if everyone ascended to tier 4, but it is false. There need to be a worker and a thinker, society needs to covers lots of diffrent roles and being mindless grunt is one of these roles.

Generally speaking, stop preaching Rand-ism and focus on something You are good. Logic and reason. Rather than dictate nature of universe, study it and exploit, but be open to new strategies even if they seemed ineffective at first sight. Otherwise You would be tier 4 EVE player but only tier 2-3 human being and that its not Yours inspirations I geuss.

- Shor

maxim said...


My position is that selfish-selfless is not a binary decision, but rather a continuous scale and that being 100% altruistic (and 0% egoistic) is as bad as being 100% egoistic (and 0% altruistic).

From my point of view, people that are reducing the full complexity of human motivations to a simple binary choice between full-on altruism and full-on egoism have locked themselves in choosing between two wrongs. You seem to enjoy that kind of reductionism.

To quote Mercutio:
"A plague o' both your houses!"

Provi Miner said...

if I help enough people get what they need they will me get all that I want. Selfishness is a POV and process. I agree that serve selflessly is pointless and does the least amount of good. However serving is not in an of itself the selfless. Context: by being selfish it will take me X years to do this. By serving someone who can get me there faster I am still being selfish but in a more efficient way. So the question of serving needs to be expanded to include: Does this activity push me closer to my goals or not.

I could go into a long example of doing things in eve but that is pointless.

Anonymous said...

Except they do serve themselves by being selfless, by getting a good feeling, or prestige, or attention or so on. People wouldn't put money in charity boxes if it caused pain, would they?

Anonymous said...

It depends on whether or not you use a utilitarian approach. In the case where Bob and Adam are exact equals, your statement is true.

If, however, Bob is twice as effective as Adam, the diminishing returns of marginal utility come into effect. Without diminishing returns, Adam=50 Bob=100, Adam+Bob=150 no matter how you spread it.

but, if utility is worth 1 for 1 until utility 75, and only worth 0.5 utility afterwards, then from a utilitarian standpoint Bob should give Adam 25% of his efforts; the end result in this case being 75+75=150 instead of 50+87.5=137.5.

Of course, then the argument begins as to whether or not Adam is entitled to the same utility as Bob when he is only half as effective, but the point still stands that a society CAN benefit from a mix of selflessness and selfishness, instead of pure selfishness.

It is true, though, that the top performers of the society are strictly worse off this scenario, but depending on the system they can receive indirect benefits from the overall gain to society.

The argument about whether or not that is worth the tradeoff continues ad nauseam to this day, but the theoretical point stands that it COULD be viable.

Anonymous said...

We help others so we can blackmail them into helping us. Like any other social status symbol it is meant for for comparing rank wihtin our indoctrinated complex social structure.

No one said it so .. I highly recomment the 4 part series "The Century of the Self" from Adam Curtis.

youtube or vimeo will have some full length uploads.

Anonymous said...

selflessness doesn't even exist. Noone ever does anything that doesn't serve themselves in some way. No exceptions.

giving money to the poor? People do that to make themselves feel better or to brag about it so other people admire how "selfless" (haha) they are.

Helping third world countries? It's the best way to control their access to ressources and control their development.

Accepting a newbie into your corporation and not kicking him although he constantly fucks up? Noone decent would join the corp so you need him. Maybe the ceo thinks he's good cannonfodder or actually believes he can later become a good member. If he teaches him he can make that newb dependent on his corp and play with his conscience.

Zaxin said...

(of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for other people; concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure."

The first part of the definition is what is the issue.

"I have eaten twice today,but I really like that chocolate cake so I will eat the last slice, knowing that the other person here has not eaten all day"

Tabletop Teacher said...

What you've described isn't a choice between selfishness (egoism) and selflessness (altruism), but between working for yourself and servitude.

Basically, your premise is wrong. Adam serves himself, and Bob should serve the community, not Adam.

If you want to stick with your example, then yes, what's happening to Bob is wrong. He's being taken advantage of, without fair compensation. I think that's called slavery/servitude, rather than selflessness.

I would agree with you that selfishness isn't itself wrong. Some contexts demand it. However, your proof here is weak, built on a faulty premise.

Lag said...

I wanted to cite Prisoners Dillema but Shor already did. I agree selflessness is essentially making yourself lunch. However wouldn't your thought experiment combined with Prisoners Dilemma suggest it's best to work for the greater combined benefit (as long as it's not done at ones entire own cost) and to give things their due where they are due?

As an example, long time ago I've been on social welfare while looking for job and have paid it back few dozen times over in taxes over past 4 years. From country POV I've been a successful investment, a "trade good" that increased in value once enough capital was spent on Project Me. Thus, Bob gained more by serving Adam than he would by serving Bob in short term. Wouldn't government be "moronic" for trying to keep money in liquid form rather than investing in trade good (me), hoping for profit and risking loss?

Anonymous said...

Your paradox is working on the assumption that the good isn't intrinsic in certain actions regardless of results. Many moral theories explicitly endorse a moral-practical dichotomy. You have to establish a valid standard of value by which you can say what something is good or bad for achieving.

Rand argues that life is the proper standard of value.