And in that regard, I guess I’m back to my original 14-year-old assertion that there’s no such thing as a selfless act. It is my brain, after all, that’s telling me what to do. But I think there is actually something different and more complex going on. Because the way it feels, when my back is hurting as I carry the kid up on the elevator and into our apartment, it’s almost as if it’s not my brain telling me what to do. It’s something else, it’s for him.

Dave Bry

Well, if you ask people with an affinity for Eastern philosophy, they might suggest that since we’re all essentially one anyway, temporary and contingent individuals made up of the same basic stuff, dependent on others for our existence and identity, there’s no conflict.

But I think it’s pretty well established that there are tremendous ingrained incentives for showing “selflessness” when it comes to your own children; after all, genetically speaking, they’re at least 50% identical to you. While we might think it’s a nice idea in theory, most of us will find some excuse not to carry a bunch of strangers around at the expense of our aching backs. And even people who do devote a substantial amount of their time and energy to helping other people in need are gaining the satisfaction of doing what they feel to be right, of trying to shape the world into what they’d like it to be. Socrates even felt that we are ultimately incapable of knowingly doing what we feel to be wrong, psychologically unable to know and wholeheartedly believe that something is the worst of available options, but choosing to do it anyway.

So I think his fourteen year-old self had it right when he was channeling Max Stirner: our self-interest, which encompasses our philosophical worldview as much as our immediate perceptions of pleasure and pain, is inextricably bound up in the choices we make. We have a name for people who exist purely to serve others, who perform actions for others’ benefit with no expectation of reward: slaves.