In Woody Allen’s film Crimes and Misdemeanors, the protagonist kills another character. At first he is troubled and he fears he will get caught, but eventually it becomes clear that there will be no price to pay. He will not get caught, he benefits personally from it, and he does not feel guilt. When the situation is presented in a hypothetical form to another character, played by Woody Allen, he insists that there would be some kind of retribution eventually. But the movie implies is just wishful thinking and that does not happen.
Are there acts like that, selfish acts that benefit an individual, harm another, and have no consequences? I have just become familiar with the work of Neusner, Chilton, Green and Green in Altruism in World Religions on the concepts of selfishness and altruism in the major religions. It is very relevant to one of my recent posts. Neusner et al. surveyed major leaders and experts in all of the major religions of the world to see how they understood selfishness and altruism. They surveyed many forms of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Budhism, etc. They found that all religions use the words in the same way. All of them deny the existence of selfishness and altruism in the most common sense.
Saying someone is selfish can mean different things. It always means some form of looking out for your own interests. It can mean looking out for your own interests in the short term at the expense of others, but the action is harmful to yourself in the long term. It can be beneficial financially but harmful psychologically. There are other variations. The most straightforward meaning is that something is selfish if it benefits the self at the expense of others. These benefits are long term and include all possible kinds of benefits. Likewise, altruism is benefiting others at the expense of self.
No religion recognizes the existence of either of these phenomena. How could that be? They all teach that actions that appear selfish are ultimately harmful to the actor. Often the harm is more long term and it is pschological or social. Sometimes it is in the next life. But they all teach there are no truly selfish actions. People will not have true lasting benefits from short term selfish acts. They always pay. In the same way, there are no truly altruistic acts. If a person sacrifices him or herself, she will be rewarded, eventually. Again, it might only be in the long term, including the next life. It might be psychological or reputation or similar rewards, but ultimately, we benefit by doing good.
In my earlier post, I claimed that religious ethics is basically based on self interest, just like secular ethics. This study proves it. Sometimes believers ask non believers to explain why people would do something altruistic without a God, yet even in their own religions, there are no truly altruistic acts.
Most of the reasoning used by religions are correct, and they work just as well without God. It is true that often a selfish act comes back to haunt an individual. They will feel guilt, they will be punished by others, they will lose their reputation. Altruistic acts make a person feel good. If you give some money to charity, you benefit by feeling better, and perhaps by having a better society in which to live. Most religions actually focus on the benefits in this life. They are wise to realize that actions that might seem beneficial in the short term are harmful in the long term.
Some religions do have something stonger to offer, for those who get away. By having an after life or reincarnation, they can have more reliable rewards or punishments, and by having God they have a more reliable enforcer. But people are still acting out of an self interest. Christianity relies some on eternal rewards, but eternal life is usually based more on faith than deeds, so it mostly relies on things in this life. The religion that brings in the supernatural to the greatest degree is Hinduism with the concept of Karma, a careful score keeping of all good and bad acts.
Evolutionary biology has come up with the same explanation for apparently altruistic acts. It is in the selfish best interest of the individual, or at least its genes, to cooperate and be nice, sometimes. Just as with religions, evolutionary biology does not account for truly altruistic acts, only those that seem to be altruistic. Unlike religions, it does recognize truly selfish acts. There are cheaters that benefit with no price to pay, under some circumstances. Evolution explains cooperating behaviors in everything from microbes to humans, and it can account for why we have feelings of guilt or shame and why it feels good to give to charity.
So do truly selfish or altruistic acts really exist, contrary to religions? Are there examples like in Crimes and Misdemeanors? I think there are. Although very often selfish acts are punished or have harmful consequences, sometimes they don’t. The unfortunate truth is that occasionally people escape, although it isn’t often. Usually there are consequences. This is common enough that you can come up with your own example of someone who benefited on the backs of others. Our laws help to get some of those who escape the psychological and social sanctions, but they aren’t as efficient at getting cheaters as God. Maybe one reason people prefer to believe in God is so that they can feel better about such cheaters. Religion and humanism have a similar ethic, but with God, they have 100% enforcement.
Evolution says there should be no truly altruistic acts, at least no altruistic behavior that is directly selected. Acts that seem altruistic are actually selfish, just like with religions. But that qualifier is important. Not all behaviors are directly selected, and it might be that a general behavioral rule is selected that in some circumstances is truly altruistic, or a behavior is an indirect effect of selection on something else, or a behavior acts differntly under different environments.
Contrary to religions, I think there are truly altruistic acts, even if they are fairly rare. Usually when we help others, we also get some kind of benefit, even if it is just the respect of those we help. But sometimes a person is asked sacrifice their own happiness to help someone else achieve happiness under circumstances that it is very unlikely they will ever get a reward for their action or even be recognized. People do it, and we are often inspired by such stories in the grand sweep of history, but it can also happen in just the every day world of life and love. Neither evolution nor religion accounts for such acts. Nevertheless, we can be glad they exist when we are the beneficiaries.