Glossing over the Facebook status and/or Twitter posts of various people I'm following, the ones that center around "Restoring Faith in Humanity" always catch my eye.
You know the ones: about a someone helping the homeless, or about that guy that has always brought flowers to her wife for the last half-century, or about that lady that picked the little puppy in the side of the street.
They're all great, and most, if not all, bring a tear to my eye. Specially the ones that are posted by someone that is NOT the person that did the deed. Why? Because it implies that they did it completely selflessly.
For example, one of my favorites is the one about a guy leaving a note and a $50 bill to another guy after hearing him breaking up with his girlfriend. The money was intended to be broken into $1 bills so that the guy could go to a strip club and cheer up. From afar it could be taken as obnoxious and disgusting, but, from the point of view of the note-leaver, this was actually pretty cool of him. I think it's safe to assume that a strip club is the way that he gets over break ups and he wanted to help his neighbor out. Even more so, the fact that he left a note implies that both guys weren't really that close, so this guy wound up technically helping out a complete stranger (in his own way).
There's this thing though about these stories that always bugs me: he signed the note. Why would he do that? Everything was beautiful about this story: the guy was sad, and here comes somebody that wants to help out, which is great by its own, but also "Faith in Humanity is Restored" as now he knows that there is at least one person that cares about him... who lives in apartment 3F.
See, that's the bit that bites out the selflessness of the whole thing. It wasn't completely selfless, the guy took with him the feeling of "being a good guy" and the knowledge that somebody knows it. That is to say, the guy got something out of it, breaking the selflessness.
"Look at me, look at how I'm helping people out." The act is not really done to help people, it's for somebody to feel good about his- or herself.
Don't get me wrong: it's a great incentive to do something good for others. And even better, because whenever those acts are carried out, the benefited party feels as though they "owe" the good-doer. But, in these cases, it can be stated, very honestly, that the favor in itself was the reward. The good-doer feels good about his- or herself; that's what he/she took away from the deed, so nobody owes anything.
My issue here is when it's not honest from this point of view; when the good-doer feels as though what he/she has done is completely selfless when in reality it's not:
"I helped this puppy out of the water. Aren't I such a selfless person?"
Why are you recording yourself doing it?
"I gave so much food to charity. I'm so selfless."
Why are you signing your name in the charity's register and letting people take your picture while you're doing it?
"I'm walking this marathon to raise money for Cancer. Selflessness is my middle name."
Isn't just donating the money directly to the charity a faster way to raise money for it? Why are YOU running? How is running even connected to Cancer? Aren't you just running so people know that YOU are a great person?
And don't get me started about that "raising awareness" argument: donating the money to do a marketing campaign is much easier and hits the target right in the center to achieve that. The marathon is to celebrate YOU, not the charity.
Disclosure: I need to thank Doug Stanhope for this last bit, from whom I basically stole it from. This argument was stuck in my head for so long, and he eloquently formed it in his last comedy special, Beer Hall Putsch.
Still, though, if we need to use the common flaw of vanity of humans for something good, I guess making them feel as a "selfless good person" as their share of the selfless deed seems like a good patch for now, even if they aren't aware of the hypocrisy that it involves. It IS better than doing nothing, which is, sadly, its only virtue. Well, that, and that these stories are "feel-good" entertainment for a lazy Friday afternoon.
EDIT 2014-06-20: The video clip of Doug Stanhope has been taken down. Oh well...