In my younger days I recall sitting in front of the TV watching Friends with my mom and sister. I was much to young to understand the adult themes and jokes but the loud voices and funny characters kept my attention. We’d eat dinner while the cast went about their daily wacky lives in their fictional comedy driven version of New York.
There is one particular episode (504) that went beyond my memory and actually left a lasting impact.
So the episode in question is called The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS. The story thread is between Joey and Phoebe. Joey is working at a PBS telethon because he just “wants to do a good deed” Phoebe hates PBS and thus is opposed to Joey working there. She points out that this is not a good deed, that Joey “just wants to get on TV.” An argument ensues where Joey claims there are no selfless good deed because even if you’re doing it for someone else as long as you feel good about it then it is selfish.
Today this is what I want to consider; the selfless good deed.
First, as with most things like this, we must define what we are discussing. We need to define selfless, good and deed. Defining selfless is easy, just a quick search on line and we have:
have, exhibiting or motivated by no concern for one self
Boom selfless defined. Deed is also really simple to define:
We do run into issues with the definition of ‘good.’ First we must ask whether there is such a thing as ‘objective moral values.’ In other words, are there goods and evils present in the world independent of human beliefs and bias? Not opinion but moral fact. Well… That is one of the biggest questions in philosophy and I am not equip to tackle it. However here is a list of evidence for the existence of Moral Facts:
- Nearly universally across human cultures, there exist the same basic standards of morality. In addition, there exist in all cultures truly altruistic acts which lead to no genetic benefit.
- The majority of people who explicitly deny the existence of objective morality still act as if objective morality exists.
- There exists a nearly universal human intuition that certain things are objectively right or wrong.
Once again I want to be clear I AM NOT AN EXPERT IN THIS SUBJECT AND THESE ARE MY PERSONAL VIEWS. That being said my issue with all of three of these statements is this: anthropocentric. Let’s take something that the vast majority of people consider bad, murder, as I am sure this is the one most people use when the talk about this subject. All these societies exist that are able to talk about morals but that’s because they exist. If murder was viewed as good then these societies may not have ever been able to form and thus we wouldn’t be here to discuss it. So we learned that something are objectively (in huge quotes here) “”””bad”””” because if we did them they could harm our species. That is why it is anthropocentric.
(Quick aside this piece is not about objective morals but this logic can be applied to most things we see morally wrong. Like abortion, maybe the reason people see it as morally wrong is cause it’s preventing new member of our species from being produced. Maybe some people see access to assault rifles as morally wrong as it can make it easier to harm our species. I am not advocating one way or the other I am just using these as examples.)
Now back to my personal view. I do not believe Moral Facts exist. I believe all morals are subjective and arguments can be made that even the most awful things were “”””good”””” that’s just my opinion though. This is the view I will be using because: I understand it more in depth than the other one, I believe it gives the most interesting results and assuming Moral Facts leads to some logical complications.
Alright now we’re assuming subjective views so on to the next issue with defining good.
Ludwig Wittgenstein famously created a thought experiment called the Beetle in a Box. The point of the experiment is that all people hold a box. In everyone’s box is something they refer to as a ‘beetle.’ No one can look into someone else’s box. This means we will never know if our beetle is the same as someone else’s beetle. Now I’m sure you can see where this is going. The box is our mind and the beetle is our perceptions. Things like how we feel pain and how we perceive color. I believe it also applies to what I am arguing.
Too me all morals are different but we all have the same labels good, bad, neutral, etc. While I can never look into your box and see the beetle which causes you to think action A was “”””good”””” yet I think action A was “”””bad””””” this doesn’t prevent us from talking meaningfully about the subject. Just as we may understand pain differently, we are not prevented from talking about what annoyance it is to stub our toe on a coffee table. We may all think different deeds are “”””good”””” or “”””bad”””” but we all must agree that for something to be “”””good””””” it must have a net positive benefit. Who or what receives this benefit may vary but the benefit must be there.
So this is how I will define a selfless good deed:
From this definition it is possible to distinguish three types of Selfless Good Deeds (SGD):
1. The Faux SGD
This arises from the ‘exhibits’ part of the definition. For an act to fulfill this it only needs to seem like the ‘actor’ has selfless intention but their intentions can be selfish.
2. The Almost SGD
This arises from the ‘motivated’ part of the definition. For an act to fulfill this the actor needs to have no selfless intention even if the act benefits them.
3. The True SGD
Finally an act that exhibits selflessness, is motivated by selflessness and has no benefits for the actor.
In my opinion SGD’s can and do exist. They can take many forms and different people may interpret different things as “”””good.”””” My personal belief is that good deeds shouldn’t be broadcast. You should do a good deed because you want to, whether it is selfless or not, and keep it to yourself. Trying to gain recognition for a good deed is one of the most non-authentic things a person can do. It doesn’t matter that it’s selfless just that it is good.
As for Phoebe? I think donating to PBS was a good deed… even if she feels good about it.
Alright so this was going to be a 200 word post when I started it. Knowing me though I just kept writing and writing. Honestly I had to cut a lot out because I’ve been sick so I’ll write the other stuff in a later post.
This had been a subject I have wanted to discuss for a while so I am glad I finally have a platform to do it.
What about you? Did you like the post? Did you learn something? Do you think there are truly selfless good deeds a True SGD? Leave a comment and let me know!
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