Hobbes’ Laws of Nature: A Selfless Debate

Selfish boy donating to charity via Salvation Army
Selfish boy donating to charity via Salvation Army

After discussion last week I spent a lot of time debating in my head whether or not there are any truly selfless acts.  Sure, volunteering your time and donating your change are both charitable acts, but the feelings of worth that come with these acts make them, in a sense, selfish.  It’s a little unsettling to realize that even at your greatest attempts to be selfless, your main driver is selfishness!  This is essentially what Hobbes says in Leviathan; he denies the reality of acts of pure selflessness.  While I agree with this somewhat, through parallels with the other courses I’m taking now, I also can think of examples that refute Hobbes’ theory.


Someone in discussion mentioned last week that animals by nature are selfless, so therefore humans by nature should be, too.  Being in Animal Behavior, I can confidently tell you that that is a false statement.  Almost everything animals do is out of pure selfishness; their acts are done to increase their own fitness, which is determined by the amount of offspring they produce.  Many mammals commit infanticide, which is killing their own babies, because their litters are too large and there wouldn’t be enough food to go around if they didn’t do so.  Committing infanticide to have stronger children is considered “more fit” than having more malnourished children.  In this class we have analyzed every behavior of animals and how they are driven by selfish reasons.  Don’t get me wrong, there are examples of animals showing empathy, but overall animals are selfish by nature.  So to support Hobbes and refute this point in discussion, if we’re deciding for humans based on animals, then we are too selfish by nature.

On the other hand, can you think of some instinctive acts that are selfless? For example, think about someone tripping over something. If you’re right there, you instinctively would reach to catch them before they hit the ground, right? It all happened so fast that there’s no way you did it selfishly. You didn’t even have enough time to comprehend what you were doing, let alone think of how you’d feel good about yourself after you did it. This poses another argument against Hobbes’ theory of selfless acts being nonexistent. If acts like these are done instinctively then we can assume they are natural. Therefore, humans are selfless by nature, right?

After having this debate in my head, I have decided that I really don’t care to come to a conclusion. There are always going to be examples that will refute the other side. Regardless of my good feelings after donating to a charity, I’m still going to do it anyway. I don’t have to decide whether it’s truly selfless or not. However, I still can laugh at the Friends episode, “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” because it’s funny to watch Phoebe and Joey have this same debate.