March 9, 2015

Is it heroism or egoism?

In today's discussion I want to talk about egoism. After having to think about this in a philosophy class of mine and later discuss it with a friend, I couldn't help but make a link to a theme that's in a lot of books I have read over the last three/four years. I realise that there is some heavy shit in this discussion so if it's still early in the morning when you're reading this I suggest you grab that cup of coffee first. And no, I didn't type this at 3am in the morning/after having too much alcohol/after the consumption of some funny plants. I'm as sober as can be!

I want to make you think about something you probably haven't thought about when you were reading a book. There's not exactly a right answer for the question I'm stating here, I merely want to make people think about this 'topic'. I'll stop blabbing now and just get on with it...

Character A will do anything to save character B's life.

This is a recurring scene in a lot of books I have read so far. An example: character A and B have fallen in love but unfortunately they live in a world where that's the least of their problems. The climax of the books is here and the characters are given an ultimatum: A's life for B's or B's life for A's.

First of all I want to point out that this is something that annoys me greatly because authors use this trick to build up the tension and it's getting old (but that's perhaps a topic for another discussion). Back to what I was going to say: of course they are both willing to give their life for the other because that's the noble thing to do. Right?

Another example: Katniss volunteering for her sister. Katniss did it purely to save Prim's life. Or did she?


Is it heroism or egoism?

In that moment character A or B made the choice to die (or volunteer) for the other because... what? Because they think this is the right thing to do and are completely selfless in that moment? Because they couldn't imagine a world where the other doesn't exist? Because they would miss the other so so so much? In case of those last two: is it still a heroic deed if you do it for yourself? This is what I have been thinking about ever since the topic of morality and altruism came up in a paper I was typing for my philosophy class. We read about this quite often but have we ever taken the moment to think about what is going on in that situation? I'd completely understand if you said no.

However, if you choose death over feeling loss, are you still a hero? I don't think you are doing a very heroic act in that case. You are only saving yourself from feeling emotions you rather not feel. You are purely thinking of your own conscience.

Are we ever completely altruistic/egoistic?

That's the tricky part about all this. You see, there's no good or bad answer to the questions I am asking here. There's no person completely selfless and no one can be completely self-centred as well. There's so black or white but merely a big ass grey zone.

I'm sure everyone has come across this phenomenon in a book (or movie) before. You might not have thought much about it. I had not thought much about it until I had a serious conversation with a friend about morality a few weeks ago that led to egoism and love and other weird things.

We read about these perfect characters sometimes but are they really all that perfect? Has it ever occurred to you that the character's motive isn't quite as selfless as you thought? We can swoon over characters that seem like the perfect boyfriend/girlfriend BUT can we look past the outside for a second and actually think about the actions some of these characters take and at their motives? Moral of the story:

Is character A sacrificing themselves for character B a heroic or an egoistic deed?


  1. I've always thought of it as selflessness. You would stand in their place and die for them so they can live. For me, there's something strong about being prepared to die at the place of someone else. However, I totally understand what you're saying. I think this is one of the most intelligent discussions I've ever read, and I've read a lot! I've never heard of things quite put in this way, which is a shame because this is GENIUS.

    While it can be selfish to save them to save your feelings, it can be just as selfish to stand there and not do anything when there's something you are ABLE to do. So... I have no idea. You've stumped me.

    1. I believe most of our actions are selfish in some way. I have yet to meet a completely selfless person (do they even exist?)

  2. Kaylie, can I just say, I read this post a couple of days ago, took a while to compose my thoughts (because you've raised a brilliant question) and now I'm back to type out a long ass (maybe?) comment.

    First off, I love the question you've raised. Before I give a bit of my thoughts on that, maybe I should set the background to what I've always thought. To me, it's never been about selfless heroism. I always believed it to be the hero syndrome. Like, I guess, a desire to be put in a situation where recognition could be given. Because I like to think of the situations that these characters are in. Often, they exist in bleak, constricted societies. Or maybe a bland existence dictated by routine. And suddenly they're thrust into these situations that encompass all this adrenaline. There's a chance to be something more than that ordinary life (or oppressed) that they had. So it's this desire to rise beyond your circumstance, if you get me? But overall, it's all for self benefit. Maybe this feeds into the fact that I believe in selfish people. I believe, over everything (sadly, I'm quite a pessimist) in self-preservation being inherent, and the fact that these characters are defying what seems to be embedded in their DNA doesn't sit well with me, and so I turn to the hero syndrome.

    But the question you've raised is HIGHLY interesting. A route to escape their emotions, their feelings? Very interesting, especially considering our society today (where running from our emotions is a common thing, unfortunately). Seeing as it's something I never thought off, I feel like it's changed a bit of what I think. Yes, in part, I still believe in the hero syndrome. But now I also think that it has something to do with that selfish desire to alleviate one's one pain, rather than let the other person win. that inherent desire to compete. Saving yourself, in death, rather than to live out a painful existence.

    OK I think I lost myself there. BUT can I just applaud you Kaylie! It's the best thing I've read all week! <3 x

    1. I understand what you mean with the hero syndrome and I think that it's definitely possible that someone that has lived a rather 'boring' life would want to stand out for once. I believe a lot of people feel this way even in our own world. I also don't think everyone is made to be a 'hero' like a lot of protagonists are in the books I read.

      You too have given me something to think about as I have never thought about the fact that people sometimes want to be a hero and want to be recognized and that sacrificing themselves for example would give them that status.

  3. This is such a great post Kaylie!I have to admit that I've never thought of this before,but your question made me think quite a lot.And just like the Katniss situation,if a character gains glory and praise through the sacrifice made for another,it's debatable whether to call it a altruistic sacrifice.

    But I personally think it depends on the characters and their intention.If their motive was selfless,I think they deserved the credit,If not,maybe it's right to call them as egoistic.

    1. Yes it depends on a lot of things and I'm not saying that every sacrifice or decision is made out of selfish reasons but rather that we sometimes don't need to eat everything up without a second thought when we read about those things. We're fast to say "oh he's/she's such a hero because ... " when in fact there COULD be a very selfish reason for their actions which would make them less of a hero than we first thought.

  4. I really feel like this depends on the situation character A and B are in. In my opinion, Katniss's decision to take her sister's place WAS heroic. Was it a tad selfish? Sure, but Katniss went into this knowing that she might die, and to me that's heroic. A truly selfish decision would have been to let her sister go to save her own life.

    This is definitely an interesting question because it's a very...gray area. Some heroes are doing truly unselfish deeds when saving other characters while others are being INCREDIBLY selfish with their actions, but are dismissed as heroic because in the end they save all of the other characters.

    I think, if a character is human, they're going to have some selfish motive behind their actives. Humans ARE selfish. We want things, and we'll do whatever it takes to get to those things. That in and of itself is our downfall, I think. So I also think it shows a good writer when they can create a character with seemingly heroic decisions on the surface, but upon looking deeper you realize their actions were in fact a little selfish and MAYBE even egotistical.

    1. I agree with you on the fact that humans are selfish. People have tried to tell me that it's possible to be completely altruistic but as much as I want to believe them... I don't.

      And of course it depends on how the author wants to portray their characters and how they execute the plot. Sometimes I ask myself if authors think about this stuff? Is it their intention to make altruistic characters?

  5. I don't have a good answer to this question, but it reminded me of that Friends episode where Phoebe was struggling with the same dilemma. Is there any such thing as a selfless act? In that episode, anyway, there wasn't; altruistic acts ended up making the people doing those acts feel good. Maybe the point is about the reason why we commit selfless acts. If feeling good is simply a byproduct of the act (and not the underlying reason for it), then maybe there's such a thing as true heroism.

  6. This is totally a good discussion, although *gulps* I don't even know if I can give a logical opinion! I think it isn't ALWAYS a really pure motive when one character is sacrificing themselves for another. Sometimes it is selfish I guess. Like if YOU can't live without someone, then really you're doing it for yourself than for them, right? It does raise interesting questions!

    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!



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