Unselfish action is conscious action; it is more conscious because it involves seeing one's place, seeing the place of others, and understanding that there is a greater good that lies outside the mechanical action of selfishness.
As long as one argues from a naturalistic point of view, pretending that we can strip all of what the human intellect adds to the world from it, there is nothing there but nature, and it has no laws or values — it simply exists, according to an idiot's laws, and functions like a machine. There are many atheists, agnostics, and naturalistic scientists who believe this. They do it, paradoxically, using the human intellect, as though one could ignore the fact that it automatically creates a value judgment no matter how one employs it. This route observation discredits all observations that attempt to strip the human intellect from the natural process; it simply isn't possible. All it is is a theoretical position dreamed up from the very premise that makes it possible; and it is this premise of intellect, this fundamental fact, that discredits any effort to eliminated. Intellect is real; it exists, and we exercise it.
We cannot, in other words, sign any validity to an understanding that discounts intellect; and intellect, in assigning value — which is one of its primary functions — already presumes a greater good.
Let's take a brief side trip into Gurdjieff's comment that intellect acts as a policeman. A policeman assigns value — that is, he knows the difference between what is right and wrong, and enforces the law, that is, what is right. This is the fundamental purpose of our intellect. It discerns what is right. Even naturalistic scientists and atheists, once they have stripped right and wrong from our system of understandings using the naturalistic mechanisms, find it necessary to try and paste it back in with glue, because they recognize that you can't have a world where there is no right and wrong. It leads straight to the gas chambers, in the end. But let's get past that grim note and move on.
The action of unselfishness is deeply tied to the concept of betterment. One acts unselfishly on behalf of the greater good; and that greater good presumes that it is possible for things to be better than they are. This is an extraordinarily important impulse inhumanity, because it is part of the conscious machinery that sets us apart from the automatic process of just living with all other creatures engage in. Wolves don't think about making things better; neither do herring. (don't ask me why I picked wolves and herring. I just did.) No creature other than man thinks about making things better — and although it's clear we are quite confused about exactly what this means, clear that we are unusually subjective on this question, everyone agrees it is a real question for us.
Betterment involves sacrifice — it involves taking actions that serve the greater good, not one's own. This is universally recognized across a wide range of human cultures, all the way from tribal chiefdoms and the clan structure to the democratic institutions of modern societies. It is embedded in both secular and religious understandings to an extent that it is part of the great machine that drives what we call humanity and civilization. It's true that there are many different flavors of this idea, and up a great deal of disagreement about how it ought to function, or exactly what premises it is based on, but the concept the betterment is part of what makes us who we are; and it is rooted in this sacred action, this act of making holy, that begins with unselfishness and sacrifice. Every tale of heroism begins with this premise, and follows it through to a logical conclusion in which the unselfishness and sacrifice achieves a betterment of the human condition.
This will be continued in the next post.