skip to Main Content

Neutrality Is No Friend Of Mine

What standards could a person possibly be held accountable to if they felt no sense of loss or gain by their choices?

I don’t trust the person who merely believes in doing the right thing. I trust the person who feels a sense of gain in their doing of the right thing. I trust the person who feels a sense of loss in their doing of the wrong thing.

I want nothing to do with the one who claims to be acting wholly apart from their self-interest.

Nothing is more frightening than the idea of an entity that feels no sense of loss or gain in the way they treat people.

Neutrality is just as dangerous as negativity.

 

Incentives & Integrity

The existence of an incentive is not evidence of duplicity, it’s evidence of humanity.

Zig Ziglar was fond of saying, “everything is sales.” What he meant was that all human interaction was driven by the desire to influence one another’s behavior in an effort to acquire some form of personal gain.

It is a common fallacy, however, to suppose that self-interest is only a factor when money or material goods are involved.

The automobile salesperson has clear incentives, but perhaps the actions of the professor, or the priest, or the politician, or the philanthropist are divorced, or less affected by, a consideration of their own needs, desires, fears, insecurities, tastes, and disgusts.

This is only true if we adopt an extremely narrow concept of self-interest that excludes all the intangible examples of exchange that take place in the marketplace of ideas.

When we expand our worldview to include intangible data like people’s desire to enjoy companionship, people’s desire to fit in, people’s desire to feel appreciated, people’s desire to feel secure, people’s desire to feel recognized, people’s desire to feel that their lives are meaningful, people’s desire to avoid the discomfort of having to live in a world with things that disgust them, people’s desire to feel beautiful, people’s desire to feel at peace with their conscience, people’s desire to feel like their lives are making a positive difference in the world, people’s desire to get others to think in accordance with their agendas, etc., we discover a very basic fact about the world that can be expressed in three simple words:

None are neutral!

Everyone who interacts with you is trying to influence you to think, say, or do something that will make them feel (or avoid feeling) a certain way.

Some people are selling products. Some people are selling ideas.

Some people are selling products for cash. Some people are selling ideas for cash.

Some people are selling products in exchange for intangible goods. Some people are selling ideas in exchange for intangible goods.

Some people are selling products without having your best interest in mind. Some people are selling ideas without having your best interest in mind.

Some people are selling products that will make your life better. Some people are selling ideas that will make your life better.

But everybody’s selling something and everybody’s out to get something.

This fact, alone, should never be advanced as a basis for distrust.

To desire is human. To engage in voluntary exchange as a means of fulfilling our desires is the logical outworking of our identity as communal beings.

Despising the presence of self-interest in human action is tantamount to despising our own nature.

The person who says “never trust a person who’s trying to sell you something” is trying to sell you an idea that’s fundamentally self-stultifying.

Should we trust everyone? Absolutely not.

But we needn’t think cynically in order to think critically.

Christianity, Self-interest, and The Myth of Altruism

In a recent post, I argued that even when you do things for others, you’re doing them for you.

I followed up with a post on yesterday entitled None Are Selfless in which I elaborated on the same theme.

Since then, I have been asked to give my thoughts about how this idea relates to Christianity. Doesn’t the Christian Faith teach that one ought to do the right thing for its own sake? Can the faithful Christian serve as a counterexample to the principle of self-interest?

I not only contend that some people act out of self-interest, but that all people do this by their very nature as human beings.

The biblical writers were outspoken advocates of cost-benefit analysis. They constantly encouraged us to look beyond the superficial and temporal rewards of this earthly life and to consider the immeasurable gain of intimacy with God.

According to the Christian Gospel, Jesus gave his life because man needed something. And this need is so important that according to Christianity, one cannot qualify as a true believer until he admits that he needs something (ie. forgiveness, grace, mercy, redemption) from God.

Rather than deny the incentive-driven nature of human behavior, Jesus based his entire message on the superiority of God’s Kingdom in its ability to meet man’s fundamental needs and deepest desires. Jesus made the ultimate use of cost-benefit analysis when he asked “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” Jesus was arguing that a materialistic lifestyle centered around wealth and comfort was a bad investment if it comes at the expense of a man’s prospects for eternal life. In other words, according to Jesus, a God-centered life is the most profitable of all options.

When the believer says, “as a Christian I strive to do things for others that don’t particularly help myself, and often inconvenience me, simply because they’re the right thing to do” that basically means that he is a long-term investor who claims to know where true value lies. But he still does what he does in order to get something out of the transaction. It’s just that the “something” he’s getting is not a tangible good. He values spiritual rewards so much that he’ll sacrifice his own convenience just to experience the inner joy of knowing he pleased his Heavenly Father.

The Apostle Paul expressed similar sentiments when he said, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” Only a man of self-interest (which is different from materialism and greed) could make a statement like that.

Christians are not devoid of self-interest when they do the right thing for its own sake. They simply believe that following God’s will is the only way to find the lasting peace and true fulfillment that everybody else is still blindly groping for.

Whenever I hear Christians preach the Good News (good for who? There goes that self-interest again), they spend the majority of their time appealing to people’s self-interest by informing non-believers of all God’s beautiful promises for how they will be TRULY free, TRULY, happy, TRULY rich, and TRULY fulfilled.

Imagine the emptiness of a Gospel that only offered philosophical and theological arguments. That would not only be an empty and irrelevant Gospel, but it would not be the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus appealed to man’s desire to be free from the bondage of sin. He went out of his way to show how relevant the Gospel was by appealing to the subjective self-interest of his listeners. He reminded them that their needs and desires were given to them by God. He simply offered them the correct way to fulfillment along with the permission and power to become followers of that Eternal Way.

The Christian is not an exception to the principle of self-interest. He is arguably the ultimate example.

None Are Selfless

“I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really — I was alive.” Walt, Breaking Bad

“If I don’t buy a new dress so that I can feed my son, it’s not a sacrifice, as I value my son more than the dress.” -Alana Bush

“The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness. A man perfectly content with the state of his affairs would have no incentive to change things. He would have neither wishes nor desires; he would be perfectly happy. He would not act; he would simply live free from care. But to make a man act, uneasiness and the image of a more satisfactory state alone are not sufficient. A third condition is required: the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness. In the absence of this condition no action is feasible.” -Ludwig Von Mises, Human Action

There is no such thing as an emotionally detached heroic act of selfless love. Everything one does is influenced by, and inseparable from, his perception of how the outcome of that choice affects the way he feels about his own integrity and quality of life.

All are not driven by the need for money and material gain. All are not driven by the need for prestige and professional advancement. All are not driven by the need for fame and fortune. All are not driven by the need for popularity and peace with others. All are not driven by guilt and shame. But all are driven by the desire to take the path that is most fulfilling and least unsatisfying to themselves.

The “sinner” and “saint” are not separated by their desire for reward. They are separated by the particular types of rewards they value. The sinner values the things of the world while the saint desires the intangible treasures of what he perceives to be a higher world. The man who appears to selflessly sacrifice himself for the world is a martyr by appearances alone. In reality, he is a long-term investor who, by denying himself the enjoyment of what he considers to be less valuable pleasures, is able to reap greater rewards like peace of mind, freedom of conscience, or the joy that comes from helping others.

There is always something at stake for the man who acts.

The man who tries to save a life is also trying to save himself from how he knows he will feel about himself if he refuses to do what he believes is the right thing to do. The man who serves others is also serving his own desire to feel the inner joy that comes from knowing he made a positive difference in another’s life.

One says “I am doing it all for God,” but no one would do anything for God unless it pleased him to do things for God and displeased him to not do things for God.

Another says “but surely I am doing it all for God because I am quite miserable in my life of sacrifice. I could easily have a life of greater comfort and convenience, but I abandon it all for the glory of God and the good of the planet. There is absolutely nothing in it for me.”

I would simply ask this man, “And how much peace would you feel at night if you went to bed believing that you were spending your life doing things that you believe are against the will of God? How much joy would you get out of all those lavish luxuries if you believed that you were selling your soul to obtain them? Surely your decisions are not detached from these considerations. Surely the man who claims to follow God is not neutral towards how it makes him feel, even if at a really deep spiritual level, to make the Creator of the Universe his first priority.

When a man does what he believes is right, it is because he feels most right when he acts in accordance with his ethical standards. In a word, he feels right when he does right and he feels wrong when he does wrong.

However we spin it, self-interest pervades the entire gamut of human action.

Even when you do things for others, you’re doing them for you

The tragedy of self-interest is not that it exists in everything we do; it’s that we have somehow been conditioned to believe that our acts of discipline, nobility, dignity, and creativity are cheapened and undermined by the fact that it is the nature of man to seek a profit of some kind from his own choices.

Even when you do things for others, you’re doing them for you

It’s easy to play the martyr.

All of us are capable of fooling ourselves into believing that our choices are fundamentally about something other than our own fulfillment.

Every choice we make, however, is directly connected to our desire for personal happiness or inner peace.

Whatever it is we decide to do, it is because we are attempting to move away from some form of pain (potential or actual) and/or move towards some form of pleasure (physical or psychological).

Even heroic acts of self-sacrifice are intimately wedded to self-interests.

The person who risks his own life in an effort to save another is doing so because deep down inside he feels that it is the morally right thing to do. Many of the most self-sacrificing people openly admit that they would feel empty, sad, unfulfilled, or guilty if they chose personal gain over the opportunity to help another. And while this may be a permissible outlook to have, it still involves self-interest. It’s just harder to see because the pursuit of self-interest in cases like these don’t involve the superficial elements (ie. money, fame, status, etc) that we typically use to define the concept of “personal gain.”

The hero is someone who defines true fulfillment as that which arises from living an honorable life devoted to the pursuit of good deeds rather than the acquisition of personal comfort or material gain. While the hero may frequently forgo the luxury of superficial rewards, he is still driven by the sense of psychological fulfillment that comes from living in accordance with certain ethical codes.

In other words, even when we sacrifice ourselves, we are choosing what we personally believe is the most rewarding option available to us.

The religious man may value being at peace with God. The practical man may value the attainment of material possessions. The vain man may value worldwide acclaim. The holistic man may value being at peace with his conscience. The pacifist may value being at peace with others. We all define “value” in different ways, but we are all alike in that our choices reveal what those values are.

There are no martyrs. There are only choosers.

Interestingly enough, the term “martyr” is traditionally used by religion to describe people of faith who never saw themselves as martyrs.

The martyrs of faith saw themselves as spiritual visionaries who were able to recognize where life’s “real” treasures were located.

Consider the words of the Apostle Paul who is one of the most celebrated martyrs of the Christian faith:

“I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.”

The historical martyrs never complained about how much they gave their lives for God or others. They saw their actions as the only logical investment one could make once they were possessed by a spiritual understanding of the universe.

Even martyrs were, in their own eyes, simply choosers.

Here’s today’s two cents:

Don’t be a martyr.

If you enjoy sacrificing yourself for the world, then follow your bliss. But If your needs aren’t being met because of the things you do to accommodate other people, stop playing the blame game and start being honest with yourself.

Make no excuses for the decisions you make. Own your choices.

Even when you do things for someone else, you’re doing them for you. And since it’s impossible for you to not do something for yourself, you might as well start doing those things from a place of ownership, responsibility, and personal power.

Back To Top