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.

9 thoughts on “Christianity, Self-interest, and The Myth of Altruism

  1. Hm-m-m….some interesting points. I have to
    agree, in the first person usage. There is a self
    interest involved. It’s unassailable. Inescapable.
    Whatever you take on, you’re infusing your self.
    Even when disavowing so.

    It’s when the “selfless” ethos is implemented for
    others that some abuse at those others’ expense
    is induced, and many of those others are sincerely
    trying to practice it at their own expense.

    So much confusion about this issue throughout our
    history. All too often self-interest is equated with
    hedonism, amorality, or “anything goes” rather than
    rational self-interest. Neither sacrificing ourselves to
    others, nor expecting others to sacrifice themselves
    to us. Based on a value system.

    If you have a very ill child you will sell your house, your
    car and other possessions to finance a needed operation.
    It isn’t a sacrifice unless you value those possessions over
    your child’s life.

    When altruism is promoted it’s always expected that
    others do the sacrificing for the self-aggrandizement
    of the promoter. The current political condition and its
    impact on the economy is a glaring example of this. These
    are politicians who consider it’s OK to spend your hard
    earned dollars (not theirs) on never-ending projects that
    they always claim is for the “public good.” The present
    economic state is a result of this.

    In order to be able to say “I” you have to have a self.
    And everything that this implies.

    Wherever you go, there you are.

    1. Lots of good points, Alana.

      I particularly like…

      “It’s when the “selfless” ethos is implemented for
      others that some abuse at those others’ expense
      is induced, and many of those others are sincerely
      trying to practice it at their own expense.”

      and

      When altruism is promoted it’s always expected that
      others do the sacrificing for the self-aggrandizement
      of the promoter. The current political condition and its
      impact on the economy is a glaring example of this. These
      are politicians who consider it’s OK to spend your hard
      earned dollars (not theirs) on never-ending projects that
      they always claim is for the “public good.” The present
      economic state is a result of this.

  2. I think this is a useful deconstruction. The phrase used in Matt and Leviticus seems to capture some of the limit on human altruism “love your neighbor AS yourself” where self remains an important frame of references. (Matt 22.39; Leviticus 19.18).

    Some people point to the different phrase used in John as a call to something higher. “love one another as I have loved you” (John 13.34) If we look at Jesus’ love as the perfect, most giving form of love, then this teaching in John calls others to that level. Is it “selfless?” And if it is, surely this is the miraculous ‘rebirth’ promised in Christianity because I do not think it is a natural state in humans.

    I like how Emanuel Swedenborg deals with this. By describing layers of loves. Love of self or self-interest remains a foundation or frame of reference for the higher, more selfless loves. “Mankind was created to love himself and the world, his neighbour and heaven, and also the Lord. For this reason, when he is born, he first loves himself and the world, then as he grows wise, he loves his neighbour and heaven, and as he grows still wiser, he loves the Lord. When this is the case, he is then in Divine Order, and is led by the Lord actually, and by himself apparently.” (Apocalypse Explained 1144)

    Its all about the orientation of the person, is self interest a means to the purposes of loving others or is loving others the means to serving self?

  3. I think a distinction needs to be made between motivation and self-interest. All action is motivated — or it would not take place. But when, for instance, a women in a relationship with a spousal abuser returns to him or refuses to press charges, she is voluntarily taking action which is self-destructive. She is motivated, but she is not acting in her self-interest.

    1. Great point, Leo. You’re right on. In Praxeology, a distinction is typically made between two categories of self-interest: Perceived self-interest and enlightened self-interest. All action is motivated by perceived self-interest (or as you say “motivation”), but all action does not necessarily stem from an enlightened or educated understanding of where the consequences of those choices will lead. The person who behaves in a self-destructive manner, like in the example you described, is motivated by the perception that they will pay a greater price by leaving the abusive relationship (ie. being stalked or killed by their abuser, being shamed and shunned by society, becoming a hopeless wreck who can’t survive without their spouse, etc) than by staying in it. So, they are acting in accordance with what they perceive (albeit erroneously) to be in their best self-interest. If someone were to convince them to extricate themselves from an abusive relationship, they would have to help convince the victim that they are capable of handling the challenges of freedom and that, ultimately, they will be better off for it.

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