September 14, 2005

The Positive Side of Egoism

On another blog (2), it's reported that a Christian teacher said these words regarding our future state in heaven:
I will be a person with no stain or calculation of self-interest.
I commented on one of the blogs with these words:
Does he mean we will have no self-interest at all? Or does he mean that self-interest will be properly placed beneath our interest and motive to glorify God? Isn't it the case that most Christians think of virtue in the sense that all self-interest is bad? I think that's a mistake. I would argue that self-interest is good and necessary, but needs to be placed beneath interest in God's glory issuing in love to our neighbor. Heaven will be a world of love, as Edwards says. We will have self-interest, but we will not be selfish, correct?
I think that it's frequently the case that we think in false dilemmas. It's not a case of either self-interest or God-interest, but self-interest under God-interest (I assume that the reader understands that genuine God-interest also presupposes that we will have neighbor-interest). Our motives are complex, and we need to arrange and prioritize them according to the teaching of scripture, and according to wisdom that fits life's circumstances (see Ecclesiastes chapter 3). Seeking the glory of God does not eliminate self-interest, but put's self-interest in it's proper place. Jesus, in all of his ethical perfection as a man, had self-interest but he put his own interests under his motive to glorify God first and foremost. Also, some of God's righteous commandments are associated with our self-interest.

NKJ Ephesians 6:2 "Honor your father and mother," which is the first commandment with promise: 3 "that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth."

That certainly sounds like obedience is connected to self-interest, but it's prioritized under God's glory.

The quote on the blog also brought to mind Steve Wilkins' treatment of Ethical Egoism. In his book, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics: An Introduction to Theories of Right and Wrong, he says that there is a positive side to ethical egoism, even though it has serious problems as a theory. He writes:
The Positive Side of Egoism

The initial response many have to the phrase ethical egoism is that it sounds like an oxymoron. How can one be both ethical and egoistic? Moreover, attacking altruism is kind of like attacking mom, apple pie and the flag. Who wants to advocate selfishness? However, if considered honestly, egoism has attractive elements. First, egoism forges a strong link between personal responsibility and self-esteem. Egoism stresses that individuals are responsible for what they do and should receive the benefits of their actions. Moral agency assumes that we accept responsibility for our own actions. If this is not the case, people will depend on others to solve their problems, and this soon becomes habit. Dependency, in turn, has negative consequences for those who are dependent because it is difficult to respect oneself when what is received is undeserved. It also has negative consequences for those who meet the needs of dependent people. Providers cannot focus their efforts on what which is most naturally their concern. Energy which could have been devoted to their interests and needs is now divided and diminished. We do not run as fast when we carry someone.

Second, after some reflection, most will likely agree that self-preservation and self-interest have a valid role in ethics. We can recognize the impulse toward self-preservation on both the biological and rational level. Our biological life is protected in numerous ways. We have built-in temperature, hunger and thirst controls to protect us. Each body comes with its own infection-fighting armies of cells as standard equipment. Adrenaline is pumped into our system in response to danger and gives us extra bursts of strength and speed. Nature tells us through our physical functions that life is important. Even where our natural defense systems are not sufficient protection, our mental processes work to keep us safe. Decisions are made daily that minimize potential dangers. We consider it rational to avoid certain areas of town, put on seat belts and watch our diets. In short, physically and mentally, we have a number of systems that protect our lives. Except in rare circumstances, we confirm these natural impulses in ethics by making preservation of our lives a moral duty.

Moreover, we can agree that the selfishness of others benefits us. As Nathaniel Branden states,
[Do] we want our lover to caress us unselfishly, with no personal gratification in the doing, or do we want our lover to caress us because it is a joy and a pleasure for him or her to do so? And let us ask ourselves whether we want our partner to spend time with us, alone together, and to experience the doing as an act of self-sacrifice. Or do we want our partner to experience such time as glory?
This makes the point that relationships would be unfulfilling if others received no benefit themselves, and this can be extended into other areas of life. People tend to do best at what they like. If they are free to follow their interests, we all share in the benefits of their productivity.

Finally, ethical egoism warns us that actions are not justified simply because they are unselfish. Altruism cannot be good solely because our actions are of no benefit to us. Otherwise Rand's diagnosis that the self becomes the standard of evil in altruism is correct. We have all seen situations in which a person's unselfishness was destructive for themselves or others. At times, I have given money to people who said they needed to buy food, only to see them minutes later with liquor but no food. People have given so much time at church for good purposes that their own families have disintegrated for lack of attention. Thus if altruism is going to work as an ethical perspective, something must be added to it that allows us to determine when an unselfish act is also a good act.
Steve Wilkins, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP, 1995), 54–56.

Jeremiah Whitaker (1599–1654) wrote:
Austin answers, that truly there was no need of any commandment for man to love himself, God had imprinted it upon his nature: if when God commands thee to love thy neighbor as thy self, and makes the love of thy self the rule of loving another, it implies that a man should love himself; and if a man did truly love himself, all the exhortations Ministers bring to you would be received with joy and gladness for all we desire, and beg at your hand in the name of the Lord Jesus, is, that you would be wise for your selves, and lay up a good foundation for your selves against the time to come, that you may lay hold of eternal life. Now I entreat you, when I speak of self-love, Remember, your bodies are not your selves, much less your corruptions; and the world is not your selves, for all things are either the things above us, and that is God; and things without us, the world; and the things within us, and that is our soul: the soul of man is the man: now love but your souls, and then surely this self-love is so far from being condemned, it is commanded, and God makes admirable use of it, and no man can be wise for another, and merciful for another, that is cruel to himself: every man is bound to love himself: and it is a dispute the School-men handle, Whether any man can truly love another, that truly loves not himself? and they argue, no man can truly love another, till he love himself; and no man truly loves himself, till he loves Jesus Christ, that is the author of this eternal life.
Jeremiah Whitaker, The Christian's Great Design on Earth (London: Printed by G. Miller for John Bellamie at the Sign of the three golden Lions in Cornhill near the royal-Exchange, 1645), 33–34.

Another thought for your meditation:

I once heard a preacher say something like this:
The truly telling thing about a person is not so much the particular values that he or she has, but the order in which they put those values.
I think that idea points to a profound biblical principle. While we obey God with the motive of self-interest, it should almost fade out of view when we consider our motive to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. Putting self-interest over God-interest is idolatry. I think that's why so many Christians overreact and dismiss any self-interest in their idea of what it means to live a virtuous life.

The human heart is an idol factory, and the last idol destroyed is selfishness. We will gladly rid ourselves of other idolatrous affections before we dismiss our perverted self-interest. I think that this is why Jesus commanded us to take up our cross and follow him. The idolatrous veneration of ourselves needs to die.

Paul said that in the last days, "men shall be lovers of themselves." He's speaking about the sinful self-elevation that displaces God's rightful place as Lord. Christians need to properly understand the issue of self-interest, and proclaim the biblical doctrines in the midst of this "crooked and perverse generation."

NKJ Philippians 2:15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,


Tony Byrne said...

Keith Plummer posted a reply here: Sanctified Self-Interest

Tony Byrne said...

"Don't forget to love yourself." -- Soren Kierkegaard

Tony Byrne said...

"If anyone is unwilling to learn from Christianity to love himself in the right way, he cannot love his neighbor either." -- Soren Kierkegaard

Tony Byrne said...

Jonathan Edwards wrote:

1. Negatively, that charity, or the spirit of Christian love, is not contrary to all self-love.—It is not a thing contrary to Christianity that a man should love himself, or, which is the same thing, should love his own happiness. If Christianity did indeed tend to destroy a man’s love to himself, and to his own happiness, it would therein tend to destroy the very spirit of humanity; but the very announcement of the gospel, as a system of peace on earth and goodwill toward men (Luke 2:14), shows that it is not only not destructive of humanity, but in the highest degree promotive of its spirit. That a man should love his own happiness, is as necessary to his nature as the faculty of the will is; and it is impossible that such a love should be destroyed in any other way than by destroying his being. The saints love their own happiness. Yea, those that are perfect in happiness, the saints and angels in heaven, love their own happiness; otherwise that happiness which God hath given them would be no happiness to them; for that which anyone does not love he cannot enjoy any happiness in.

That to love ourselves is not unlawful, is evident also from the fact, that the law of God makes self-love a rule and measure by which our love to others should be regulated. Thus Christ commands (Mat. 19:19), “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” which certainly supposes that we may, and must, love ourselves. It is not said more than thyself, but as thyself. But we are commanded to love our neighbor next to God; and therefore we are to love ourselves with a love next to that which we should exercise toward God himself. And the same appears also from the fact, that the Scriptures, from one end of the Bible to the other, are full of motives that are set forth for the very purpose of working on the principle of self-love. Such are all the promises and threatenings of the Word of God, its calls and invitations, its counsels to seek our own good, and its warnings to beware of misery. These things can have no influence on us in any other way than as they tend to work upon our hopes or fears. For to what purpose would it be to make any promise of happiness, or hold forth any threatening of misery, to him that has no love for the former or dread of the latter? Or what reason can there be in counseling him to seek the one, or warning him to avoid the other? Thus it is plain, negatively, that charity, or the spirit of Christian love, is not contrary to all self-love.

Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits; Or, Christian Love as Manifested in the Heart and Life, ed. Tryon Edwards (London: James Nisbet, 1852), 159–160.

Tony Byrne said...

“Selfishness is not to be confounded with self-love. The latter is a natural and original principle of our nature and of the nature of all sentient creatures, whether rational or irrational. Belonging to their original constitution, and necessary to their preservation and well-being, it cannot be sinful. It is simply the desire of happiness which is inseparable from the nature of a sentient being. Selfishness, therefore, is net mere self-love, but the undue preference of our own happiness to the happiness or welfare of other. According to some, this preference is of the nature of a desire or feeling; according to others, it is of the nature of a purpose. In the latter view, all sin consists in the purpose to seek our own happiness rather than the general good, or happiness, as it is commonly expressed, of the universe. In either view, sin is the undue preference of ourselves.”

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 2:144–145.