Is self-interest incompatible with Christianity?
Today, I want to talk about three points of view that I disagree with.
First, I want to talk about my philosophy teacher. Back when I was taking philosophy classes, my teacher always made this dichotomy between self-interested morality (egoism) and other-focused morality. He thought other-focused morality was part of the whole western philosophical point of view, especially Judeo-Christian morality. He was, after all, a big fan of Nietzsche who heavily criticized Christian morality. He was both a philosophical and a psychological egoist. He thought that in Christian morality, self-interest was a sin.
Second, I want to talk about something Steve made me think of. A lot of people criticize Christianity, because it seems to advocate self-interest. Specifically, it tries to get people into the kingdom by either promising them bliss or threatening them with punishment.
Third, I want to talk about the fact that a lot of Christians think there’s something wrong with converting out of fear of hell or desire for bliss. They agree with the first group above that Christianity should be only focused on others, and they also agree with the second group above that we shouldn’t embrace the gospel just to save ourselves from hell or to ensure our eternal happiness.
I find myself disagreeing with all three groups. First, I deny the dichotomy of the first group. While it is true that Christian morality is other-focused it is not only other-focused. And self-interest is not a sin in Christianity. Christian morality is concerned with the interests of both the self and of others. For example, Paul said, “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4). In discussing Christ’s love for the church, his body, he says, “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it” (Ephesians 5:29).
There is nothing wrong with being motivated to repentance by self-interest either. Throughout the New Testament, the writers are constantly appealing to self-interest as a motivator. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus uses the promise of rewards, punishments, and consequences to motivate moral behavior. For example, Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). Many of Jesus’ parables also appeal to self-interest (e.g. the parable of the 10 virgins).
There is nothing wrong with self-interest. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness. Self-interest is a concern about the self. Selfishness is a concern about the self at the expense of others. Christians are supposed to be concerned about both themselves and about others. Self-interest is a necessary part of life. We eat so we won’t get hungry. We put on clothes so we won’t be cold. We get jobs so we’ll have money and can support ourselves. Most of what we do is out of self-interest. If self-interest were a sin, then we’d be in an impossible situation. We couldn’t breathe without sinning. It cannot be wrong, then, to embrace the gospel out of self-interest. That is not selfish.