Tuesday, November 22, 2005

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.


At 11/22/2005 8:14 AM , Blogger Kelly said...

Great post, Sam. I've been thinking about selfishness/self-interest as a Christian alot lately, and you made it really clear here. I'm going to try to do a study on this, thanks for giving me a starting place.

At 11/22/2005 2:23 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Hi Kelly! Long time no see! I was just thinking that one of the most basic moral principles in Judaism and Christianity is to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). If self-interest were wrong, then loving your neighbor would be out the window.

At 11/22/2005 5:38 PM , Blogger Steve said...

there's nothing wrong with self-interest.

But I think the issue here is more complex.

If a person is, for example, spreading the good word of Christ in order that they may go to heaven, then its not an entirely compassionate act. If, as a matter of self interest, they go to a homeles shelter to feed to poor, its not an entirely compassionate act either.

On the other hand, perhaps an atheist who does the same good act is in fact more compassionate, because they dont expect any spiritual reward for their actions.

At 11/22/2005 7:49 PM , Blogger daleliop said...


Even if we use your definition of compassion as acting with a complete focus on others (and completely disregarding ourselves), atheists (and practically anyone) would fail to make this requirement. One could always claim that the atheist enjoys helping homeless people, so is only serving himself even though he appears to serve others.

The problem is no one defines compassion that way. Compassion is acting on a sincere motivation to help others.

I suspect Sam would bring out the Jonathan Edwards argument about now.

It is because the Christian and atheist want to help the homeless that they deserve praise. However, if the Christian in your example only helped the homeless to be rewarded by God and no other reason, then that implies that he did not really have any sincere concern for the homeless person's well-being -- he was being insincere. Therefore, he was not being compassionate.

But if the Christian really did want to help the homeless person, then it doesn't matter that he would also be rewarded by God by doing so. The Christian has true motivations to help, and he acts on them (as does the atheist). That's what counts.

At 11/22/2005 10:10 PM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Steve, I agree it can get complicated. Since Christian morality is concerned with the interests both of the self and of others, there's the potential for conflicts of interest. There are moral dilemmas in which we have to choose between our own self-interest and the interest of others.

There are times when we should choose our own interest over others. For example, if a mad man said, "I'm either going to cut your throat, or I'm going to steal candy from a baby. You choose!" you should choose yourself.

There are also times when you should choose others over yourself. If somebody said, "I'm going to cut this baby's throat, or else you're going to give up your candy. You choose!" you should give up your candy.

I also agree that a person's motives have everything to do with how commendable or blameable their actions are. A person who helps others out of a concern for them is certainly more commendable than a person who helps others in order to gain a reward. My only point is that there's nothing wrong with doing good in order to gain some reward.

At 11/23/2005 4:59 AM , Blogger Steve said...

there's nothing wrong with donating to charity for a tax deduction, for example, but as you say its important to know what issue is paramount. The tax deduction, or the charity.

At 11/23/2005 8:49 AM , Blogger Jeff said...

Steve, you make an excellent point. It sounds, however, like you have the mistaken notion that Christians only do good out of a desire to earn heavenly rewards.

While that is true, and Scripture encourages us to have that motivation, it's also very much the case that Christians exhibit more true altruism, as a whole, than most other segments of society.
Inherent in the Christian worldview is the paramount value of human beings. Christianity is very much other-focused.

So while you were right about motives, I hope you weren't claiming that Christians are only doing good for selfish motives.

At 11/24/2005 2:22 AM , Blogger daleliop said...


Looks like you've got a new record for comments, huh? ;)

At 11/24/2005 2:59 AM , Blogger ephphatha said...

Yes. Isn't that exciting? I must've said something controversial. ;-) It kind of makes me want to keep talking about Calvinism.

At 6/23/2015 10:10 AM , Blogger Cody Libolt said...

Hey, I'm excited to see a post of Christianity and self-interest. Still thinking about these topics ten years later? I'd love to share with you about a new blogging group devoted to the topic. You can find it at reasoninview.com

At 6/23/2015 10:37 AM , Blogger Sam Harper said...

I was thinking about it a couple of days ago when it came up on a discussion forum.


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