Self-Interest vs. Selfishness
Benevolence is a central theme of Christian ethics. Giving is considered one of the highest virtues. The antithesis of benevolence is selfishness. A central element of market economies is self-interest. Therefore, market economics is antithetical to Christian living, right?
This is the logic presented by many Christian social justice advocates looking for a new Kingdom economics. But the logic is wrong. It incorrectly equates “selfishness” with “self-interest.” It fails to appreciate that self-interest and benevolence are complementary expressions of human flourishing, every bit as much as inhaling and exhaling are complementary expressions of bodily health.
As parents, we teach our children to wash their hands before they eat, to bundle up before going into the cold, and to look both ways when crossing the street. We encourage them to do their homework, we teach them to manage money, and we train them with life skills so they can coexist with others. We encourage adults to buckle up, to get exercise, and get annual physicals. All of these things are about people being self-interested.
Without self-interest, an individual becomes a needless drain on the resources of others. Not only must others take care of themselves but they must also manage the life of the self-disinterested person. Multiply the number of self-disinterested people and before long you have the collapse of the entire community. Our bodies and minds are resources entrusted to us by God and daily care of these resources is essential to good stewardship.
The scripture regularly appeals to self-interest to effect transformation in people’s lives. In Matthew 7 Jesus said, “Do not Judge …” Why? “… so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Isn’t this a direct appeal to our self-interest; the avoidance of judgment?
In Matthew 16:25-26, Jesus teaches:
Isn’t the point here that our soul is more valuable then ownership of the whole world? Therefore, it is in our “self-interest” to protect our soul and avoid being deluded by worldly enticements.
What did Jesus say was the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor and hate yourself?” No. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” We love both neighbor and our self. It is in our “self-interest” to be other-centered but we can’t know how to effectively be other-centered without first being self-interested.
What has this to do with economic concerns? Free and virtuous pursuit of self-interest is absolutely essential to just economic production and to human flourishing. But self-interest alone is insufficient.