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Aug 24, 2009


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Chuck North

Great comments. The zero-sum game idea is particularly germane. In his book "The Clashing Worlds of Economics and Faith," Jim Halteman contends that the economy of biblical Palestine was mainly a fixed-pie, zero-sum economy. Thus, if you got more, someone else necessarily got less. If you had too much, then someone else necessarily had too little. It is understandable that many biblical passages would thus take such a strong position against the accumulation of wealth.

That creates some difficulty when we try to apply the Bible's statements on wealth to a modern economy in which production and exchange are generally part of a positive sum game. It does NOT mean that it's perfectly fine to amass wealth and ignore the needs of others, of course. However, the fact that some wealth is productive and can support not only the owner but also many others means that accumulation of such wealth actually does benefit others, through jobs and income most obviously.

Michael W. Kruse

I think the zero-sum thinking of 1st century Palestine is the norm across cultures and time until very recently. The change in production through specialization, trade, and technology has opened up a previously unheard of state of affairs. That is why I think we need a good healthy dialog between theology and economics but unfortunately my experience has been that a great many theologians don't understand the shift or view its almost entirely negative.

Travis Greene

And too many economists view the shift as entirely positive.

LeVon Smoker

"Self-interest" seems to be a slippery word. If enough people have used it incorrectly, does it's meaning effectively change in general discourse? (like the nonsensical "irregardless"!) The problem I have with it is just that - we don't have a definition that can help us know when it slips over into selfishness. Many acts of others that I might see as "selfishness" might quickly be justified by the actor as merely done in their own "self-interest." Who gets to adjudicate? Is Smith an economic "scripture"?

Maybe a macro problem I see in this discussion is that the primary communities addressed by the "proposed" theology and economics have not been specified. Are we talking about the US? The church in the US? The global church?

Michael W. Kruse

Travis, spot on. Thanks.

Chuck North

Michael, you're right that a low/zero growth, zero-sum economy was the norm for much of human history. Malthus had the misfortune of making that exact observation just about the time that a positive-growth economy was emerging.

Travis, the shift to a positive-sum game economy is entirely a positive thing. That does not mean that all results of it are positive. There are obviously issues related to the distribution of all that wealth. But if the choice is between a productive, growing economy or a static one - there's not much doubt in my mind which one is better for humankind.

Travis Greene

And what about the rest of creation?

Michael W. Kruse

Levon, I'm sympathetic to your concerns about using a confusing word. I wish a had a better word.

The problem is that each discipline develops their own language for conversing about complex issues. This language has been integral to economics for more than a century. If there is to be cross-discipline dialog, then some effort has to be made by theologians to inhabit the world of economists and grasp core concepts. I would say the same is true for economists who want to a better discussion as well.

Self-interest (as economists define it) is inescapable. While some economists have gone overboard with pursuit of autonomy as the ultimate in self-interest, many in the theological world seem to cast all interest in the self as wrong. Self-interest will always go astray when the self is elevated above, and isolated from, the community of God, others, and the created order. That is why we need redemption and a radical reordering of what constitute our self-interest.

As to the communities I'm addressing, in the first post I noted that I'm talking about economists who would generally affirm the principles taught in a standard text like Mankiw's "Principles of Economics." The theologians I'm referring to are predominately those in the Mainline tradition (United Methodist, ELCA, PCUSA, Episcopal, American Baptist, UCC, Christian Church, etc.) as well as Roman Catholic Teaching. From my position, they tend to be the harshest critics and least engaged with economics.

Michael W. Kruse

"And what about the rest of creation?"

Yup. That is the big question of our day. I'll come to that (but probably not quick enough to come to anyone's satisfaction.) :-)

My next post deals with the idea "common good" and then I will post on how the human condition has changed. Then I'm going jump into the dialog I think needs to happen between theologians and economists.


I've got to agree with Travis, with all due appreciation for its benefits, have we counted the various costs of the high production/growth system that we have harnessed? Especially now that our US economy is global, I wonder how we reconcile our ways of consuming and producing with other local or regional economies around the world who may want or need to do things differently. Have we given others the economic self-determination to reconcile their economy with culture and values that we give ourselves?

How does a system that is "entirely positive" not have positive results for everyone or for our land? Case in point, I've always wondered about land usage when it comes to franchised retail stores. Is it environmentally beneficial to build 5 CVS stores within blocks of each other, only to have to close half of them a year or two later. It may be cheap for the owner, but is it the best productive use of the land - who decides? I'm interested to see Michael's and others take on these kind of dilemmas.

LeVon Smoker

1. On Christian theology as a discipline: We need to take care that we who are Christian do not accept the modern view of theology/religion as a discipline with a language that others should not be expected to learn. Of course, it's not going to be easy for someone to learn it from scratch, but I'm convinced that we need to speak it and live it in such a way that it becomes intelligible to others. For instance, how do we make sense of the fact that we worship a crucified God in light of this self-interest? (I'm quite aware that he was finally resurrected and ascended, but not until he was utterly humiliated and laid in a tomb. "Worthy is the lamb who was slain.") It takes discipline and patience for when we do poorly and are misunderstood, but miraculously, understanding happens.

2. If self-interest is truly inescapable then in fact, we must say that we are enslaved to it. That is when it becomes sin. I think there might be a thread back to the "total depravity of man" in there.

3. Is there any data on capitalist economies in places where there has been little or no "Christian influence" in the last generation or two?

LeVon Smoker

One other thing... The "love your neighbor" commandment needs to be kept together with the first half of what is called the "double-love" commandment: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind." Theological liberalism loves to take the 2nd half and drag it around to wherever it has already decided it wants to go, rather than becoming wrapped up in both parts and having our desires re-order.

Michael W. Kruse


1. Theology functions at many levels. We are all theologians in a very real sense. But some are specially devoted to studying and teaching the Word in ways the rest of us are not. Learning communities inevitably develop jargon to facilitate dialog though it is a double edged sword. Jargon can end up blinding us to realities. I think you maybe expressing a concern of the separation of academic theology from practical theology of everyday life. It is a concern I have but I'm not sure one needs to subsume the others.

2. "Inescapable" may not be the best word. Self-interest is "inherent" in being human.

2. God is good. God created each of us as selves. Being a self is good. Jesus came to redeem selves. Jesus cares about us. So should we care about our selves.

God-interest, other-interest and self-interest are all holy. We will be self-interested in the new creation. It will be in perfect balance with being God-interested and other-interested. There is no way to be human without being self-interested. As I see it there are three options:

1. We are automatons who either pre-programmed or being directed by a an external source.

2. We are directed by a bundle random firing neurons.

3. We are selves with minds that have awareness of our self and our immediate circumstances. We are aware we have options. We take interest in our selves (self interest) and choose according to some calculus about what our self should do and act.

What are the other choices?

3. Japan has been one model that was essentially non-Christian. China is an emerging example. But there is diversity of capitalist economies among Christian influenced nations.

Yes the two Great-Commandments need to be taken together for a complete view but the subject here is relationship to others. Not that Jesus in (Matt 19:19), Paul (Rom 13:9, Gal 5:14) and James (James 2:8) all use the neighbor command alone when talking about relationships. For instance:

Gal 5:14

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."


So if the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18) could have been rationally convinced that selling everything to follow Jesus served his best enlightened self-interest, then he would not have done so, instead of walking away sad?

Isn’t there something insufficiently granular and even arbitrary about Jesus’s concrete judgments in letting people like the rich young ruler walk away, while selecting and hanging on to the twelve who kept messing up their own self-interest (“who is the greatest?”) by confusing it with the Kingdom?

I’m not in disagreement with the definitions of self-interest, nor the win-win-win equation above; but, there’s something unequivocally harsh about Jesus’s higher bar to the rich young ruler. I don't mean this comment to list into moralizing.

Are there question marks interrupting the chain of win-?-win, in God's real life, applied judgments?

It’s almost like Jesus takes the rich young ruler into a non-linear dynamical economy, where the smallest error in his judgment had catastrophic consequences.

We’re just not built to handle uncertainty. Not real uncertainty. No matter how many win-win-win equations are chiseled into stones.




Correction (should have read): So if the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18) could have been rationally convinced that selling everything to follow Jesus served his best enlightened self-interest, then he would have done so (sold everything), instead of walking away sad?


Michael W. Kruse

In the three versions of the story, Matt 19, Mark 10, and Luke 18, Jesus lists off all the human relationship commandments of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20: 12-17) except for one. (In Matthew, he adds the general command “love your neighbor as yourself.”) He leaves off covetousness. The man says he has kept all these commandments. Jesus says he lacks one thing. He needs to give up his wealth and follow Jesus … he needs to overcome his covetousness. This is not a passage about wealth so much as it about this mans relationship to it and the power that covetousness and status can have over us.

I think there is difference between the man and the disciples. The disciples knew they were outsiders to the status game of either the Romans or the Jews. Yes, they messed up a lot but they knew to whom they had given their allegiance … Jesus … they were “of the community” that was the Kingdom.

The rich young ruler presumes he is of the community based on his status. But Jesus simultaneously shows him that he is outside the community and shows him the door into the community … allegiance to Jesus. The disciples had chosen that door, this man could not.


On the RYR and self-interest: What if a way of framing Jesus' mission on earth is to show us ('eyes to see') that following Jesus is what is in our ultimate self-interest and through his redemptive power also in our neighbor's self-interest. To me, sin entering the world did not create self-interest, rather it created a divide where we come to believe that our self-interest is mutually exclusive with others' benefit.
Jesus was trying to show the RYR where his true self-interest lies. In giving away his riches and following Christ, he would have been on the path to wholeness rather than worship of riches, which truly was the best choice for him. It wasn't a logical argument, but rather a call to see the world differently, as Christ sees it.

Jesse Blocher

FYI, rather than posting in the comments, I extended some of this discussion in my own blog for any interested:

Chuck North


"And what about the rest of creation?"

I suppose the glib (though not totally incorrect) answer is that the stress placed on "the rest of creation" is one of those distributional problems that comes along with adoption of a modern productive conomy based on positive-sum interactions.

But I suspect the real point lurking under our discussion is that word "entirely." As I said, I don't think that a modern economy comes with no negatives. That's obviously a false statement. So, the question I ask in any evaluation of whether something is better or worse is - "compared to what?"

When I claimed that a modern producetive economy based on positive sum interactions is "entirely a positive thing," I am comparing it to what came before - a Malthusian world of subsistence living, bad health, and short life spans. The modern economy has made possible the technological innovations that make elimination of hunger a real possibility. The scope of the markets for goods generates the potential for productive efficiencies that can drive down the price of goods for consumers. Indeed, we only have the luxury to have this online conversation because of the massive surpluses generated by positive-sum trading in a modern economy.

Again, this does not mean that such an economy has no negatives. But I continue to maintain that our modern economy is entirely better than what preceded it. Perhaps the functioning of our modern economy can be made even better; economists and many others strive for better outcomes all the time.

The sense I get, though, is that you and others have a different "compared to what?" In particular, there is some idealized economy that has all of the good stuff of our modern economy and none of the bad. At a minimum, if you wish to indict the shift to a modern, positive-sum-based economy as not being "entirely good," then you have some good-faith obligation to state clearly what you are comparing it to along with how to get to the economic system you prefer.


Michael, thanks. Two good answers. The second more to my question on the nature of self-interest and the RYR. The first answer felt a bit circular because the nature of “allegiance to Jesus” lacked reference to self-interest.

I’m unsettled yet on whether Jesus’s response, “wasn't a logical argument, but rather a call to see the world differently, as Christ sees it.” I think this is true. It’s just that I’m uncomfortably expansive enough right now that all my fast and frugal heuristics feel upside down and look like Rorschachs. I’ve done poverty law and advocacy in a robustly torqued faith pushing 25 years, and I’m too close to the trees of cases. I’ve lost perspective on the economic forest.

For example, I sometimes feel that Jesus is not speaking to an individual (granular) RYR at all, but to a composite image abstracted from the aggregate population of buyers and sellers. I can’t prove this. It’s more a devotional and meditative feeling. Not a technical exegesis.

And I have nowhere to ground this feeling in economics. The vocational hazards of reading words of Jesus alongside HR3200.

Though I agree, “following Jesus is what is in our ultimate self-interest and through his redemptive power also in our neighbor's self-interest.”

LeVon Smoker

Why, oh why, must the most basic human desire be framed as "self-interest"? I completely disagree with the notion that self-interest needs to be central for Christians who do economics and should therefore shape their economics. Reading the Bible through the eyes of self-interest makes everything appear to be guided by self-interest. Such a reading is mistaken. Christ didn't suffer so that he could survive... Has anyone here read John 3:16?

I feel that the understanding of self-interest given in these posts renders God's love completely unknowable since our first love is apparently directed toward the "self."

I thought this series would be more theological, but it seems that what's going on is simply a complaint that theologians don't want to accept prevailing Western economic theory as a absolute good.



Michael will have his own answer, I'm sure.

“Self-interest” needn’t be a moralized concept. At higher levels, it’s a statistical concepts useful for predicting aggregate behavior under highly abstract and limit conditions. You are free in economic theory to use any other reified concept that you like from your preferred moral-theological toolbox of biblical exegesis and persuasion.

For example, I agree with you that – “Christ didn't suffer so that he could survive... Has anyone here read John 3:16?” Yes. I’ve read it. But at the same time, Christ didn’t suffer so that he could stay dead and gone forever. The suffering and death of Christ is as also a limit condition on Divine Suffering, that is, a limit condition because Christ died once and only once and for all.

And then the Resurrection. It’s the meaning of that very lived-life which Christ now lives in us that makes us ask how then to live.

What we’re really asking in this lived-life of Christ is much like the question the Israelites asked of the manna, “what is it?”

And we’re really acting in our self-interest to pick it up and eat it.

If you don’t like “self-interest” as your lens (or just one lens) for asking that question, then you will still eventually encounter the hard (maybe impossible) question of how you want to define any other abstract concept of randomness to identify exactly the behavior that’s the departure from the norm of your moral compass of Christ’s life. Many concepts, like “self-interest,” be can renormalized to fit into other moral schemes. It’s not necessary to hold “self-interest” as a logically contradictory program to all other comers.

If you mock up a different approach for the public conversation about our manna and its distribution, then it’s really up to you to decide how much money and time to spend trying to improve on the accuracy of your alternative language (alternative to self-interest) beyond what the precision of your new moral terminology will allow.

Whether I love it or hate it, the concept of “self-interest” is very practical in the real world.

Travis Greene


I do indeed have a different "compared to what". It's the kingdom of God. The question of how appropriate it is to use that as a comparison is a valid one. The big question for me right now is, are we called to do the best we can in a fallen world or to be an alternative by living in the redeemed world?

I also sense that what is usually missing from these conversations is the importance of the stability that comes from the rule of law. No economic system works without basic safety and infrastructure (and yes, the converse is true as well). The modern economy didn't spring into existence unaffected by political history. The two are intertwined.

I'm also suspicious of whitewashing those very real negative effects (environmental damage, genocide, chattel slavery) of the modern project. Even if we do decide that, overall, the net result has been positive, aren't we required to be honest about the real costs?



You guys are killing me. No, it’s me. I’m butting in. Uninvited.

I saw your website. Hope to come over and play a little when I can. Work to do.

A short two-cents.

Travis wrote - “..also sense that what is usually missing from these conversations is the importance of the stability that comes from the rule of law. No economic system works without basic safety and infrastructure.”

A comment that Posnerian economic-analysis-of-law lovers, would love.

See Scott Veitch, “Law and Irresponsibility: On the Legitimation of Human Suffering,” (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007). Veitch is too fuzzy-philosophic for me. His best empirical riff scopes in on UN sanctions on Iraq: law causing death to unforgivable numbers (40,000?) of Iraqi children. Legal, hence legitimate; hence immunized from criminal responsibility. Veitch isn’t an ideologue. Maybe mildly. He acknowledges forward progress. But that law can be a mathematical ratchet of stability for econ - in many ways.

Like you said, a broken world. A helluva-broken world, at that.

Hendrix - ‘there must be some kinda way outa here ....” For me, back to work.



Michael W. Kruse

[Warning! Looong Comment]

I haven’t made any case for an economic perspective yet. But as to the question of self-interest, you are still using it as synonym for selfishness. As I said in the post self-interest has nothing to do with selfishness.

With every decision there is an internal dialog that says, “Okay self. In light of what I believe to be true, and in light of my ethics, what shall I do?” The response is “Option B is the right choice.” The response back is “Okay, then to live according to the truth and ethics I hold, option B in my best self-interest.” And option B is executed. The question is what informs our understanding of truth and ethics?

So let’s get theological. The scripture is full of appeals to our self-interest. It could not be otherwise with reflective beings with choice. Your comment prompted me to do something I’ve been meaning to do. I skimmed over the book of Matthew for examples of Jesus appealing to our self-interest. I skipped over several and still I have this list:

Matt 6:3-4

3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is in your self-interest to give alms in secret because you will be rewarded.

Matt 6:14-15

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

It is in your self-interest to forgive because you will get whatever you dish out.

Matt 6:16-18

16 "And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is in your self-interest to fast in secret because you will be rewarded.

Matt 6:19 -21

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

It is in your self-interest not to get caught up in the pursuit of worldly possessions but rather it is in your interest to store up treasures in heaven.

Matt 7:1-2

1 "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.

It is in your self-interest not to judge because you will get whatever treatment you dish out.

Matt 11:28-30

28 "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

It is in your self-interest to lean on Jesus because your burden will be lighter.

Matt 16:25-26

25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

It is in your self-interest not to get caught up in worldly status but rather to find your life in Jesus.

Matt 18:3-5

"Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

It is in your self-interest to become as child because that is how you enter the kingdom.

Matt 18:8-9

8 "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.

It is in your self-interest to lose your hand or eye if the will cause you to end up in the hell of fire.

Matt 18:32-35

32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

It is in your-self interest to be merciful because God is merciful and despises those who aren’t.

Matt 19:21

21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

It is in your-self interest to give up everything for the treasures in heaven.

Matt 19:29-30

29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

It is in your-self interest to forsake all and follow Jesus because you will be richly rewarded.

Matt 20:26-28

26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

It is in your self-interest to put others ahead of yourself because you will be rewarded with honor.

Matt 23:11-12

11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

It is in your self-interest to put others ahead of yourself because you will be rewarded with honor.

Matt 24:13

13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

It is in your self-interest to persevere because you will be saved.

Matt 25:12-13

12 But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

It is in your self-interest to be alert and not miss the Jesus’ return.

Matt 25:28-30

28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

It is in your self-interest to be faithful with what God has given you because if you are you will be rewarded and if you fail you will suffer.

The “woes” in Chapter 23 … isn’t the whole point to get people to reflect on what they are doing, conclude that the consequences Jesus is suggesting is not in their self-interest, repent, and live differently? Isn’t the moral of parable after parable that one character chooses well and another chooses poorly … it is in your self-interest to choose wisely to get a reward or avoid a punishment? Was Jesus appealing to selfishness?

LeVon Smoker


I’m willing to let Paul use scripture in ways that I wouldn’t be comfortable allowing either of us to do :-)


But self-interest per se is spoken of as a good (or maybe I’ve been reading these posts wrongly). Take for example, the general statement by no-one in particular: “The economy goes well when each one pursues their own interests.” To me, that makes it hard to keep self-interest amoral. A quote from Adam Smith (via Cavanaugh (92)) seems to agree:
Men, though naturally sympathetic, feel so little for another, with whom they have no particular connexion, in comparison of what they feel for themselves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow creature, is of little importance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own.

I agree with your comments about the resurrection, but I would argue that calling it self-interest is quite unorthodox and pushes the biblical ideas of obedience to God, trust in God, being a witness to the power of God’s spirit way off to the side. It tries to make God technically manageable. Same goes for the manna. I think it’s best understood as a narrative of obedience to God and trust in his provision (you do need to account for the prohibition on hoarding somehow). Furthermore, that points back to the garden where the first thing God spoke to Adam was a command freeing him to eat from any tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Adam took his first bite, he was doing it in obedience. When he and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit, they were acting according to their own will, separate from God’s will. What I’m heading toward is that self-interest is way too narrow a scope for understanding how people live, love, obey God, disobey God, or even buy light bulbs.

As far as a concept of randomness, I’m not really interested in developing another abstraction. What I am interested in is fostering language among Christians which makes their faith in God and way of living that faith intelligible to that which has traditionally been called “the world.” I don’t see “self-interest” as being helpful.

Now here’s a question, would you be willing to use the language of self-interest to describe your relationship with your significant other, your family relations. Would you say to your spouse, “I’m in this relationship because I want something from you and I’m willing to give something in return to get it”? Are our relationships merely transactions?

Back to Michael,

Re: the scripture passages... First, I’m not a consequentialist, and perhaps you are, but it seems to me that they are not self-evidently appealing to human self-interest. If they are read once you are already convinced that self-interest is the “deepest magic from before the dawn of time,” then yes, I can understand how a person could see self-interest behind them.

Another problem I see is that this way of reading the scriptures doesn’t mesh with the communal nature of ancient peoples. Jesus and his hearers were not modern, Western “individuals.” The survival of the community/nation was paramount. Individuals could readily be sacrificed if that survival was endangered. For ancient Israel, it was similar but differed in a fundamental area: they were to constantly remember that God was the creator and sustainer of their nation – not their own armies or policies or economies. “Remember who brought you out of Egypt!”

Michael W. Kruse

Another point I forgot to include was this: In each of the passages from Matthew above ask yourself who also benefits when we act with our self-interest as Jesus presents it. Notice that when we do the thing that is in our self-interest, the best interest of others is addressed and God's will is done. Which is also to say, that when we look out for the best interest others and seek to do God's will, we serve our self-interest.

Michael W. Kruse

LeVon I am struggling mightly to understand your perspective but one thing is clear to me, you are not understanding my position at all.

“Would you say to your spouse, “I’m in this relationship because I want something from you and I’m willing to give something in return to get it”? Are our relationships merely transactions?”

No, I would not that to my wife and, no, I’m not in the relationship for transactions. That is selfishness. That is self-interest cut off from God and what God values.

I love my wife. Because of that, I see her joy and well-being as the most important thing to me. Because these are the most important things to me it is in my self-interest to seek her joy and well being. Other-centeredness and self-interest become one.

No, I’m not a consequetialist and I did not say self-interest is the “deepest magic from before the dawn of time.” I’m saying we are reflective volitional beings. Self-Interest is ontological. Volitional beings act.

“You are to love your neighbor.” I am the subject. Love is the action. Neighbor is the object of the action. So I meet my neighbor. I have volition. I take an interest in what I, as a subject, should do. I can choose to love my neighbor or not.

I love God. I want to love who and what God loves. God wants me to love my neighbor. Therefore, it is in my self-interest to love my neighbor. I exercise my volition and choose to love my neighbor. Other-centeredness and self-interest have become one. That is redeemed humanity.

When you eliminate self-interest … taking interest in one’s self as the subject of action … you have eliminated volition. The only options left are that our decisions are done by reflex or that they are programmed into us. Reflection on self … being self-interested … in essential to how the Bible describes us as human.

Eudaemonic Pie


Some good responses.


You wrote - “But self-interest per se is spoken of as a good (or maybe I’ve been reading these posts wrongly) ....”

I saw your Smith quote. And I’ll get to it shortly. Self-interest is a good only to the same extent that any other fiction serves its purpose. For example, the “reasonable person” standard in tort law is a fiction. A legal fiction. There is no specific “reasonable person” sitting around in a bar or a church somewhere. The judge instructs the jury to judge a case based on a “reasonable person” standard. And gives a few more instructions for what this legal fiction means. But, not too many more instructions because we trust the jury to judge in fidelity to this fiction - the legal fiction - of a “reasonable person.” The “reasonable person” is a good because it is a good fiction in helping juries know how to judge. The same holds for the fiction of “self-interest” in economics. Except that economics uses more powerful measurements to tell whether “self-interest” is working well as a fiction to describe behavior. And self-interest in the market is a testable fiction for the market as a whole. Individuals may depart from acting according to this fiction. Significantly. And incur moral blame or praise. From Theresa to Madoff.

Self-interest is only as good as it behaves in real life across a whole market. Self-interest is not an economic good in the same sense as a universal, normative, categorical moral judgment. And self-interest as a market fiction may need to be tossed someday. Or modified. If some individuals happen like the self-interest fiction because it overlaps with their libertarian theology, then this needs to be taken up separately from self-interest as a market function.

Now, your Smith quote - “Men, though naturally sympathetic, feel so little for another, with whom they have no particular connexion, in comparison of what they feel for themselves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow creature, is of little importance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own.”

This is dicta. It may be true. But it’s still dicta because it’s not necessary to the “self-interest” fiction as a measurable quantity in economics. It’s at least party false biologically. Because biology has shown by pretty invariable equations that kin-selected-reciprocal altruism extends care beyond the individual in self-sacrificing behaviors. With a little psychological priming, the question for economics is whether the market - as a market - might prompt a weaker form of such altruism. Neither Jesus nor Ayn Rand are relevant to these hard core measurements.

On the resurrection: I’m sorry that my language was worse than unorthodox, that is, it was too vague and cloudy. My main point was that the Resurrection is a limit condition against an eternal suffering in repeated, endless crucifixions. This is debatable because open theists torque God’s suffering as both real and ongoing. So I don’t want to press this. Too much.

I almost included comments like your comments about the Garden. And the almost unlimited freedom to take and eat freely. I think that’s really one (not the only) central paradigm for examining whether ‘self-interest’ has any relevance to in intersection between economics and the Divine. Think: bounded self-interest. There was a limit.

You wrote - “what I’m heading toward is that self-interest is way too narrow a scope for understanding how people live, love, obey God, disobey God, or even buy light bulbs.”

Yes. I agree. But the market as a market (the market is just an abstracted aggregate from the population) may still function in behaviors according to axioms of self-interest as formally defined. Or, as fictionally defined.

Once again, however, the burden is on you or me to articulate an alternative metric (based on your theological anthropology) that could be tested in the market place. And to propose this alternative as a hypothetical (testable). Not just as an untestable concept of all inclusive speculation.

On randomness: my wording was terrible. My point about randomness was only that you cannot really measure departures from your norm without stating the norm that you think does describe human economic behavior. I should have just said, “okay, then state your hypothetical alternative to ‘self-interest’ as the better way to measure and see if people really act that way - act according to your alternative statement.” That would have been enough.

You wrote – “ .. randomness, I’m not really interested in developing another abstraction. What I am interested in is fostering language among Christians which makes their faith in God and way of living that faith intelligible to that which has traditionally been called “the world.” I don’t see “self-interest” as being helpful.”

This is totally fair. Nothing wrong with that goal. Nothing, at all.

My interest, on the other hand, is to test whether your “intelligible” alternative makes any real difference in the behaviors of people who hold it dear.

What if you spun out a fairly fast and frugal and intelligible alternative language to “self-interest” – say language life ‘self-giving love,’ and if you pointed us to a community in existence today who practice this alternative ethic – what if the same mathematics used currently for economic self-interest still described the real life behaviors of this alternative economy? - so that this alternative economy used different verbal formulae (self-giving love’) to describe their economy, but the way the really behaved was not measurably any different from ‘self-interest’? What then?

Your final question – “.. would you be willing to use the language of self-interest to describe your relationship with your significant other, your family relations. Would you say to your spouse, ‘I’m in this relationship because I want something from you and I’m willing to give something in return to get it’? Are our relationships merely transactions?”

Wow. That’s almost unanswerable. Almost.

First, I use other languages to describe my intimate relationships with family and closest friends. I look for the misty look in their eyes. I hear the music in their voices of warm and loving greetings. I feel the common warmth of a smile and even of hard-jesting and roasting me for my foibles – at a shared dinner. I feel happy and really thankful for the willing hands to help me pull my 4x4 truck out of deep desert sand. I use the language of generosity, love, and thanks for these awesome experiences.

In fact, I go by feel much more than by any language for these intimate relationships.

Just like anybody else.

But this does not stop economists nor biologists from analyzing these same behaviors and showing that my behaviors fit with the equations that measure self-interest and biological altruism. And I’m not offended in the least by these measurements. Nor offended by these alternative languages. I know these things are not God. Just tools. At best. And that’s all: tools.

Are our “relationships merely transactions?”

No, of course not. I can have a solo relationship with a sunset that blows me away. Or sit in Silence all alone in my closet with the Spirit. Like I do daily. A relationship with One. But these relationships are analyzable as transactions. And the question whether theology really (I mean really) makes any difference to these relationships – say whether religious marriages are any more or less for convenience with religion as a mere artifact and conceit – these are factual questions. Not theoretical questions. Whether one is a consequentalist or a deontological moralist or a spiritual charismatic anarchist, makes no difference to whether these behaviors all look the same when measured.

And there’s the rub.



quick question for levon (i'm trying to catch up here) who stated

"Now here’s a question, would you be willing to use the language of self-interest to describe your relationship with your significant other, your family relations. Would you say to your spouse, “I’m in this relationship because I want something from you and I’m willing to give something in return to get it”? Are our relationships merely transactions"

while i love my wife and my love is what motivates me on her behalf, and i assume that is the relationship you have with your spouse; initially i WAS attracted to my wife (still am). i did not simply pick her randomly to show God's love to. before i ever spoke to her, i was physically attracted to her and i wanted to get to know her because of that. i'm not sure there are too many relationships that have started apart from either a physical or intellectual attraction that created a desire in both parties to pursue the other. i'm thinking that's self interest. (again, total novice to this page, but couldn't let an easy one slip by)

chris dorf

I see the entire explanation as faulty.
Self interest is not greed but focus on self.
The opposite is focus on 'the other'.
To characterize this argument in the way done here is an obfuscation of the real argument in this age old dilema.
Adam Smith merely stated that self interest helps everyone...I fail to see the truth there.
chris dorf

Michael W. Kruse

Chris, you are framing self-interest and other-interest as totally dichotomous mutually exclusive categories. They aren't. They're overlapping. Standing from God's perspective there are only two possibilities for actions I take.

1. Not in my self-interest and not in others' interest.

2. In my self-interest and in others' interest.

Other options are mirages:

3. In my self-interest and not in others' interest.

Because God has created me for community, my welfare is inextricably tied to the welfare of the community. Thus, while harming may neighbor may appear to me to be in my self-interest I am mistaken, either from error in judgment or willful misdeed. Thus, #3 actually becomes #1 above.

4. Not in my self-interest and in others' interest.

While it is possible to unintentionally act against my self-interest it is impossible to intentionally act against what I perceive to be my self-interest. The moment I decide to try to act a against my self-interest calculus has told me take that action, thus I perceive that action to be in my self-interest, otherwise I would not act.

Thus, since all we can do is act in our self-interest Jesus helps us to see that acting in others' interests are in our self-interest.

chris dorf

...as Jesus said, we are to do the will of the Father in Heaven - thus God's interest.

Since 'God so loved the world', we must act in God's interest also.

Our food 'is to do the will of the Father in Heaven'.

Those that 'lose their life (or self) will gain it"...

Call that self interest?
I think not.

chris dorf

Michael W. Kruse

Chris, I'm not trying to be snarky but read the line you wrote:

"Those that 'lose their life (or self) WILL GAIN IT"..."

What is the logic of the sentence?

Q. Why should we lose our life?
A. Because we gain a life?

It is in our self-interest to lose our life because we can gain our life. That is acting in self interest!

When James and John ask about being seated in the most privileged places, Jesus doesn't rebuke them. He essentially says "Go for it! Here is how you do it. Exceed all others at putting everyone ahead of yourself and you will be given the privileged positions. Therefore, it was in their self interest to become the servant of others. It was no in their self interest to be selfish.

At absolutely and unequivocally impossible for a volitional being not to act from self-interest. What Jesus does is reshape self interest based in selfishness to seeing our self interest in the context of community with God and others.

chris dorf

Come on Mr. Kruse. This is 21st Century logic to merely skirt the issue that the moral theologian/father of capitalism Adam Smith posed in 'On the Wealth of nations' and 'Moral Sentiments'.

The question 'Is it in your interest?' would not be intersting except after the cold war era.

The 'awareness of self' is what seperates the creatures of God that are made in His image. Need for food and shelter is a need, not a self interest. Need to proulgate is a need and not a self interest. These are natural needs.

Again, 'self' interest was raised up by Adam Smith in his arguement that 'all people working toward a self interest benefited the group'.

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