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Generous Self-Interest

We’ve developed a natural aversion to self-interest. An aversion so strong that our altruism is halted by the twisted question, “Do people give because it makes them feel good?” We think it may be better to forego generosity than risk satisfying our self-interest. I don’t know where we got the idea that desiring our own good is bad—C.S. Lewis accuses Kant and the Stoics—but it’s a terrible lie. It begins by confusing the words selfishness and self-interest. Articles like this one use the terms interchangeably when a key difference exists between them. Unlike self-interest, selfishness seeks your own good without regard for others. If I get joy from giving, that may satisfy my own desire, but it simultaneously improves the well-being of others. It’s self-interested, but not selfish. So—and this is the point—how we define our self-interest matters. Only in this light can we make sense of the Bible’s language of reward. Our giving, our deeds, our choices—they all come with promises. For instance:
Paul writes to the Philippians, “Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account.” In Exodus, we find, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.” And Jesus says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you.
If we shouldn’t act out of a desire for our own good, these passages make no sense. Why would Jesus appeal to our self-interest? Today, we’d prefer he just said “Do not judge. Do not condemn. Forgive. Give.” Then, our actions wouldn’t be tainted by rewards. Altering the command produces a destructive self-righteousness. Instead of receiving the promised rewards we get the secret satisfaction of thinking we did the right thing for the right reasons. However, once we realize that satisfaction is itself a reward, we’re likely to stop giving altogether. The result isn’t morality; it’s apathy. Yet we try to emulate this argument in economics. Capitalism is hounded for its foundation in self-interest, as if incentives produced greed and inequality, not our corrupted desires. Attempting to limit self-interest won’t remedy these vices, it will just redirect them. We must redefine our self-interest instead. The parable of the shrewd manager is a good place to start. Jesus told his disciples about a manager who dishonestly reduces the bills of his master’s debtors to secure his future. Then, Jesus draws an unexpected lesson from the story: “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” C.S. Lewis is right, “Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak.” Too many of us have the myopic self-interest of the rich fool—eat, drink and be merry—and ignore the promise of eternal reward. When we adopt that perspective, we can confidently respond to twisted questions about altruism by saying our actions are driven by a much greater desire than the reward of a “good feeling.” Self-interest isn’t evil. And the sooner we realize it, the more generous we’ll be.