by Justin Dodds
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” (Smith 27). These words from Adam Smith in his 1776 classic, The Wealth of Nations, represent one of the most fundamental assumptions of the study of economics: that people are rational, self-interested beings. Arguing from a Christian standpoint, Reinhold Niebuhr agrees with Smith that “the assertion of self-interest” is an undeniable fact of human existence.5 But are these two thinkers correct? And if they are, what are the ethical implications for Christians? Is self-interest something good to be universally promoted, something bad that needs to be completely restrained, or something that should be harnessed in a limited fashion, somewhere between these two extremes? In the following article, various Christian perspectives will be considered to show that self-interest is an integral part of human nature, that self-interest is unethical when it causes Christians to neglect others’ interests, and that, despite this, self-interest can still be a legitimate basis for some economic and political structures.
The first contention, that people are self-interested, enjoys wide support from both Christian and economic viewpoints. Christian theology teaches that all people are sinful and thus selfish, seeking both to glorify themselves relative to their fellow people and seeking to supplant God as ruler of their own lives. The apostle Paul writes to his disciple Timothy that “people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:2-4). This scathing list demonstrates the extent of human vanity and the lengths to which people will go to pursue their own self-interest over the interests of others. Furthermore, many Christians consider pride to be the root of all other sins. As evidence, the example of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is often presented. In this story, the serpent tempts Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, saying that “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Thus, the very first sin recorded in the Christian canon is the sin of pride, or the attempt by humans to usurp God’s place as Lord. Reinhold Niebuhr is perhaps less direct in his analysis, but nonetheless agrees that “pure disinterestedness is an ideal which even individuals cannot fully achieve”.5 To the Christian, then, Smith’s words about the butcher, the brewer, and the baker should come as no surprise. Economic parlance about rational optimizers and spontaneous order aside, from the Christian perspective, humans are fundamentally selfish creatures.
Given the egotistical bent of the human heart, it is necessary to consider the implications of self-interest for the Christian seeking to live an ethical life. If the words of Paul to Timothy are any indication, the Bible is explicit in its criticism of those who pursue their own desires over the needs of others. In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul instructs the Christians there to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” and to “look not only to [your] own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Clearly, actions motivated by pure self-interest without regard for others are wrong. It is worth noting that sacrificial love is not the same as self-abasement, as Christians are instructed to take into account others’ interest in addition to their own. While Christians should certainly care for their neighbors during tough times, even if doing so requires sacrifice, the Bible does not require abject poverty to be a follower of Christ. Indeed, material wealth is frequently seen as a blessing in the Bible, and while money and other possessions may be a source of great temptation, they are not inherently good or bad. Reinhold Niebuhr also recognizes the importance of a “pure love ideal”7 in which people put the needs of others ahead of their own interests, even if he does not believe that such an ideal “can ever be made the basis of a civilization”.4 The question of the role of self-interest on an institutional or societal level will be dealt with momentarily, but the very existence of a pure love ideal implies that self-interest is not something to be admired as an inherent good. As these sources have made clear, according to the Christian worldview, self-interest should not be harnessed to pursue purely private ends.
But is this the only way to think of self-interest? In a sermon entitled, “The Use of Money,” John Wesley states that the Christian outlook on money should be to earn as much as possible, save as much as possible, and give as much as possible. According to this line of reasoning, it would seem that Christians should pursue their economic self-interest to some degree. Similarly, some Christians, drawing on the Effective Altruism movement, advocate pursuing high impact jobs, not for the associated financial comfort or luxurious lifestyles––as many of these jobs are quite well compensated, but for the ability to move large sums of money to effective charities (Effective Altruism for Christians). The Bible also lends support to these ideas. Paul admonishes Christians in Colossae to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward” (Colossians 3:23-24). Especially in a market-based economy, hard-working, high performing individuals are often able to achieve careers that command very high salaries. Since Christians are called to do their best with what they have been given, it follows that some Christians will naturally end up in positions of influence. However, the purpose of this kind of lifestyle, as Paul teaches, is not to receive material rewards, but to serve God. Thus, an important caveat is that pursuing some degree of self-interest may only be acceptable to the extent that Christians are enabled to give generously and sacrificially to others. So, pursuing one’s self-interest primarily to enjoy material comforts would be sinful, but pursuing one’s self-interest primarily to give to the poor would be virtuous. From the perspective of the economist, the individual is pursuing his self-interest in both scenarios, but motive creates a moral distinction. Therefore, self-interest is not a good itself, but a potential method of cultivating good habits that are consistent with the Christian life.
So far, the relatively uncontroversial conclusions that self-interest is a part of the human condition and that narrow self-interest is not a Christian virtue have been derived. But a far more interesting and consequential question is to what extent self-interest should be recognized, utilized, and even promoted by economic and governmental structures. The blatant promotion of self-interest is widespread in America today. Social media, universities, the self-help industry, and others tell people to do what makes them happy, to follow their dreams, to just be themselves, and to “treat yo’ self” (“Pawnee Rangers”). Less explicitly, the capitalist and democratic foundations of the American economic and political systems rely on each person doing what is best for himself and each person having a voice to function properly. Given the expounded Christian views on self-interest, there seems to be a tension here. While it might be easy to object to cultural wisdom that endorses abject selfishness, it is less clear that Christians should challenge long-standing institutions, like capitalism and democracy, on similar grounds. On this subject, Christians are far from reaching a consensus.
When it comes to the question of self-interest within institutions, there are two broad scenarios that must be considered: directing policy specifically to further the interests of the group and enlisting self-interest as the organizing principle of an institution. The first asserts the strategic pursuit of self-interest as a legitimate goal, while the second posits that self-interest is generally consistent with the common good. These will be considered in turn. Some would say that the use of self-interest in the service of, say, a nation is basically a group-level version of a person pursuing his own interests ahead of his neighbors’. Along these lines, H. Richard Niebuhr argues that no military action is justified if it is not entirely free from national self-interest.3 His brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, while disagreeing with this conclusion, agrees that “the assertion of self-interest and the expression of moral conceit and hypocrisy” constitute “social sin”.5 While Reinhold believes that nations can still be justified in going to war, this does not excuse them from these sins. Peter Meilaender, writing about immigration, argues that Christians should attempt to balance the interests of foreigners with the interests of their countrymen, to whom they share “special obligations.” However, “a narrow focus on personal self-interest” is not a legitimate reason for supporting or opposing a particular policy.6 Thus, it may be morally acceptable to limit the total number of immigrants accepted per year in order to prevent wage deflation for your neighbors, for example, but a policy that prioritizes immigrants with economically valuable skills over those in dire need of refuge is morally suspect. Likewise, a country may rightly enact sanctions against a belligerent world power in order to counter unjust military action, but it would be wrong to invade another country to exploit its natural or industrial resources. It would seem, then, that pure self-interest augmented to encompass the concerns of a group would indeed be an impermissible expression of selfishness and a lack of hospitality, generosity, and concern for others.
To say that narrow self-interest should not be pursued by Christians (whether individually or in groups) is very different from saying expressions of self-interest should be forbidden. In America specifically, but also in much of the world, democratic governments and market-based economies allow individuals to make decisions regarding the politicians they vote for, the jobs they work, the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and myriad other facets of daily life. Conversely, in collectivist societies like the defunct Soviet Union and in feudal societies before that, common citizens had much less discretion in many details of their daily lives. If Christians ought not to pursue self-interest at the expense of others, how can institutions that rely on self-interest be reconciled with Christianity? As has already been established, self-interest is a part of human nature. Even if an ideal world would be free of self-interest, realistically, this is not possible. The most centrally planned societies still contain self-interest. In addition, there is little reason to believe that self-interest would be any less the driving force behind policy decisions in a planned society than in a decentralized society. Authoritarianism, after all, merely concentrates power in the hands of one or a few self-interested individuals or groups. This is not to say that the fact of self-interest and the Christian view that it should not be wielded for private ends suggest an ideal method of economic or political organization. Rather, structures that rely on individuals pursuing their own self-interest cannot be invalidated out of hand, as all systems need to deal with self-interest in one way or another.
Self-interest is a common term in the modern day, likely due to the capitalist origins of the industrial West. Often, it carries a negative connotation. Because of this, it is important that Christians think about self-interest as they seek to live ethical lives. While Christians hold a diversity of opinions on nearly every topic imaginable, there appears to be at least some agreement on the topic of self-interest, though it is nowhere near universal. First, self-interest is a demonstrable fact of human existence, as people constantly act selfishly to improve their own position, even at the expense of others. Additionally, self-interest is something Christians should avoid pursuing when it limits their ability to love God and neighbor. However, it may be reasonable, even godly, to achieve earthly success if doing so furthers the Christian witness. Finally, continuing from the previous points, self-interest will always be a part of any economic or political system, so it is not immediately clear if any particular system is preferable to any other solely on the basis of self-interest. Further study and reflection on the Christian’s duty to civil society would be needed to attempt an answer to that question. The next time you make a decision involving others, consider whose interests you are furthering. Are you only thinking about yourself, or are you considering how your decision may impact those around you? In every decision, Christians ought to heed the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who commands us to “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), avoiding both foolishness and injustice “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).
 Effective Altruism for Christians, Christians For Impact, http://www.eaforchristians.org/.
 Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway, 2016.
 Meilaender, Peter C. “Loving Our Neighbors, Both Far and Near.” Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, 2008.
 Niebuhr, H. Richard. “The Grace of Doing Nothing.”
 Niebuhr, Reinhold. “Must We Do Nothing?”
 “Pawnee Rangers.” Parks and Recreation, NBC, 13 Oct. 2011.
 Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Vol. 1, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, Inc., 1976.
 Wesley, John. “The Use of Money.” 1872, web.archive.org/web/20150402061915/www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-50-The-Use-of-Money.