Acton Institute Powerblog

Self-Interest Run Amok

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Anyone familiar with the Acton Institute knows we appreciate the work of economists. But we also object when economists overreach and try to apply useful tools and concepts in inappropriate ways. This happens, for example, when they claim that the charity of Mother Teresa can be exhaustively explained by reference to self-interest. (She gets warm feelings and satisfaction from what she does, you see.)

Well, here’s a blunt example of such thinking. Richard Tomkins in the Financial Times complains this holiday season about the trend toward “ethical gift giving.”

One can appreciate his skepticism over the idea of buying someone else a brood of chickens in a developing country so as to emphasize one’s own righteousness. But in his broader analysis of gift-giving, his cynicism goes too far:

No one, after all, does something for nothing, except when helping family members – and even then, it is with the aim of perpetuating their own genes. In the case of non-relatives, it makes no sense at all to help others without getting anything in return. Instead, humans help others who help them (and shun those who fail to help them) because they learnt long ago that they were more successful working together than alone. It was from this understanding that moralistic emotions such as gratitude and guilt emerged.

Leaving aside the moral evolutionism, it should be obvious that the ethical message of Christianity is directly at loggerheads with the view expressed here. But non-Christians, too, ought to be able to recognize the inadequacy of such a theory of human action. A society composed of people whose motivations were as simple as Mr. Tomkins’ account would be harsh and inhumane. It is neither accurate as description nor attractive as prescription.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of CatholicHistory.net.

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