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


  • Is there any more discusion of this issue somewhere?

    If Mother Teresa is not better off from acting how she does, then why would she do it? If she is then better off, then is this not pursuing self-interest?

  • Brandon, the question seems to be one of motive for action rather than the ultimate effect of that action on the actor. Tomkins’ logic (and seemingly yours) is that the motive for Mother Theresa’s activity [b]must[/b] be self-interest (for whatever reason, e.g. evolutionary biology). I’m not so prepared to talk about Mother Theresa in particular, since I don’t think human beings are in a position to judge the heart of a person purely by externals, and in my case those externals would be at quite a bit of a remove. But I can talk about the biblical teaching on the point, especially with respect to the two great love commandments.

    If you want more discussion on a rather different viewpoint than Tomkins, I would recommend C.S. Lewis on this point (I believe he makes it in The Four Loves, but I’m not sure about the citation). He uses the illustration of marriage and happiness. It would be selfish, for example, to marry someone for the purpose of making yourself happy. But it so happens that the way love works in the world, if you love someone deeply and marry them primarily if not solely to make them happy, your own happiness is achieved as a legitimate by-product (in part because you have bound yourself to the happiness of another person). The positive effect need not necessarily be part of the intent or motive behind the action for it to be real.

    This just makes it clear that Darwinian naturalists stumble over the biblical and Christian concept of agapic love. They cannot explain it, so they must reduce it to something natural: mere self-interest.

  • Josh

    I don’t believe the owner of the new brood of chickens in the developing country is complaining about someones motives in giving. Do you think that, even one time, a dying man chastised Mother Theresa, picking him off the streets and giving him a comfortable death, for being selfish? The criticism to those who do charitable works, no matter the motive, stems from jealousy and guilt over their own charitable inadequacies.

  • Thanks for the reply. I haven’t study the issue very much, only casual thought. I guess what I’m getting at is issue of what does motivate Christians or others to act if it isn’t out of self-interest. Is it possible for human beings not to act out of self-interest, or is it the Holy Spirit working in us? If not, and one is merely acting on their own, then they must be doing what they believe is best (which may be putting others first, which does seem a contradiction).

    I’m just trying to understand the basis of it. I haven’t studied Rand yet, but does anyone know of any resources for specific Christian responses to her work?

  • Kevin

    Thanks, Josh. You make a good point about not questioning motives–see Jordan’s fine response to Brandon’s comment.
    But I think the claim that anyone doing charitable works cannot be criticized is wrong. There are better and worse ways to be charitable and charity itself is served when there is discussion about the question.

  • Josh

    Overall, it needs to be questioned if “self-interest” is the correct word to be using. It sounds as though self-interest is being used in the self-serving sense, perhaps I am wrong to assume this. Charity can be done in both instances and, in cases, can be at the same time.

    If I do a charitable work, out of love of God and my fellow man, which can be considered charity out of self-interest and a positive action. If I continue to do charitable work, draw attention to myself, and revel in the attention (not the act of charity itself), which perpetuates my charity for that purpose, then I am acting in a self-serving manner.

    For someone who has a communal mindset, the self-interest act can be for the good of all. For another, with an individualistic mindset, then the act is done for personal benefit only. In this way, those receiving charity are nothing more than materials to reach an end, much like the way socialism treats the individual.

  • And Josh,

    If by your selfish act of trying to please God by helping your fellow man, you actually happen to please God, then isn’t the public interest also your self interest and a two-way winner?

    Surely helping your own cause with the Lord must be on the top of the list of things-to-do with the self interested.