Friday, November 1, 2013

Is it ok to be a little selfish?

Some of us – especially those of us from conservative religious backgrounds – have to deal with a high guilt complex. We have been taught throughout our childhoods to make “the right decisions,” and so with every decision we make, we are constantly worrying about whether we are being selfish. After all, a number of theologians identify selfishness as the root of all sin and unselfishness as the highest virtue. [E1] Consequently, we feel guilty every time we speak up about what we want, we second-guess our motives every time we get our way, and we chastise ourselves for every self-indulgence we take because we know that our resources could have gone to a better cause.  Perhaps I am exaggerating a bit, but many of us can relate to that nagging guilt that haunts our decisions. When we want something for ourselves and we can’t come up with any good justification for having it, we wonder, “Is it ok to be a little selfish?”

A number of folks have answered this question, “Yes, it’s perfectly ok to be selfish,” often times in direct opposition to the Christian traditions that promote unselfishness. For example, modern psychologists teach that humans ought to care for themselves. They affirm the importance of maintaining positive self-esteem, affirming one’s worth, and treating oneself from time to time. They see self-care and self-love as intrinsic values, to the point that some say that we need to care for ourselves before we can or should care for others.

Another group that has defended selfishness are philosophers. Some great thinkers have advocated for selfishness by arguing that unselfishness is impossible to achieve. [E2] Their reasoning goes like this: Human action is motivated by desire, and human desires are, by definition, aimed at pleasing the self. Thus, even the seemingly most selfless act, such as a stranger risking her life for another person, is ultimately motivated by the desire to be a good person or to appease one’s conscience or for the helper high that such a saving act creates. In other words, being selfish is a part of being human, so we might as well embrace it. Things go over more smoothly when everyone admits what their selfish motives are rather than trying to pretend that we don’t have ulterior motives.

A third group that has defended a kind of selfishness are social activists, especially feminists. [E3] These folks recognize that the world is not set up in a way that is just or fair. Some people have power while others don’t. Some people have access to good jobs with reasonable benefits, while others don’t. Some people inherit wealth, educational opportunities, and connections, while others inherit poverty, danger, and suspicion or opposition from the powerful. Many social activists believe that the only way that this will change is if the oppressed stand up for themselves: if they demand their rights, recognize their dignity, and practice self-empowerment. They see the Christian ideal of unselfishness as a tool of oppression, designed to get the oppressed to accept inferiority, and they urge the oppressed to reject this ideal.

All of these claims are insightful and important. But the question I’d like to ask here is, “Are they Biblical?” Many of us are suspicious of psychologists and philosophers and social activists precisely because they aren’t committed to the Lordship of Christ, they don’t recognize the authority of Scripture, and so we shouldn’t expect them to share our values. Although many of their comments resonate with our experiences, we can’t follow their advice unless it aligns with our higher commitments. And I can’t think of any places where the Bible encourages us to “treat ourselves” from time to time, or where it says that unselfishness is an impossible ideal, or where it teaches us to stand up for our rights. So does this mean that Christians are condemned to live as miserable martyrs [E4]?

I don’t think so. Although it is true that the Bible doesn’t talk about “healthy selfishness,” it never praises unselfishness either. Contrary to popular belief, the Bible never names “selfishness” as a sin or “unselfishness” as a virtue [E5]. In fact, the entire concepts of selfishness and unselfishness are relatively new. Let me explain what I mean.

When we talk about someone as being “selfish” in today’s language, we mean that they are putting their wants or needs above those of others. By contrast, a person who is “unselfish” puts the wants or needs of others above their own. This way of speaking reveals an assumption that we make about wants and needs: that they are always at odds with one another. If I get what I want, we assume that means that someone else doesn’t get what she wants. To offer a concrete example, let’s say that my wife expresses that she wants chicken for dinner but I am really in the mood for fish. I might feel that it is “selfish” for me to express this preference and so I remain silent about it. After all, if I were a good, i.e. “unselfish” person, then I would put her wants above mine and just eat the chicken.

The problem is that this is a very individualistic way of thinking. [E6] There is more at stake in this interaction than our respective cravings for chicken and fish. If I tell my wife that I want fish, even though I know that she wants chicken, I open myself up to her. I give her more insight into myself (even if it is seemingly trivial information), which gives her the opportunity to practice the discipline of listening. On the other hand, if I don’t tell my wife that I want fish but I keep thinking about how much I do, then I will likely become slightly resentful or distant from her, which makes a marginal but negative impact on our relationship. So it would be better for both of us if I at least expressed my desire for fish. Of course, this only works if she also feels free to express in response that she still wants chicken, so that she can open herself up to me and not feel resentful herself. We may have to come up with a creative solution to please both of us, or one of us may have to “compromise.” But a compromise can only make sense if it is seen as the best solution for the group as a whole, which in this case is my wife and I, and not as a sacrifice I had to make as an individual.

The reason that the Bible doesn’t hold unselfishness or self-empowerment as virtues is because it doesn’t think in these individualistic terms. It recognizes that we are interconnected. For example, when Paul talks about this body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, he says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Notice: this is not a command but an observation. Paul is aware that something that is truly harmful for one person is truly harmful for the rest of us, and something that is beneficial for one person is beneficial for the rest of us. Thus, the moral question that the Bible asks is, “What would be best for the community?”

So, to put a Christian spin on the psychological argument, self-care is important because it allows us to care even better for others. [E7] This is why we should “take the plank out of our own eye” before removing the speck from our brother’s. [E8] To put a Christian spin on the philosophical argument, I suppose you could call our desire to please God or our desire to help others “selfish” to the extent that it brings us happiness, but then we must differentiate between godly desire and “sinful” desires that have distorted views of what is good for us as human beings. To put a Christian spin on the social activist argument, when a woman stands up for herself against an abusive husband, she is actually serving him too, for his abusiveness is a sin that leads to misery in this life and the one to come. So is it ok to be a little selfish? Well, if my selfishness will lead to more just, loving, and peaceful interactions between me and the people around me, then it’s not just ok: it’s a moral imperative to act that way.


[E1] One research project I would love to do some day is to figure out when Christians started seeing “selfishness” as a vice. For most of Christian history, “pride” was seen as the chief of the vices, but contemporary theologians ranging from Billy Graham to Reinhold Niebuhr have replaced this with selfishness. (Cf. Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932), p. 257, where he says, “From the perspective of the individual, the highest [moral] ideal is unselfishness.”)  I suspect that this way of perceiving selfishness had something to do with Kant, although it may go back as far as Abelard. I’d be interested if anyone has any thoughts on this.

[E2] Of course, not all “philosophers” maintain that selfishness is inevitable, and there is a lot of room for debate regarding who counts as a philosopher. In any case, Arthur Schopenhauer is perhaps the person most closely associated with the determinist argument, which says that everything we do is necessarily selfish. Friedrich Nietzsche, a student of Schopenhauer’s, was one of the first to then embrace selfishness as a virtue, and it’s likely that Schopenhauer’s determinism looms in the background of his ethics. Ayn Rand would be another person who spoke directly about “The Virtue of Selfishness,” and even some theologians – like Reinhold Niebuhr – have used this philosophical assessment as a basis for their theological work.

[E3] One of the most famous essays that have been written along these lines is, “For God So Loved the World?” by Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, 1989. Here is a link to their article: Although the target of their essay is atonement theories, they certainly implicate the virtue of unselfishness in the process. Another theorist who comes to mind is Carol Gilligan, whose theory of moral development combines elements of psychology and social activism. Many others could be named whom I don’t have the time to list here.

[E4] Martyrdom, in common usage, refers to a person who embraces misery for the sake of their religious or ethical commitments. This is not what the Bible means when it mentions “martyrs” (a Greek word which is usually translated as “witnesses”), nor is it a fair description of the martyrs of the early church. In the Bible and early church history, martyrs were people of joy, not people of misery, who believed they were “gaining a reward” for their work. Modern thinking would call these people, “selfish,” but as this essay explains, that is a faulty category.

[E5] When people turn to the Bible to look for proof-texts that name “selfishness” as a sin, they usually come up with two: Mark 8:34 (and parallels) and Philippians 2:3-4. So, I thought I’d go ahead and address each of these texts.

In Mark 8:34, Jesus says, ““If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This text certainly advocates self-denial, and many assume that this is the same thing as unselfishness. But the context makes it clear that the self-denial Jesus is referring to is the rejection of power. Rather than trying to grasp power to get ahead, Jesus’ followers must deny themselves these privilege and instead embrace the more difficult path that is symbolized by the cross. See Mark 10:42-45 to verify this interpretation.

However, this self-denial is not aiming toward unselfishness. On the contrary, Jesus teaches his followers that they will be better off if they embrace this path. Verse 35 says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Notice, Jesus is trying to motivate his followers to take this path by saying they will save their lives by doing it. This is an awkward point for the unselfishness interpretation, for you get in a dilemma where you try to do the “unselfish” thing for selfish reasons.

In Philippians 2:3-4, Paul gives these instructions, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Let me break down each part.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. The word “selfish” here is not in the original Greek. It was added by modern translators, presumably to clarify that it is “selfish ambition” that Paul was opposing, and not all ambition – for that would too radically challenge our capitalist assumptions. This is again not an instruction against seeking one’s wants but against power-grabbing.
But in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Notice, this doesn’t tell us to put others before yourself but to regard others as better than yourselves. As Paul notes, this is a practice in humility. If we take the perspective that other people have insights that we ourselves haven’t thought of or skills that we lack, we are much more inclined to take their advice and work alongside of them. This is a challenge to change our perspectives of others, not a call to give up our own wants or needs.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Unfortunately, there is a textual discrepancy in this verse which makes a big difference in meaning. Some of the ancient manuscripts say, “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” while others say, “look not to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” While the former version seems to support the “unselfishness” perspective, the latter version seems to support the idea of mutuality that I am advocating here.

When you come to a textual crossroads like this, it’s best to look to the greater context for support. In Philippians 2:2, Paul advocates for “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” I would say that this can only happen when we carry one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), confess our sins to each other and pray for one another (James 5:16), which implies that each person must give and receive. Reciprocity is in the air that Paul breathed, and so to impose our individualistic understanding of selfishness versus unselfishness on this passage is anachronistic.

[E6] One might wonder, “How is this way of thinking individualistic?” Whenever we talk about “wants and needs,” we are looking at the internal experiences of each person rather than the relational dynamics between persons and the systemic dynamics between persons and institutions and environments. We might also call it “materialistic,” because it focuses on the pains and pleasures rather than on virtues like character, companionship, and meaningful work, which may include both pain and pleasure. Once you broaden our way of thinking beyond “Will my action cause Person A pleasure or pain?” and start thinking about what is best for the relationship, for Person A’s character, for the systems that our actions participate in and reinforce (e.g. What kind of precedent does this set?), etc., then it usually becomes apparent that what is best for Person A is what is best for us as well.

[E7] This is particularly apparent with children. Children absorb attitudes and behaviors from the adults around them. Thus, treating ourselves with dignity and respect – but not overindulging – is the loving and responsible thing for people with children to do.

[E8] This verse is often used to tell people, “Don’t judge others,” but this misses the actual instructions in the passage. In Matthew 7:5, Jesus says, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Christians do have a responsibility to judge each other (Note: To judge each other, not people outside of our community, as 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 makes clear), but in a humble way that always assumes that “others are better than ourselves.” In other words, we should want to be corrected and challenged as much as or more than we want to correct and challenge others.


Anonymous said...

This article resolves recent debates/arguments that my bible study group has been having over conclusions/opinions stated in the ill advised and theologically inaccurate book, Attitudes of a Transformed Heart by Martha Peace, chosen by the study leader. The points made in your article could be useful for bringing us back into "one accord." PS: Thank you for this (and Amy's LitQuest) blog.

Brian Bither said...

Glad to hear it! Thank you for sharing! I will pray that you group will find the unity that comes from seeking the truth in the Spirit together!

Zack Crist said...

As a response to the philosophers' opinion, could we not simply say that desires themselves too are created by God?