“Love your neighbor as yourself.” This injunction is mentioned once in the Old Testament (Lev. 19:18) and seven times in the New Testament (Matt. 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8) It is the core Christian ethic for relating to others. The antithesis of loving others is selfishness. A central element of market economies is self-interest. Self-interest was a central component of Adam Smith’s market economics two hundred years ago and has carried forward to today. Therefore, market economics is antithetical to Christian living … or is it?

How “selfish” is “self-interest” in economics?

Look at a modern thesaurus and it will offer “self-interest” as a synonym for “selfishness.” If we look under “self-interest” in a dictionary like Webster’s we read: “Regard for one’s own interest or advantage, especially with disregard for others.” But words and expressions change in connotation over the years. Is selfishness what Smith and later economists have had in mind when they speak of self-interest? Not really.

Consider parents who raise their daughter to brush her
teeth, to eat well balanced meals, to look both ways before crossing a street,
and to do her homework. These parents are teaching their daughter to have
regard for her “own interest and advantage.” Are they teaching her to be
selfish … to act with disregard for others? Of course not. It is the “disregard
for others” phrase to which we take exception.

When economists speak of self-interest they are referring to
purposive behavior. Each of us has a perception of truth and reality. Each of
has a set of values. Each action we take is a statement of preference for that
action versus others we might have taken. We take each action expecting to
realize particular outcomes that are in accord with our perceptions and values.
Therefore, each action is self-interested
… an attempt to accomplish outcomes based on our personal perceptions and
. Any attempt to act contrary to our perception and values is merely
to suggest that there is another set of perceptions or values that takes
precedence over what we thought motivated us, otherwise we would not choose the
“contrary” action. If we are not acting according to self-interest, then we are
either automatons under the direction of an intelligent being or our actions
are the product of non-intelligent forces beyond our control.

In some theological circles, particularly pietistic
traditions, self-interest is framed as the antithesis of being other-interested
or God-interested. One set of interests succeeds only at the expense of the
other. Yet Scripture teaches the transformation of self-interest, not its eradication.
My self-interest, other’s interests, and God’s interest all become one. We will
and desire the same things but each act from our own contexts. The interaction
of these interests ceases to be win-lose proposition and becomes a win-win-win
proposition with a multiplicative effect for good.

Jesus repeatedly appealed to self-interest. Here are just three
instances from Matthew’s gospel: Matt 7:1-2


“1 Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2
For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give
will be the measure you get.”


It is in our self-interest not to
judge because we will get whatever treatment we dish out.


Matt 16:25-26


“25 For those who want to save their life will lose
it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it
profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will
they give in return for their life?”


It is in our self-interest not to
get caught up in worldly status but rather to find our life in Jesus.


Matt 19:21


“21 Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect,
go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have
treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'”


It is in our self-interest to give
up everything for the treasures in heaven.


Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a
sermon on the story from Mark 10 where James and John ask for the highest
positions in the coming Kingdom (The Drum
Major Instinct
). King notes Jesus’ remarkable response. He doesn’t rebuke
their ambition. Instead, he says, “You want the highest positions? Go for it!
They aren’t mine to give but here is how you get them. You excel at putting
everyone else ahead of yourself. Now get out there in front and lead the band.”
Jesus appealed to their self-interest but turned their perception of truth and
values upside down and inside out.


Returning to economics, Adam Smith wrote about self-interest
(or self-love) as only one of several sentiments that are a part of life.
Self-interest was joined with other sentiments like compassion, generosity, and
benevolence in his combined works of The
Theory of Moral Sentiments
and The
Wealth of nations
. Benevolence was seen by Smith as the highest of all
virtues. My point is not to defend Smith at all points but to make clear that
his theory was not an exaltation of selfishness. At the writing of the U. S.
Constitution, the word “liberty” simply meant not being physically imprisoned. Two
hundred years later liberty has come to mean so much more. Similarly, while
“self-interest” had a relatively narrow meaning regarding economic transactions
it now has a much broader socio-psychological meaning. When economists use the
term, most often they are referring to perceptions and values used in ranking
options and making choices … purposive behavior.

Have there been economists that have said selfishness and
self-actualization should be our
guide? Yes. Over the last half century, many of those who have been influenced
by social thinkers like Ayn Rand have championed such thinking. Earlier
examples exist as well. But to say that some economists have wanted this
mindset to be normative is a far cry from saying that it is essential to market
economics. It is not.

It is possible to have a market economy where people are
other-centered, but other-centeredness alone will not solve macroeconomic
problems. We are confronted with the information problems raised in our earlier
discussions. While I may know the needs of the few people I have ongoing daily
relationships with, how can I (or any other person or entity) know which actions
are in the “common good” of three hundred million other of my national citizens
or the billions with whom I share the planet? We saw earlier that markets are
dynamic feedback loops of information and incentives, coordinating daily
economic decisions. They are both imperfect and indispensable. We will have
more to say about this later.

Today, I merely want to distinguish “self-interest” in
economic terms as purposive behavior, not as a synonym for selfishness.
written about this topic enough times to know that some are going to find this
characterization of self-interest … and particularly the assertion that Jesus
appealed to our self-interest … disturbing. 

So a couple of questions. Am I off
the mark? Why? If not, are there better ways to describe these dynamics without
involving a value-laden word like self-interest? What implications are there for
missional Christians?











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