Public Square & Theology 101

C.S. Lewis, Greed, and Self-Interest

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Ed. Note: This post has been adapted from its original form. Read the full paper here.

We’ve been exploring the integration of faith and work for a few weeks now. If this Biblical doctrine of work is true – and we believe it is – we as citizens must cherish and sustain an economic environment that allows us to pursue this doctrine, our callings, and our passions to the best of our abilities.

We need an environment that not only provides us the freedom to flourish in our work, but also inherently reflects the dignity of each human being.

Over the years, economic freedom has given us ample room to flourish as human beings. However, there are many aspects of our economy that seem antithetical to Christian faith. Some elements are in opposition to Christian principles, but others are victims of misconception. Greed and self-interest are two such areas.

Greed is good.

Gordon Gecko’s famous statement, from Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, sparked a debate over greed, wealth, and self-interest that still rages today. The morality of our economic system and the morality of wealth are issues appearing in today’s political debates, protests, and policy discussions. What people think about capitalism, greed, and self-interest have profound implications for our future.

These are not easy concepts to think through. Greed is not good, but when does self-interest turn into greed? Aren’t they the same thing?

It is said that a half-truth understood as a whole truth becomes an untruth. Recent protest signs saying, “Capitalism is Greed” perfectly illustrate this saying. The half-truth is that capitalists can certainly be greedy. We’ve seen far too many examples of this throughout history. But are all capitalists always and everywhere greedy?

Certainly not. There are greedy socialists, Marxists, Democrats, Republicans, rich people, and poor people.

Greed is an equal opportunity employer. 

We are all capable of being greedy. But is there something in capitalism that makes greed more likely? Is greed encouraged?

Adam Smith famously said,

It is not the benevolence of the butcher, brewer, or baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. 

Is pursuing our self-interest necessarily selfish or greedy? Can you have self-interest without selfishness?

C.S. Lewis wrote much about selfishness, greed, and self-interest. Perhaps he can help us clarify our understanding on these issues.

Tomorrow we’ll look at Lewis on selfishness and greed. After that, we’ll explore Lewis’ thoughts on self-interest. Finally, we’ll come back to this charge that “Capitalism is greed,” hopefully with renewed clarity on these questions.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on morality and the marketplace. Do you think capitalism is greedy? Leave your comments here.


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