The idea of self-interest can make believers recoil because it sounds like selfishness. Self-interest is part of our design in God; greed is the result of our own selfish desires. How do you tell the difference?
Greed vs. Self-Interest
In some ways, self-interest is a more benign concept that most think; it is a way to understand how we make decisions. Recall what economist Ludwig von Mises asserted in his seminal work, Human Action—our decisions involve:
- Feeling uneasy with our current conditions
- Having a way to improve
- Having a vision for what that improvement looks like
What we personally value determines the “terms” of choice. Self-interest is really about choice and preference and drives people to take care of themselves by performing activities that range from preparing a meal or investing their money in a new venture.
For example, when I awake in the morning and make a bowl of oatmeal, I do so in my own self-interest. I am satisfying a need with what I believe will make me better off than I would be if I did not take the action. I choose oatmeal because I value it over other options to get fueled in the morning.
Greed, however, is part of humankind’s fallen nature and affects us all negatively. It’s an overwhelming and often selfish hunger for something. Greed pushes us to satisfy our desires—even to the point of acting in ways that are harmful to ourselves or others.
Greed vs. Self-Interest in Pleasing God
Self-interest involves a daily sacrifice or surrender of our will to God’s will in every decision. In doing so, we are stewarding our resources, opportunities, and preferences (self-interest) in a way that’s pleasing to him. If we don’t seek him first, we stand a greater chance of crossing over into greed. When that happens, we become victims of our own sin, and the things we think are good for us actually harm us.
It is in my own interest to choose Christ and pursue him in every endeavor. I am made to seek profit in all that I do for his purposes so that I can hear “well done good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:21) and experience joy, fulfillment, and flourishing that I help create.
So how does self-interest work in society? How does self-interest remain a good thing that drives choice and not a bad thing like greed?
Greed vs. Self-Interest in Society
Self-interest is actually how the market economy directs flourishing. In an economy in which you trade with others, your well-being increases only if it benefits others in the process.
Consider an entrepreneur who wants to provide a new product. He or she is driven to make a profit because profit will enable him or her to sustain and grow their business. In a market economy, the entrepreneur’s self-interest results in a profit only if he or she provides something that makes other peoples’ lives better. In this case, self-interest drives the entrepreneur to innovate and respond to a need in society, because he or she will only make a profit by meeting others’ needs first.
As we mentioned earlier, self-interest is part of our God-given anthropology and functions for the good of all when we trade our gifts and talents in the market. Selfishness and greed, on the other hand, are the results of a sinful heart. The market can correct for greed, or the greedy can use the market to their advantage. In the second case, this is not the fault of the market, but the fault of a sinful heart.
Here at IFWE, we’re passionate about explaining how the economic way of thinking helps us to be better stewards of God’s resources. As self-interested individuals, the economy brings us together to make the best of our God-given design.
It is in your self-interest to provide something that someone else values, whether at your desk job or small business, in your home, or as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Pray that God would use your natural preferences and self-interest to glorify him and bless others.
Editor’s Note: This article contains excerpts from Anne Bradley’s booklet, Be Fruitful and Multiply: Why Economics Is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions and IFWE’s economics curriculum written by Dr. Bradley, Biblical Foundations for the Economic Way of Thinking.