Economics 101

Is Charity Ultimately Selfish?

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If giving to charity makes you feel good, are your motivations selfish?

This question came up at a local IFWE book club meeting last week as we discussed altruism from a Christian and economic perspective. Most weren’t sure how to answer. How can we ever be sure our motivations aren’t somewhat selfish?

The idea that humans are always motivated by selfishness is called psychological egoism. Psychological egoists believe even if an action seems altruistic, it’s ultimately done for direct or indirect personal gain. The possibility of true self-sacrifice without receiving anything in return is completely ruled out.

Cameron Keng, founder of The Keng Institute, echoes this sentiment on his personal blog. He says,

Human nature is based on wants, something we’re taught since the 3rd grade by Adam Smith’s theory of economics. Economics is the study of the market’s wants. Being charitable and being selfish aren’t exclusive relationships. They’re fundamentally married because you wouldn’t help someone if you didn’t want to. […] Optimistically, you’re selfish because you derive personal pleasure and joy from helping others. Your charity is selfish because you want to feel good. 

 I have some sympathy for his view for two reasons:

  1. As an economist, I know that every rational actor behaves in his or her own self-interest.
  2. As a Christian, I know we are all fallen and prone to selfishness.

But I cannot agree with psychological egoism because also, as a Christian, I know we are called to be self-sacrificing like Christ.

Before I explain why I disagree, one thing needs to be set straight: there is a huge difference between self-interest and selfishness.

The distinction between self-interest and selfishness seems to be so blurred in current public discourse that self-interest nearly means selfishness. But this is far from the true definition of self-interest.

In a recent post Hugh Whelchel claims that selfishness is a sin, but self-interest is necessary to live out the Christian life. Self-interest is not mutually exclusive from altruism, in both economics and the Bible. Whelchel says,

[Adam] Smith’s position, and the Bible’s, was that you served your self-interest when you served the self-interest of others. […] While the Bible cautions that self-interest can devolve into the sin of selfishness and greed, biblical self-interest enables us to become well-functioning, contributing members of God’s community.

Whelchel says the Bible very clearly condemns selfishness, but self-interest as defined by God is a good thing–it’s what motivates us to get up and go to work in the morning, to make friends, to care for our children, and to go to church. It is even in our self-interest to be altruistic.

But is altruism also selfish if you like the way it makes you feel? No. Feeling good after giving to charity is not selfish.

2 Corinthians 9:7 says,

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

God loves a cheerful giver. That means God wants us to give freely, and enjoy the act of giving. Rather than attributing the benefit of cheer we feel after giving to our own selfishness, we should accept this joy as a blessing from God. After all, joy is a fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). Why would God want us to feel bad for doing something good anyway?

Unfortunately, too many Christians have bought into the lie that God doesn’t want us to be happy. John Piper dispels this myth in his essay,What Is Christian Hedonism? For example,

If a friend says to you, “I really enjoy being with you,” you wouldn’t accuse him of being self-centered. Why? Because your friend’s delight in you is the evidence that you have great value in his heart. In fact, you’d be dishonored if he didn’t experience any pleasure in your friendship. The same is true of God.

 Even Christ, who offered the ultimate sacrifice in the history of the world, died for joy. Hebrews 12:2 says,

For the joy set before him he endured the cross…

Knowing this truth should make our giving and sacrifice all the more joyful.

Is giving selfish? Leave your comments here

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  • Dan Burke

    I enjoyed the post. As I read it I thought of John Piper’s The Pleasures of God. In this book He brings out the fact that God Knows that He, Himself is the source of all happiness for His creation, but that we sinners tend to look for this source in created things. Maybe the difference between selfishness, and self-interest is that the former is what is left when we either deny or forget God: the source.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Nicely done! Thanks! It’s absurd to think that people should feel bad about helping others. How should we feel? If giving is out of love then we should feel great about helping people we love. The only time people should feel bad about giving to others is if it is done grudgingly. Yes, people benefit from charity by feeling better about it and they should. Doing well should make us feel good! It is still a sacrifice because we have given material wealth in exchange for emotional satisfaction and not in order to gain more material wealth.

  • Jason Steeves

    Thank you for this article. So helpful and encouraging. I believe the action of charitable giving is not selfish. I believe we can spend a lifetime analyzing the motives of the heart behind actions and arrive at the same conclusions again and again. Maybe we should not waist time analyzing and debating the motives of the heart because we know the condition of the heart. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jer. 17:9) Let’s believe God’s Word and act on it in faith and our heart will follow suit. Grace and peace to you!

  • Thomas Bogle

    Very interesting post, Elise. I have blogged on the same topic before, but come at it from a slightly different perspective. I think you might enjoy giving it a read. Just a heads up, some of the scriptures that I quote are part of the LDS cannon, though they are not widely accepted by most other Christian denomination. You can find more information about them in the links provided, if you so desire.

    I have become a huge fan of IFWE in the past few months and love that this is a place were people of many faiths can find common ground.

    If you are interested in my comments on this topic, here is the link to my blog post: http://thingstoact.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/charity-and-self-interest-two-sides-of-the-same-coin-53/

  • We can also go further and say that sound self-interest (interest investing in Christ’s kingdom by laying our treasures up in heaven) will work the most good from our charital contributions. Selfish charity will only seek to give good feelings. Thus, it becomes an easy target for worthless charity which does no lasting good. This is because the giver is not actually interested in the person they are giving to. Because, due to their selfishness, they are primary interested in their own immediate feelings. But self-interest in Christ’s kingdom makes me concerned about the person I am being charitable towards. For my feelings are not the end. It is God’s glory which is the end that will give me the most joy. Asking how God is glorified through my charity makes me seek to act in the most loving way towards the person. For that will give God the most glory. Thus, the person will receive the most good from my self-interest.

    • Very well put, Charlie! I completely agree.

  • Francisco

    I’m preparing a sermon on stewardship, with an emphasis on financial stewardship and it seems that incentive may be an additional term. Feeling good, is an incentive, a short-term one not dissimilar to the eating of healthy foods as close to the original creation as possible.

    A short-term incentive is no less valuable to taking action, I believe to be the crux of the matter, than long-term incentive. Cheerfulness isn’t an eternal commandment with regard to giving but a temporary encouragement.

    Just some thoughts after finally getting to read the great post!

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