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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