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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Moreland on Ethical Egotism

A brief blog by J.P. Moreland on ethical egotism. (Click on the picture of the people in hell to get to it.) JP starts out as follows:

As a matter of commonsense, must people recognize that if one does his/her moral dusty solely because of self-interest, then one has not really done one’s duty.

Fair enough.

To count as my moral duty, I must do an act at least in part because it is the right thing to do.

Yep. That's what we usually think. But what does that have to do with the Bible? Oh, ok here it is:

Some claim that the Bible, with its emphasis on avoiding hell and going to heaven and on securing eternal rewards for life on earth, implicitly affirms egotism as an appropriate moral standard for action. This is supposed to count as an argument against Christianity since, granting the inadequacy of ethical egotism, Christianity implies an incorrect moral theory. What should we make of this claim? It is clear that legitimate self-interest is part of Biblical teaching. But does this mean that Scripture implies egotism as a moral theory?

Moreland is a Christian philosopher and apologist. That's his thing. So, that's what his concern will be in regard to ethical egotism. As such, he seeks to defend Scripture against accusations of egotism.

Towards an answer to this charge, we need to distinguish between achieving what is in my self- interest as a by-product of an act vs. self-interest as the sole intent of an act....This observation relates to a second distinction between a motive and a reason.

Ah, a distinction! We have "motives" and "reasons". How does this work? J.P. cites Exodus 20:12

"Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.”

In other words, the "long life in the land" promise is not the sole intent for honoring your father and your mother. Rather, it is the by-product of honoring. Live-long-and-prosper (I pause to raise my hand and divide my fingers in tribute to Mr. Spock) is not the motive for honoring. No. It is merely the reason for honoring. See the distinction?

Moreland sums it up:
Moreover, even if Scripture is teaching that self-interest is a reason for doing some duty, it may be offering self-interest as a prudential and not a moral reason for doing the duty. In other words, the Bible may be saying that it is wise, reasonable, and a matter of good judgment to avoid hell and seek rewards without claiming that these considerations are moral reasons for acting according to self-interest. In sum, it could be argued that Scripture can be understood as advocating self-interest as a by-product and not an intent for action, as a motive and not a reason, or as a prudential and not a moral reason. If this is so, then these Scriptural ideas do not entail ethical egoism.

A good argument.

I see at least two problems:

First problem: Is this even being true to the language and intention of the text? In normal conversation if someone says to me, "Give to the poor that you might feel good about yourself" there is a conditional statement being made: Do one thing so that another thing will follow. There is an implicit motive that will determine the action. I just wonder about whether JP's suggestion fits normal language use.

Second problem: Are not motives and results intertwined? Are we not motivated by the reasons that we do things? Are not our "interests" specifically directed at the "by-product"? In other words, these neat dichotomies break down in real life. As we live life we do not normally think to ourselves, "I am going to do this action for a specific reason....but I will not be motivated by that reason." Is it even desirable to fragment ourselves in this way? Which leads to my third problem (a bonus problem)...

Third problem: Is it realistic to suggest that egotism is such a bad thing? And what is so bad about mixed motives? Isn't it a fact of life? A part of the world?

This is not a world of pure motivations and anyone who would say otherwise is probably a bit confused. Egoism, I would argue, is a necessary-evil in moral theory. At times we are self-interested, and rightly so - and yet we must often fight egoism at every turn. But how this all pans out is contextual. What is an appropriate response is context driven. For example, why do people become Christians? I would argue that in the majority of situations we can locate egotism at work: We want to be forgiven our sins, to experience the peace of God, to be rational/reasonable, to escape judgment of hell, to be morally right with God, etc. Any one of these might be good reasons as well as simultaneously being slightly tainted motivations. I would suggest that it is over the passage of time (again, contextual) that the true believer maintains and grows in faith, and learns to personally understand when egotism should be acted on or when it is an evil self-infatuation.

In short, I think Moreland's distinction is helpful, but I would argue that in real life we must live with an understanding that the dichotomy breaks down quite regularly and "motivations" blend together with "reasons" and vica-versa.


Jon said...

Isn't the whole point of having a religion or worldview that you will experience things beneficial to you? Who on earth would believe and live out an idea that didn't have any trace of ethical egoism? This seems to me to be one of the weaker arguments against Christianity I have heard.

That being said, I think Moreland is incredibly brilliant. On this point, though, I would agree more with you. Indeed, if we have died to self and live for Christ, then what we do in our own interest would really be in Christ's interest and therefore would not be egotistic. When we lapse into our carnal nature, then, yes, we may act exclusively with our own fleshly interests in mind. In each case, however, "ethical egoism" means something almost entirely different and certainly has completely opposite results when viewed eternally.

Jason Hesiak said...

1. Christian apologetics is boring and arcane. Take that as an extreme statement of my acutal view on the matter, which is similar, but less extreme.

2. Who said Christianity was about avoiding hell and getting into heaven anyway?

3. I like the basic idea of what you are saying...that there is a mix of "selfishness" and "pure motives" in all actions. But I would like to see it reframed. Let me do this a bit by way of example.

I just finished reading 01 Samuel. David has easy chances to kill Saul and take his RIGHTFUL place at the throne of Isreal. He does not. Pretty much because murdering the king of Isreal isn't the "right" thing to do, in itself (open to deconstructive analysis of the term "right", of course, but anyway...moving on). His reason? "Who ever killed the annointed one of Isreal and got away with it?"

So, yes, partially "selfish". But that word there has a meaning that would have been foreign to David. "Seek ye first..." "The kingdom of God is within you..."

So, basically...I see two things being put in tension that don't necessarily need to be in tension. Not only that, but it might be counter-productive to PUT them in tension? The choice is between sin and righteousness (with Grace in the picture), not between selfishness and not-selfishness, no?

So then this also involves a question of who or what "self" is in the first place as well. A question, Johnathan, with which you are more familiar than I, I think.


Jonathan Erdman said...

Jon: Who on earth would believe and live out an idea that didn't have any trace of ethical egoism?

Yeah, that's a good question. This issue gets very complicated because there are definitely biblical instances where we are challenged to put aside our own self-interests and work for the self-interests of others. Jason brought up the example of David as an example of someone who did something right, but did it in self-interest. The rich young ruler came to Jesus and asked him what to do to have eternal life. Jesus told him to sell everything and follow him. And, "anyone who would come after me must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me."

But even in examples where we seem to have pure motives one might even question why we have pure motives. Have we purified our motives because the benefits of such purging are greater than the alternative? "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain!" This seems like self-denial, but when we look closer it seems like the pursuit of Christ is just much more valuable than anything else. Is this still ethical egotism? Or is it ok to pursue Christ because he is "hidden treasure" and "the pearl of great price"?

Jonathan Erdman said...

I'm not sure I've got any better idea of a "self" than anyone else.....maybe that's a good thing....maybe if I "understood" the self that this would really mean that I missed the point???

Melody said...

I don't know about the motivation and reasons bit of things. Sounds like Moreland's doing some word re-defining. The words aren't quite synonimous, but they're close enough that trying to figure out his distinction is giving me a headache.

But it's been bothering lately that people keep thinking Christians should, or rather that they can, have pure motives.

We can't. It's not possible. The bible tells us over and over and over again that our hearts are deceitful and wicked. Even the good things we do are counted as dirty rags.

God set up the program the way it is (with us unable to earn salvation) because it's impossible for us to have pure motives we would just end up being proud of ourselves for earning heaven.

Yet I keep having these conversations with people where they're rambling on about how they'd be Christians even if there was no heaven.

Excuse me? If there was no heaven there would be no point. If we weren't already screwed up so badly that we couldn't fix it on our own, there would be no point.

Furthermore, doesn't the idea that we could have pure motivations put us, to a certain extent, on the same level of God? Doesn't it call God a liar when the Bible states that we can do no good on our own?

As long as we're talking about motivations, what is the motivation for a pure motivation?

Why do we want it so badly? Isn't it to prove that we're better than others? That we're worthy of God's time?

Jonathan Erdman said...

As long as we're talking about motivations, what is the motivation for a pure motivation?


Jason Hesiak said...

All I meant with my comment about your knowing "self" better than I is your philosophical knowledge on the subject. You know more about more philosophers who deal with the self, I think.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Weeeeelllll....Thanks, Jason. That certainly boosts my own personal egoism! Of course, now I might post a response out of pride and hence we have our discussion of ethical egotism...rats......

Actually, if we are talking about those with the most philosophical knowledge of the self we would have to all defer to John Doyle. Unfortunately he is on a sabatical from commenting on this blog. But maybe when he returns........

Jason Hesiak said...

...rats...how about asses? Don't go kicking too hard, though, or else you might find your loosely connected or even alienated leg swinging around and landing on top of your own head. I doubt you would want that.

John Doyle...yes...smarty pants himself. Good to have around for a good question or two, though :)

Jonathan Erdman said...

If this blog is Star Wars, then John Doyle is Yoda.

Melody said...

And that would make you...?

Jonathan Erdman said...

I'm Salacious B. Crumb. He's that little creature in Jabba the Hutt's lair (the court jester) who keeps laughing at everything that's going on.

ktismatics said...

I figured since this post is about specifically Christian egocentrism I was off the hook. In the Christian playbook anyone who isn't Christ-centered is automatically self-centered, no? My recent investigations have explored the mysterious frontier between ego-centered and id-centered agnosticism. Unfortunately the log entries documenting this expedition are written in a wordless language, making it impossible to deposit here any meaningful... meaningfulness. I'll report back if the experimental yodafication proves successful.

Jonathan Erdman said...

On a traditional Christian conception of the self it is true that a non-Christ-centered life is a self-centered life. But maybe the difference is not quite so clear. For example, what if someone wants to live a Christ-centered life not because they love Christ, but because they loath themselves? Their own self-hatred leads them to seek fulfillment and actualization by taking on the form of another. And who better than Jesus, the God-incarnate? Many of us in the church would see this person as pious, no doubt. But if we were to dig deeper, under the layers and layers of the conscious barriers and start hitting the core of the person we might find a deeply insecure and desperate individual who would seek to latch on to anything that could help him/her through their loathing of self.

Is this person a non-Christian? Are there things about each of us that drive us to Christ that are not "pure"? Are there layers that we should be stripping away? Or is it better to just live and let live? Sometimes these self-investigations get very ugly.

ktismatics said...

The non-Christians are self-centered, as are many of the self-proclaimed Christians. So does the circle of the elect gets smaller? Alternatively, if the non-Christian follows a Christian ethic without expecting to receive any of the promised benefits (eternal life being the big one, no doubt about it), then is this non-Christian less self-centered than the Christian? I know, I know, it's pride and the desire to achieve righteousness on your own. So say this non-Christian isn't even laying any claims to righteousness -- just doing the right thing because it's right.