On the Impossibility of Genuine Self-interest

The philosophy of Objectivism (created by the philosopher and author Ayn Rand) includes the idea that all actions and choices are ultimately motivated by self-interest; people do things for their own benefit, whether they realize it or not. One problem I have with this idea is that it rules out the possibility of any actions that are altruistic (selfless, or purely for another’s benefit).

I recently attended a conference where the presenter, C. Bradley Thompson, defended the philosophy of Objectivism. During a question and answer session, someone asked him, “What single philosophical idea do you believe has caused the most damage to human society?” He responded immediately and confidently, “Altruism.” He argues that human beings consistently forgo actions that are in their best individual and collective interests for the sake of an unobtainable ideal that usually does more harm than good. Mutual exchange, based upon mutual self-interest, does for more good in the world than encouraging free-loaders and laziness by giving valuable time and resources to those unwilling or unable to reciprocate.

Psychologists and biologists continually debate whether true, genuine altruism is even possible in a species that is the product of biological evolution. Is it possible for a genetic trait to be passed on through the generations if this trait did not, in some way, improve the individual’s ability to reproduce? Even if this is possible, it would make the “trait” of altruism a genetic accident, an aberration in the normal course of evolution.

Most psychological paradigms treat altruism as a kind of selfishness in disguise. As Nathan Richardson explains, “[From the traditional psychological perspective], the main purpose or intent behind each action then becomes maximizing personal gain. There are two ways to do this: ignoring the desires of others, or giving space for others’ desires to increase the odds of obtaining your own desires.” In other words, we help others because doing so, in some way (either directly or indirectly), benefits us. Thus, from this perspective, altruism is simply a form of long-range self-interest. We love others because we ultimately love ourselves.

Turning the Debate Upside Down

It seems that the debate has always centered on two questions: Is genuine altruism even possible? If so, is it necessarily better than rational self-interest? Both questions, however, presume the existence of genuine self-interest. I would like to turn the debate on its head and ask a new question: Is genuine self-interest even possible?

To clarify, when I speak of self-interest, I question the possibility that the soul may be interested, focused, attentive to its own well-being to the exclusion of others. I do not dispute the fact that the self may have interests. For example, the self may pursue pleasure, enjoy music, or seek to help others, and all these things may be categorized as the “interests of the self.” However, I intend to argue that the self may not be the object of its own interests, and it is this kind of self-interest that I refer to. In a sense, it is psychological egoism that I critique.

Background: The Call of the Other

In order to lay some groundwork for why I ask this question, I’ll need to review some ideas I have previously written about. Earlier this year, I wrote a series of posts outlining Terry Warner’s ideas about self-deception and self-betrayal. These ideas are outlined in literature published by the Arbinger Institute and in Warner’s book, Bonds That Make Us Free. If you are not at all familiar with Arbinger’s work or with Warner’s ideas, I recommend that you read this series before continuing with this post. This series contains some anecdotal examples that I will reference in this post.

Simply put, Warner argues that we are constantly receiving signals from our fellow human beings about how we should treat them. In other words, we are constantly and inevitably aware of the humanity of those around us, and this humanity beckons us in general and often specific ways. These beckons present us with a choice: we can either respond to them, or we can resist them. When we resist the beckon of another person’s humanity, we do them wrong.

However, not only do we do them wrong, be we rewrite the world we see and react to in such a way that makes our wrongdoing seem right. We invent rationales and justifications for our wrongdoing, and by so doing create for ourselves a world in which our actions seem to us the only right course of action. These rationalizations often take the form ofaccusations. We often use the faults of those whom we are wronging (or we even invent faults for them) as an excuse for our wrongdoing. We cloak or mask the humanity we are resisting through accusations. For example, I recited the story of Marty, who resisted the call to help his wife by tending the baby. As he resisted this call, he also mentally and emotional accused his wife of wrongdoing towards him, citing her wrongdoing as a justification for his own.

Accusations are not the only rationalization for wronging others. Just as frequently, we cloak our wrongs in terms of self-interest. We cite our own needs as an excuse for not responding to the call of need of the Other. Again, in the story of Marty, he also determined that his own need for sleep outweighed the needs of his wife. The pressures of his job required him to sleep. I have numerous anecdotes from my own life where I have used my own needs as an excuse not to meet the needs of others. I have, for example, decided that getting to class on time was more important than holding the elevator door for someone. I have used homework as a rationale for not performing simple acts of service for roommates or friends. In every instance, I have put my own needs ahead of the needs of others, but I excused it by believing I was acting in my own best interest.

Consider: when we resist the call of the Other, either by masking the Face of the Other in an accusation or by placing our own needs ahead of the needs of the Other, we are doing them wrong. This isn’t just a passive sin of omission. When we neglect the call of the Other, we actively reinvent the world in order to justify doing it. Resisting the humanity of another person is an action, not a lack of action. An analogy is helpful here. When we push away the hand of someone who has offered a handshake, we aren’t simply neglecting to shake the person’s hand, we are actively pushing it away. According to Warner and Levinas, when the Face of the Other beckons, simple neglect is impossible. Failure to respond is active resistance.

I would like to attach a label to this wrongdoing: malice. When we actively resist the Face of the Other, we do the opposite of love: we experience malice towards the Other. Although the word is most frequently used in the passive tense (as something we experience), I mean it here in an active sense. In other words, when Faced by the Other, we have two real choices. We can either respond with love, or we can respond with malice. Simply ignoring the Face of the Other and doing neither is not an available option.

The Role of Reason in Our Lives

Emmanuel Levinas, the philosopher on whose writings many of Warner’s are based, argued that reason itself is a response to the Face of the Other. For example, to use Warner’s terminology we put our rational capacities to use in one of two ways: we can seek and discover ways to respond to the call of another’s humanity, or we can seek and invent ways to justify our resistance to the another’s humanity. Both possibilities use human reason, but for different purposes. In either case, reason was called into action in response to an obligation: either as a means of responding to it, or as a means of explaining it away.

If these are the only two responses to the call of another person’s humanity, then what of the third option, self-interest? If these are really the only two genuine options, then self-interest is simply the justification or rationale we invent for resisting the call of another person’s humanity. Simply put, altruism is not disguised self-interest. Rather, self-interest is disguised malice. It is putting reason to work in excusing our response to our fellow human beings.

In defense of this claim, I would like to recall another claim made by Warner: those who do no wrong need no rationale or justification for their actions. They need only to find the best way to do it. For example, when those who risk their lives to rescue a child from a busy street are asked why they did so, they most often respond, “Because it just felt like the right thing to do.” They certainly used reason to determine the speed of the cars on the road, how much time they had to rescue the child, or the fastest way back to the sidewalk. However, they did not use reason at all to invent a reason for their actions.

However, when someone is asked why did not help someone in need, they’ll almost always have a rationale for their inaction. Those who do wrong (and everyone fits in this category) constantly use reason to explain why they do the things they do. We invent reasons for our actions only when we feel the need to justify them. Self-interest is a reason for action. The pursuit of rational self-interest is a sophisticated, ancient philosophy that provides criteria for when we should or should not help other people, based upon the sophisticated calculus of long-term goals and desires. Those who genuinely do no wrong do not need any such sophisticated calculus to motivate their lives or to rationalize their behavior.

The Soul as a Flashlight

A standard flashlight can never shine light onto its own self. It can shine light outwards onto the surrounding environment, but it can never illuminate itself. I believe that the soul is much the same way: it can never be the object of its own attention, love, or interests. The soul can attend to things or people in the world around it, but never to itself. It can love things or people in the world around it, but never itself. It can be interested in things or people in the world around it, but never itself.

How then do we explain or describe self-love or self-image? James Faulconer, a respected philosopher and professor at BYU, explains, “Since by definition an image is not the real thing, the self placed at the center when one is concerned about self-image isn’t even a real self. … This is a corollary of the fact that love is necessarily of something other than ourselves: love of self is love of something that is not really our self.” In other words, love must be directed outwards, towards something in the outside world, something that is not the person who is doing the loving.

We can invent for ourselves an image of what we think we are, and direct our time and energies focusing on, fine-tuning, or serving the needs of this invented image of ourselves. By doing so, however, we are not actually focusing on our actual self, but only an image of ourselves that we have invented in our minds. We can never directly experience the presence of the self in the same way that we experience the presence of another person, and thus we can never experience an obligation to the self in the same way that we experience an obligation to another person.

In fact, I argue in this post that when we focus on serving the needs of this invented image, we are doing so as a rationale for resisting the Face of the Other. Even when we help others based upon a sophisticated calculus of self-interest, we are masking the face of the Other with an invented image of the self. And, since resistance is an active experience, not a passive one, and since resistance can best be categorized as malice, this kind of self-interest is simply a mild form of malice (although pernicious in its clever disguise). For this reason, I turn the traditional academic debate about altruism on its head and ask instead, “Is genuine self-interest even possible?”

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38 Responses

  1. Nice post, Jeff. It continues to amaze me how so many Latter-day Saints are so enamored by Ayn Rand.

    Here is a great article, by the way, on Ayn Rand and the American Right: http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/wealthcare-0?page=0,0

  2. Dennis,

    Thanks! I will confess that I’m in a double bind when it comes to Ayn Rand. Although I despise Ayn Rand’s ‘objectivist’ moral philosophy, I am a strong fan of the freedom she defends. Although I am most definitely a classical liberal and a paleocon, I despise the inordinate focus that many of my like-minded peers put on profit and capitalism. While I do see tax-based social welfare programs often as thievery from the rich by the masses, I believe that it is our fundamental moral obligation to voluntarily help our fellow man, even at our own expense.

    So for me, it is a love-hate relationship. The same is true of many of my peers in my own political camp—I love the freedom they defend and advocate, but hate the egoist rationale and rhetoric they use to do so.

    I don’t wish to turn this political… just sayin’ that this post is partially a response to those who insist that a philosophy of human freedom and limited government can only be based upon a moral philosophy of self-interest.

  3. It seems that a necessary assumption for this line of reasoning is that all requests made by Others are legitimate and posses equal value. No exercise in prioritization seems valid. If I refuse to help my brother procure heroine for recreational purposes then I am acting with malice toward him? Where does self-preservation come into play?

  4. PaulM,

    If my brother asked me to help him procure heroin, I believe the call of his humanity would invite me to say no. It would be an act of malice to help him. The call of the Other is not manifest in their every request, but in the obligation to treat them with respect and dignity, even if they don’t wish it.

    When I speak of the “call of the Other,” I speak of the fundamental experience of obligation to the Other which we experience in our encounter with them; not their request to fulfill their every whim and desire.

    Also, I suspect that Levinas would claim that reason is born in the face of the Other, and in the competing obligations of multiple Others. That is the work of reason: to decide how best to fulfill our ethical obligation to those around us, and how to balance the competing demands (even if it means preserving our own life, so that we can live to fulfill those obligations another day). I would be wronging my friends and family if I let myself die in their service.

  5. Jeff,

    I think what you’re doing is very important, in terms of showing how limited government does not equal supporting a doctrine of self-interest.

    My concern, though, is that the view that limited government is automatically good is upheld by a naturalistic and hedonistic law concerning free markets. That is, that freedom comes from a hands-off approach.

    This is why I think Wendell Berry is such an important voice here. In some ways, Berry looks like a libertarian because he is opposed to big government in many ways. But on the other hand, Berry is very opposed to libertarians because they seem to think that hands-off is best, no matter what, and what this ends up being in practice is simply washing our hands of the enormous corporations that come in, caring nothing for the places and cultures that they are raiding. Both the extreme libertarian doctrine and the big-state doctrine end up in an abstractionist totalization of humanity that certainly Levinas would be concerned with. Both harm free enterprise as well as free expression.

    The localist approach to government is what I would envision, in which big or small government is not good or bad per se. What matters is whether government is truly from the people and supports the things that are most important to them. So if a community wants to keep big corporations out because of a worry about how it would change the community for the worst, then that’s good. Even if it requires governmental processes. Both libertarians and big-state Democrats have moved away from the notion of “government by, for, and of the people,” and THAT is the problem. Government does not have to impede freedom; it, in fact, can facilitate it, and I’m not convinced that this facilitation is always, in every place, at every time, best facilitated by a hands-off approach. The localist approach begins with the community and asks what form of government is best; the libertarian and big-state approaches begin with a doctrine of government and then imposes it on the community.

    Most importantly to the topic at hand, both libertarian and big-state approaches have assumptions about self-interested property ownership, rather than the localist approach that is more focused on other-oriented stewardship. This difference centered on radically different notions of the self. It is this difference, which Taylor describes so well in A Secular Age, that was at the heart of conflicts between Native Americans and the colonialists. Somewhat similar conflicts raged about this in the context of Mormon settlements in Missouri, Illinois, and early Utah.

    Anyway, what I’m getting to is that self-interested notions of the self are deeply wedded into the very forming of America, including its constitutional fabric. This is a Protestant notion of the self that is buffered, or individualized, from context.

    So, in my opinion, when you challenge self-interest in the deep way that you’re doing so, you also (implicitly) challenge some of the foundations on which America was founded. But libertarian and constitutional party platforms, it seems to me, require these foundational assumptions about the self (e.g., that the self is buffered from the land) for their viability. This is how it seems to me, anyway. So how do you reconcile the two?

  6. Dennis,

    I agree, many of our nation’s founders used the rhetoric of self-interest and individualism in their literature and in our founding documents. That is my philosophical dilemma: how to replace their individualistic foundation with a more secure, other-oriented foundation, without changing the intended course of their endeavor. I don’t have an answer for that yet. You might think it’s impossible, but I hope it isn’t. :)

    I sometimes waffle between strict libertarianism and the local-government approach you espouse. I would be very happy in a nation where the most important questions and issues that Provo citizens are concerned about are addressed directly and only by the Provo city government. I believe that a local city government can be VERY responsive to the people, and much easier to restrain than a state or national government. In some conversations, this is the approach I take. It is ok to have a heterogenous, varied political and government landscape, based upon the needs and wishes of local communities. I don’t see the same need for uniformity that many of my statist AND libertarian friends do.

    However, in general, I feel as though when one citizen uses the pocketbooks of his peers to advance his own social/moral values, he is using/seeing his peers as a tool or a means to his own ends and goals (even if those ends and goals are the betterment of mankind). I feel as though this is a kind of violence upon his peers. For example, an overbearing government official that tries to keeps all of his country’s ducks in a row via legislation and taxation would be seeing his subjects as pawns in his own war against _____ [poverty; lasciviousness; disease; fill in the blank]. In other words, levying the force of government against the masses for the betterment of mankind seems to objectify people, rather than humanize them.

    For instance: in my small hometown of a thousand homes, there are a number of citizens who have kept chickens in a coop in their backyard for several years. They have been a valuable asset to these families. One day, the city hall received an anonymous complaint from a citizens, saying his neighbor’s chickens were a nuisance. Events subsequently unfolded, and legislation was passed that banned all chickens from the city (despite vocal and overwhelming opposition from the communities strongest members, and in the absence of any evidence that chickens posed community harm; and in fact, in absence of any specific description of why they were even a nuisance).

    The poor family has no idea which of their neighbors were annoyed, what about their chickens annoyed them, no opportunity to correct the situation. This seems to directly violate the scriptural dictate: “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.” Rather than first trying to resolve the issue as Christian brothers, the anonymous individual (most certainly a Latter-day Saint) anonymously levied the force of law against his brother.

    To feel as though one can use the force of law to compel his neighbors/friends into compliance with your will is certainly violence against the Other. Aggregating this into a “community decision” by the “majority” doesn’t seem to change this on a fundamental level. The community as a whole can certainly see some of its citizens as simply objects to push around to further its own social goals, and that is just as violent.

    So while I often espouse the local approach you espouse, I also see the merits in restraining local governments from abusing citizens as well. I have witnessed how a local government can turn into a tool by which citizens can bully their peers. One man seeing another as merely an object, or a hindrance, to their dream community is bad enough; a group of them steering the local government to treat others as merely objects and hindrances to their dream community is infinitely worse.

    I think of Brigham Young’s sentiments: “How many there are who come to me to find fault with, and enter complaints agains, their brethren, for some trifling thing, when I can see, in a moment, that they have received no intentional injury! They have no compassion on their brethren, but, having passed their judgment, insist that the criminal shall be punished. And why? Because he does not exactly come up to their standard of right and wrong! They feel to measure him be the Iron Bedstead principle – if you are too long, you must be cut off; if too short, you must be stretched.”

    Now, I make no claims that Brother Brigham was speaking of governments; rather, I see this attitude as pervasive in local communities here in Utah (especially in wealthier communities), amplified by the fact that they can use their local government to enforce their petty opinions. This is certainly a form of violence in the Levinasian sense. For this reason, I sometimes want to simply restrain even local governments to simply the task of defense of life and property, in order to end its use as a tool of abuse of citizens against each other. So I sometimes dabble in strict libertarianism, on a local level (even though I reject their individualistic rhetoric).

    So there’s the story of my waffle between libertarianism and simply local rule: Governments should be localized, and I’m sure I’d be happy in a society of entire local rule; but I also see democratic local rule levied as a conduit through which citizens can commit violence against their neighbors (in a Levinasian sense).

    Beyond this, I don’t really know how to “reconcile the two.” Have I used any exclusively individualistic rhetoric here?

  7. Dennis:

    So what about the possibility that the MOST humane reaction I can offer to the Other is to ignore all petitions and behave exclusively according to my own self interest? Your authors seem to dismiss this possibility too quickly.

  8. PaulM,

    As I said in my response to you, taking care of ourselves may be the way in which we respond to the call of the Other. I might argue, if that were the case, that you actually aren’t acting with self-interested motives; you are actually responding to the obligation you feel towards the Other.

    While we may often act in our best self-interest, I argue in this article that this is never why we act.

  9. PaulM,

    Can you offer an example? I’m trying to understand, but I’m a bit confused by what you’re saying. It seems to me that the very judgment of a given action as “humane” would preclude the possibility that it was not done exclusively out of self-interest. The very determination of the action as humane would mean that you are not ignoring their petitions, nor would you be acting in exclusion from their petitions. Not doing what another person is explicitly asking for is not the same as ignoring their petitions. Am I missing something?

  10. Did anyone ever see the Twilight Zone in which a man came to door with a box and said he would leave it for a day and if the resident pushed the button he would receive a million dollars. But the cost was, someone they did not know, would have to die.

    Then ended up pushing the button. The man appeared immediately at the door and gave them their money and took the box. They asked where he was taking it. He said- don’t worry- it will be somebody you don’t know. Then, creepy Twilight Zone music.

    They felt it was in their best self interest to kill someone and get money. That’s why they chose it. But they learned that because they had placed their own desires, not even needs, above the life of someone else- they would ultimately pay a greater price then they gained.

    Self interest and selfishness are not the same. Any act of selfishness ultimately harms that person more than anyone else. The Book of Mormon teaches this truth.

    We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Not more than, not less than, AS. Yet we are primarily responsible for our own needs. There is a balance that can only be found with wisdom and with sincere love for self and others.

    About Ayn Rand- I don’t think her ideas are all gospel truth. BUT- I find her to be a brilliant thinker. In my mind- genius. She misses the eternal concept of sacrifice. BUT- she illustrates that our own true self interest IS the community interest and vice versa. Even sacrifice eventually falls into that paradigm.

    Was the Savior selfish in his sacrifice? I think we know He was not. Was it in His best interest? Ultimately, yes. Was His best interest the true motivation? Yes. Isn’t that selfish? No. Why not?

    Because His interest, or true desire, was born of love not selfishness. His love is so perfect that our best interest IS His best interest. His interest was not to set himself above others. It was to elevate ALL who desired it. At His cost.

    But he didn’t lose. What He gained, our possibility of eternal life, was worth more to Him than what he gave. Even Ayn Rand would admit that is good capitalism.

    I think one of her greatest ideas is that capitalism does not equal selfishness. It can be twisted but it is not inherently selfish. It is self AND other interested.

  11. Erin,

    Thanks for your thoughts. Let’s just be clear that Ayn Rand was an unabashed supporter of selfishness (not mere self-interest, though I’m not sure there is a difference). She published a book, after all, called The Virtue of Selfishness. From a gospel standpoint, selfishness is not a virtue–the opposite is true. Ayn Rand has it all wrong wrong wrong. Is it any coincidence that she was a power-hungry, sex-crazed megalomaniac? Have you read a biography about her actual life?

    Self-interest is taught nowhere in the scriptures. (“Self-reliance,” much different, is taught by modern-day prophets, but this is much different, and I would argue even a misnomer.) Because the natural man is selfish already, only Satan would encourage people to be more self-interested. That’s why the scriptures don’t need to say, “Love yourself, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Nowhere does God command self-love. (Though in a few instances the Savior actually endorses a kind of self-hate.) If we listen to Christ more than to people like Whitney Houston, we know that the love of Christ (which seeketh not its own) is the “greatest love of all.” In light of all this, I worry about people who feel the need to say, “Well, yes, but, but, we should love ourselves, right!” Where is this coming from? (Not the scriptures.)

    Obviously, Rand believed (falsely) that selfishness was in the best interest of the other. But, let’s be very clear about this, she believed it was best for everyone only when people are motivated solely by self concern. A far cry from the love of Christ and his sacrifice. The scriptures do not teach that Christ was motivated by some greater satisfaction he would receive. He was motivated by doing His Father’s will and by His love for each of us. Do we believe the scriptures when they say charity “seeketh not her own”? It is the capitalist, not the scriptures, that insert speculative commentaries: “Well, surely, Christ did this He could get something from it!”

    One last thing. Yes, selfishness ultimately harms. But there’s a problem when we assume things like there being a truer kind of selfishness (e.g., seeking for eternal life). The problem comes because for selfish people eternal life is not rewarding. They must change into NEW people (be born into a new self), and therefore they must seek not the things that please their current self. Jesus taught that those who lose their lives will find them, not that those who save their lives (their current selfish desires) will find them.

  12. I second everything Dennis said.

    Was the Savior selfish in his sacrifice? I think we know He was not.

    Agreed.

    Was it in His best interest? Ultimately, yes.

    Agreed.

    Was His best interest the true motivation? Yes.

    Where in the scriptures is this supported, even in the slightest? I avidly disagree with it. No where in scriptural revelation is this idea taught in any degree. Just because something was in his best interest in no way means that is why he did it.

    Because this idea is never found in scripture, I feel it is the result of someone overlaying Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy onto the scriptures. And that’s just dangerous, especially when the scriptures themselves teach the opposite. The scriptures teach that Christ was motivated purely by his love for us and his desire to do his father’s will. Not by any benefit he would eventually gain.

  13. I think this discussion isn’t totally productive because of slightly varying definitions. That’s always the hard thing about somewhat abstract discussions such as this.

    I have not read a biography on Ayn Rand. I don’t really care about her all that much to be honest. But I have read Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead. So, my ideas of her beliefs come from what I have read from her “teachings.” I have no desire to exalt her or sustain her philosophy. But I must be perfectly candid and honest and say that I believe she has a brilliant mind. Not that she got everything right. Not that her foundations are solid. I truly admire her genuine independence in thinking and unique insight. I think we are foolish to dismiss all she says because we don’t agree with some of it. But she is not necessary for our salvation so if it comes down to that- choose salvation. Let me be clear about that. :) If you feel she brings you down or leads you away from truth, then she’s not worth it. I don’t feel that way. But if I did, I’d seek other things to read and discuss.

    From my understanding, which is limited, it seems she does not really differentiate between selfishness and self interest. Atlas Shrugged clearly did not promote selfishness in the sense of placing self above community. Her view was- the true good of the individual WAS the good of the community. She didn’t see a need to ultimately choose one above the other- her vision was that of accomplishing both. Her method may not seem right. The overall FEEL of it might not seem right. But some of it WAS right. I think it’s important to recognize that.

    When I think of love of self I think of understanding the true VALUE of self. I am not more valuable than Dennis and Dennis is not more valuable than Doug. “Self love” may just be another way of saying- I realize and truly believe that no one is better and more important than I am. In order for this to be honest, we must also recognize, and truly believe, that we are not better nor more important than anyone else. That is to believe the essence of an eternal truth- we are ALL children of Heavenly Father. He values us. He wants us to value us.

    As far as the Savior’s motivation. “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” This IS His interest. This is what He, himself, is most interested in. You could argue, this was also Lucifer’s interest. That’s what he wanted to make happen, too. But Lucifer’s desires were selfish. They were selfish but NOT in his self interest. He will lose more than anyone. HE was the focus of his plan. And He will not benefit.

    Heavenly Father loves His family. His family is the focus of HIS plan. The Savior values the same things His father does. His interest is Heavenly Father’s interest. And Heavenly Father’s interest- is OUR eternal interest. When love is the motivation- self interest is family interest and family interest is self interest. Because in truth- we are all inherently connected.

    How can we differentiate? Here is one test- Is our ultimate desire to POSSESS or to BLESS? Are we desiring to TAKE something so we have something others do not, or are we desiring to BUILD something so that we can share what we have with others?

    It IS in our best interest to BLESS. Then why do we want to possess? Because we have not yet learned that we are intrinsically connected. We fear someone else’s gain is our loss. We do not yet understand how a family truly works.

    Main thought- selfishness and true self interest are NOT the same thing. They can never be. It is simply not possible.

    As far as overlaying Rand’s objectivism onto the scriptures. I really don’t care what Rand says. I don’t look to her as a source of eternal truth. I have no desire to justify her with scriptures, though I wanted to after reading Atlas Shrugged just for fun- to see how it fit and where it departed. I know where to find eternal truth. I know how to learn who the Savior really is. But I DO love to find truth wherever I can. It’s like finding a gem in a vast wasteland. I rejoice in it.

    This is one reason I LOVE the Arbinger Institute. I’m not going to bear my testimony about it in Sacrament Meeting. By name anyway. But I love to see what other people have discovered.

    So don’t misunderstand if I find truth in some of what she says. I can see clearly enough some of the things she does NOT understand. But it’s also really fulfilling to try to see what she DOES understand, even with her limitations.

  14. There are two definitions of self-interest:

    (1) interested in the self.

    (2) the interests of the self. As in, if I want an apple, the apple is in my self’s interests. If I’m interested in helping others, helping others is in my self’s interests.

    Number (1) is what I’m arguing against. Number (2) is a useless definition, because it doesn’t distinguish anything. Even if I am altruistic, the benefit of others is my desire, and therefore my self’s interests.

    As far as the Savior’s motivation. “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” This IS His interest. This is what He, himself, is most interested in.

    Absolutely. But if you claim this is “self-interest,” then you are operating under the second definition, which isn’t a useful philosophical term, and not at all what Ayn Rand was arguing.

    BTW, I also love Arbinger. It’s actually from Arbinger’s work that I wrote this article.

  15. In clarification,

    Ayn Rand certainly argued that serving others benefits us. She also went further and claimed that this is why we should serve others. We should serve others, she said, because benefits to ourselves will result.

    I’m not just arguing that this isn’t real altruism. That’s a prior assumption of this article. I’m arguing a further point: not only is this not real altruism, it isn’t even self-interest. Whenever we are pursuing actions for the purpose of benefiting ourselves, we are simply masking an underlying violence against the Other.

  16. The definition I use for self interest is:

    that which will bring the most benefit to self.

    So, it doesn’t really do any good to talk unless we can find a common definition to use as a mutual foundation.

    Arbinger- I know. I saw your references. It’s not doctrine, obviously, but it has a lot of useful truth. Very useful.

  17. PS Have you read Atlas Shrugged?

  18. “Whenever we are pursuing actions for the purpose of benefiting ourselves, we are simply masking an underlying violence against the Other.”

    This can only be true if the benefit of one person means the loss of another. My gain must be someone else’s loss. Therefore, everything I desire for myself IS inherently selfish- “against” someone else.

    A basic concept in Atlas Shrugged, which is what I have read most recently, is that this does not have to be true. This is true if you are STEALING. But there are other ways to get gain for yourself besides stealing. And these are the ways which truly benefit self AND community.

  19. One last thought :)

    This is demonstrated in Covey’s concept of Abundance vs. Scarcity. Your statement falls into the category of Scarcity.

    ie There isn’t enough to go around. Therefore anything I gain, is a direct loss to someone else.

    This is true in some circumstances. But the question is- is it true for LIFE as a whole?

    One more thought. Ha.

    The scriptures are FULL of teachings designed to tell us how we, individually, will benefit from certain decisions. It is clear the Lord wants us to be aware of what will bring ultimate gain or loss to ourselves. If this is truly a selfish way to approach decisions- why would the Lord put so much effort into making these things crystal clear for us?

    It is not the only consideration. But it is a major consideration in the teachings of the prophets.

  20. I think it’s more useful to be clear about what a self-interested act is, not simply what self-interest is.

    I would define a self-interested act as an act that is motivated from what the person views is in their own best interest. It is immaterial whether the act actually is in their own best interest, or whether others are benefited also. What is important is that the person views the act as in their own best interest, and it is this interest (not the interest of others) that is the sole motivation.

    The problem, Erin, with your definition, is that it says nothing about motivation. What happens to bring the most benefit to self does not necessarily come from self-interested acts (according to my definition above), and self-interested acts do not necessarily lead to the most benefit to self.

    I believe from a gospel perspective this distinction is crucial, in light of the Savior’s teaching about losing your life. You cannot directly pursue happiness; it is only ensued in the pursuit of helping others. Even to think, “I’m going to help others because that will make me really happy” is, I think, off the mark. It is only when we are motivated “with no thought of reward” that we act from charity, the pure love of Christ, which seeketh not her own.

    No wonder Moroni urges us to pray with all the earnestness of heart for charity.

    Hopefully this helps with our little debate.

  21. The scriptures are FULL of teachings designed to tell us how we, individually, will benefit from certain decisions. It is clear the Lord wants us to be aware of what will bring ultimate gain or loss to ourselves. If this is truly a selfish way to approach decisions- why would the Lord put so much effort into making these things crystal clear for us?

    Two responses to this. First, I’d love to see an example, because I think these scriptural teachings are always more nuanced when they are viewed from non-correlational-committee eyes. Second, where such examples are there, it’s because God’s working with us. Certain self-interested acts may be better than others, for sure — but to act from love of God and neighbor is the highest motivation. I’m sure you’re familiar with Elder Oaks’ talk on this subject. (If not, let me know.)

  22. One last thought.

    Erin, I don’t think anyone’s debating whether acts can benefit oneself and others. I don’t think the scarcity or abundance thought applies to anything Jeff or I have been saying.

    I’m also OK with acts that are (simultaneously) both self- and other-interested acts. But, I would argue, these are qualitatively different acts than the rational self-interest of Ayn Rand, in which to act out of interest of others is immaterial. Rand believed that rationally self interested acts simply are in the best interest of others, regardless of your motivation. Big difference.

  23. I’ve read some of Rand’s philosophical papers, and other pieces about Rand, but not Atlas Shrugged. I only have time for the best books :)

    I hear she’s a much better author than a philosopher. Based on the detailed synopsis I’ve read of the book, I’ve got a good sense of the underlying philosophy.

  24. Erin,

    I’ve read Atlas Shrugged. I actually enjoyed it thoroughly.

    Like Dennis said, it about motivation, not consequences. Certainly, helping others does help us, but that isn’t why we should help Others. We should help others for their sake, not ours. When we help Others for our sake (not theirs), we are saying, in essence, “your welfare isn’t enough to motivate me; I’ve got to benefit too.” — this ignores the Call of the Other, and is a form of Levinasian violence. :)

    Sorry for the philosophical mumble jumble.

  25. I think it all comes down to what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for ways that Ayn Rand’s vision of things doesn’t line up to the fullness of the gospel, you will certainly find them.

    When I read Atlas Shrugged, just a few months ago, I had no expectation. (Which, by the way, Doug does not believe in. He approaches everything with an expectation. We had a good argument about that once. :)) I was just bored and picked it off a shelf and started reading. I was hooked. I found the book to be amazing. It helped me see things in a new way, a way that was helpful to me. I considered things I never had before. It was an unforgettable intellectual/spiritual experience.

    I could tell that Rand does not have a testimony of Jesus Christ. But I could also tell that she was searching to understand life and to see it clearly. Her words may not be inspired, but I felt them to be honest.

    I will give you one example of a way it was helpful to me. I am extremely motivated by what will help others. I find my worth in blessing other people. Sometimes in order to do something that I know will be good for me I have to consciously remind myself how it will help someone else.

    Reading Atlas Shrugged help me to realize something. I already kind of knew it, but I didn’t exactly understand it. Part of the reason that I am that way is that I place other people’s importance above my own. The fact that something will help ME doesn’t move me. It has something to do with feeling worthy of the love that I KNOW Heavenly Father has for others, because I can feel it for them. As I come to understand and accept Heavenly Father’s love for myself I will understand that my own worth is equal to that of other people. I still have to figure out how to DO that and go through that experience, but I know see it more clearly. Now I can ask for it because I know what to ask for.

    Rand’s novel illustrated for me that I am not less worthy than anyone else. It helped me to know that I can go after what is rightfully mine, without feeling guilty. I should have DEMANDED to be reimbursed for the gas money I spent as a nanny. It was my right. Instead I felt I was doing some service of love, a sacrifice. I felt guilty asking for it, as if somehow that made my motives less pure.

    In a BYU religion class once a middle aged student- Utah Valley mom- raised her hand and said something about how she had to remember that Heavenly Father loved everyone else, too, that He didn’t just love HER. That was a struggle for her. I was dumbfounded. I had never even imagined that someone might feel that way. It didn’t make any sense to me. It still doesn’t. I would never recommend Atlas Shrugged to her. Ha ha.

    But, her book was not aimed at people who think like this lady. One of the resounding themes is “Don’t feel guilty for asking for what is rightfully yours.” YOU are important, too. Also “Don’t covet that which belongs to someone else.” The book was full of bad guys who wanted to take what belonged to other people.

    It didn’t teach much about mercy. But I did learn a lot about justice, and that’s something I need to know, too. I can’t understand mercy if I don’t understand justice.

  26. Erin,

    If Ayn Rand helped you to learn not to be timid in your interactions with others, that’s great! :)

    If Ayn Rand inspired you to look for self-interested reasons to act (instead of other-oriented reasons to act), then I will have just another reason to dislike Ayn Rand.

    The scriptures don’t talk about rights. They don’t talk about “demanding what’s rightfully ours.” That idea is actually alien to Christianity, I believe.

    Thanks for the interesting conversation, btw.

  27. No, but the scriptures teach us about justice. I would fight to the end for justice for someone else. Why is any different to fight (ie work) for justice for myself? Is it less important because it’s for me and not someone else?

  28. Demanding what is rightfully ours can also be called upholding the law. Demand does not have to be negative. It can also mean- we simply won’t accept no for an answer when no is not the right thing.

    How different would this world be if we all learned to stand up for what was right, even when it is for ourselves? There would be less abused women, more children with the knowledge that they CAN find an adult to tell that some kind of abuse is going on, and less people taking advantage of weaker people simply because they are allowed to.

    And it’s not that Atlas Shrugged taught me to be less timid in my interactions. I am not, and have never been a timid person. You can ask anyone who knows me. :)

    It’s that I realized that I do not have to feel bad about going after what is truly mine. I would do it in a heartbeat for someone else. I realized- I AM someone else. I’m someone else’s someone else and I’m just as important.

    I’ve had a few friends who have ripped me off financially. In one case I asked for the money. She said no. So I had a choice. I could sue her for $80, which costs more than that to do, I could keep that debt in my mind and never forgive her, or I could let it go and stay her friend. Either way, I wasn’t going to get my money back. I decided I’d rather lose just money than lose money AND a friendship. I don’t hold it against her in any way. I won’t give her access to my money- but I don’t hold back my love or friendship. :)

    In another case, it was a woman in my ward who paid me substantially less than she should have. It was before I moved into the ward and she thought she’d never see me again. Ha ha. That joke was on her. I knew her pretty well and my gut feeling was that if I asked her for it, 1. I probably wouldn’t get it and 2. we would not end up on friendly terms. That time it was $70. So, for the sake of peace I just let it go.

    But if I could go back in time I would do whatever it took to get my $300 of gas money. No one gained anything necessary, and I lost $300. I also should have found a lawyer because quite a few laws would have benefited me greatly, but I didn’t know the laws. I lost a lot more than $300 in that fiasco.

    I don’t think this is selfish. I’m not wanting anything that wasn’t lawfully and rightfully mine. It’s simply setting boundaries and taking care of myself.

    It’s simply wanting what is JUST, not just legally but morally.

  29. I will always advocate defending the weak against the aggression of the strong. I will always seek to limit the abuse of power. Thus, if you come to me, and say, “Help me, my neighbor has robbed me, because he is more powerful than me,” I will certainly defend your case. I will defend others, including my family.

    But when it comes to my personal interactions with others, the Savior teaches me to “turn the other cheek,” to walk twice the demanded distance, and to “give him my cloak.” I can find dozens of passages of scriptures teaching us not to feel entitled to our belongings in the face of aggression. That doesn’t in any way make the aggression just or right.

    Can you you point to any scriptures to the contrary?

    Also, if I am about to give money to the poor, or pay a bill so that my family can have a home to live in, then defending my property against aggression can be an other-oriented act. It doesn’t have to be about my rights, but the welfare of others.

  30. The scripture is- if any man sue thee, at the law.

    There are many examples of righteous people working for justice in the scriptures. I could list them, but I’m not sure a scripture war would really do any good.

    Bottom line- do what you feel you have to do to be as the Savior would have you be.

    I have learned through my own experience that good does not come from being a doormat. It enables the aggressor and it weakens the doormat.

    Do we encourage women and children to turn the other cheek when they are hit? Or do we encourage them to get the heck out of there and seek help. That commandment is clearly given with context. Determining what that context is is part of our work here.

  31. But, if it comes down to it- I suppose it is always better to err on the side of mercy and humility.

    It is always better to lay up treasures in Heaven then risk our souls for treasures on earth.

  32. Right now I just feel tired. A war of words never brings the Spirit.

    I love thinking together, but I guess if I feel like we’re just thinking against each other instead of together I might as well choose a more peaceful activity. :)

  33. I haven’t considered this a “war of words,” but a valuable discussion. I don’t feel like I’ve been arguing, but simply responding and questioning your assumptions, just as you have mine. I appreciate it.

  34. Erin,

    I’m with you: we shouldn’t be doormats. I agree with you that we should fight for justice. I think we’re agreed here :)

    All I’m saying is that the rhetoric of self-interest and individual rights is never used in the scriptures. Even Moroni, when he was fighting in the defense of the Nephites, used other-oriented language to persuade his comrades. Thus, when we do fight for justice, let’s use the rhetoric of charity and concern for our fellow beings, rather than the rhetoric of demanding our individual rights.

  35. I just meant me. I’m just tired of the way I think sometimes.

    I don’t think of it as MY rights or anyone else’s. I just think of it as what IS right. I actually don’t even believe in “rights.” Life doesn’t owe us anything. Not health care, not even freedom. We’re all beggars and that which we receive is a gift.

    However, when laws or agreements are established- there are “rights” according to what is agreed upon. When a law is established and that law is broken, something is “wrong.”

    There is a reason we are commanded to forgive all men but not commanded to forgive all financial debts. We must honor what is written. When there is an injustice- no matter who it’s against- we must bring attention to it and work to resolve it. Failure to correct an injustice will only lead to more injustice.

    I understand the idea of using beneficial rhetoric. But is it always honest? If a contract has been broken and I have not received what has been promised- why can’t I say that? Is it somehow less of an injustice if it’s against me?

  36. I must say this is a remarkable article. I have read most of Rand’s writings as well as various biography on her and I have always been extremely alarmed with the core philosophy and the way many Latter Day Saint people have turned away from Gospel teachings having embraced it.

    It usually starts harmlessly enough with a person seeking truth and accepting the “good” parts, but the good that Rand’s philosophy does espouse is very much interwoven and you could even say supported by the “bad”. So next the “bad” parts are fixed by redefining words and ideas and reinterpreting Rand’s intentions, all to make it more inline with the scriptures, thus the philosophy can appear to be justified as a whole. But over time what I have seen in these people is exactly what you describe. Self-Interest becomes the (now baptized) rational to deny any human responsibility to the Other. As trials and temptations arise in life the original spirit and definition of objectivism returns, often completely unnoticed until spiritual ruin is well advanced or complete.
    I’m somewhat reminded of a quote by Brigham Young.
    “The adversary presents his principles and arguments in the most approved style, and in the most winning tone, attended with the most graceful attitudes; and he is very careful to ingratiate himself into the favour of the powerful and influential of mankind, uniting himself with popular parties, floating into offices of trust and emolument by pandering to popular feeling, though it should seriously wrong and oppress the innocent. Such characters put on the manners of an angel, appearing as nigh like angels of light as they possibly can, to deceive the innocent and the unwary. The good which they do, they do it to bring to pass an evil purpose upon the good and honest followers of Jesus Christ.” (JD 11, 238-239.)

  37. I don’t know any LDS people who have turned away from the gospel because of Ayn Rand’s teachings. I’m not saying they don’t exist- but I don’t know a single one. Do you? I’d be very curious to talk to them.

  38. Many months and many Rands later, Jeff T.’s thoughts to Dennis about local government go unanswered. I’ve just found this post, but I’ll take a stab.

    When the anonymous neighbor complained to the city about the chickens, I agree that the city should have refused to get involved — preferably, should not have been *able* to get involved, because governments do not generally turn down opportunities to make themselves important, unless their charter/constitution/founding treaty/whatever requires them to. The “localist libertarian” approach, if I may call it that, is appealing because it gives principled grounds for that refusal, grounds that could be enshrined in a city charter. But I have to admit I’m not very comfortable with libertarianism: It’s great for property, but it’s tragic for commons. (And where chickens are concerned, the problem may be noise, odor, runoff, or fears of influenza — commons-oriented problems all.)

    So here’s an alternate reason for refusing: The city government should not get involved because it isn’t local enough. The proper level for solving this problem is the lowest level on which it *can* be solved, which is probably “between him and thee alone” but might require involving a neighborhood association or something. Involving the city means not only imposing a bunch of new laws on people who don’t need them, but also having the dispute “settled” by people who are unaffected and uninformed, according to their own motives rather than the disputants’. Yuck.

    Strengthen the claim to “no organization has the *right* to take up an issue that a more local arrangement can adequately address,” and you have the principle of subsidiarity (currently one of the cornerstones of my politics). A subsidiarist city government would tell the neighbor, “Explain why you can’t handle this yourselves, or that the best you can do is postpone and displace the problem; or show that chickens burden the community at large; or prove that city involvement would be compellingly more effective and just than neighborhood chicken rules. Otherwise we cannot take your complaint.”

    It may not be libertarian exactly, but it certainly tends in the same direction.

    (The other cornerstone of my politics is solidarity, or just love. Obviously, taking your neighborly disagreement anonymously to the city government raises problems on that end of things too.)

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