Friday, October 24, 2008

Chapter Ten: A Challenge from Enlightened Self-Interest

Having examined the message of the cross from within the context of Scripture’s widest theme, we arrived at the following contrast:

"…if one asks whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation when those two basic domains of human value come into conflict, the question tears the human psyche in two. What is humanity, at bottom, a mass of self-seeking individuals, or a mass of individuals willing to sacrifice self-interest when necessary to preserve the integrity of the web of relationships that comprises human society? If I give up what I value most, I am a fool. The question is, at bottom, “Which fool am I to be?” The answer is determined by what I choose as my primary source of motivation, and that choice informs the core of Christian faith and belief. "(p. 27)

This ties directly into the view with which we ended the first section: The essential and central role of sacrifice in leading a conscientious life expresses the truth represented by the message of the cross. Biblically, the tie is accomplished by the Judeo-Christian view that humanity is created in the image of God: If we are made in God’s image, then a false view of God gives us a false view of ourselves. The faith perspective derived from the theory of the supreme question, which we are considering, is that the way to correct our false view of ourselves is to correct our false view of God by embracing the message of the cross—Jesus as God sacrificed for love of humanity—as the truth about God. But subtracting the biblical context out of the question, we must ask whether it is true that a willingness to sacrifice oneself for love of others, if necessary, constitutes a crucial determining factor for a person leading a conscientious life.

It is time to examine the dilemma behind this question critically and philosophically. We can begin by asking whether it is really true that the question of “whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation…” tears the human psyche in two when those domains of human value conflict. If so, there ought to be an awareness of the dilemma that does not depend on enunciating the claims of the supreme question as derived from Scripture.

In fact, there is a general awareness of the dilemma, and the most common approach to it is to try to dismiss it. The formalized philosophical attempts to do so fall under the heading “ethical egoism.” A popularized expression of ethical egoism has become a doctrine of secular faith; that clever persons can always find a way to avoid the pitfalls that align one’s scruples against one’s self-interest. The idea goes by the name, “enlightened self-interest.”

Phrased a bit more formally, “enlightened self-interest” implies that there is a middle ground between self-interest on the one hand and one’s loyalty to the welfare of others on the other hand. (Actually, ethical egoism goes beyond that, but for brevity’s sake we will consider just the minimal position needed to establish it.) That middle ground would render the supreme question superfluous—or at least superfluous for those clever enough to find their way to this enlightened middle ground.

Let’s consider how that middle ground might be constituted. Imagine a society in which everyone is fully committed to “the requirements of conscience (or “playing by the rules,” or “commitment to others’ welfare,” etc., since we are dealing with a broad, background question at this point). If the benefits of living in that society were always found to outweigh any sacrifices required of anyone in order to maintain that total commitment, surely that would constitute a middle ground, and on a grand societal level too! Yet just as surely there is no society so ideal that everyone can be shown to be fully committed to, fully capable of realizing her commitments to, and fully able to benefit from her commitment to these moral desiderata. We can simply dismiss this possibility as unrealistic.

But is the standard unnecessarily high? Perhaps self-interest, properly conceived, can provide us with a middle ground without requiring a morally perfect society. Try a much lower standard. If a society (1) benefits in a general way when its members are committed to following all the rules; if (2) the benefits of doing so extend to nearly everyone; if (3) exceptions where sacrifices are required to maintain the commitment are rare and not known in advance; and if (4) the society is committed to remedying any inequities which appear for any of its members, the situation would be analogous to a fairly administered lottery in which nearly everyone wins and few pay the price without gaining the prize. It would be in everyone’s self-interest—from the perspective of one’s initial choice to do so—to take part in that “lottery,” even though a few would probably become losers for doing so. There are societies, I believe, that make credible attempts to be morally propitious in this less-than-perfect way.

Granting that, however, does not provide a middle ground from which enlightened self-interest can overthrow the dilemma behind the supreme question. For a primary commitment to the equal moral standing of all persons requires that we be willing to sacrifice self-interest (as one’s primary commitment) to it. The problem for the advocate of enlightened self-interest goes beyond the fact that such a commitment is contingent upon the actual decisions of persons who can choose not to uphold their commitment, and far beyond the fact that there is no ideal society that can guarantee that a moral commitment will benefit all individuals in every case. The core problem is that if we use self-interest to justify making our moral commitments, we can also use it to justify breaking them. Accordingly, enlightened self-interest, conceived as a secular doctrine challenging the dilemma behind the supreme question, does not even address the core existential predicament that the supreme question poses.

Clearly, whenever possible it is “enlightened” to seek a middle ground between self-interest and one’s commitment to the welfare of others. But if one goes further and uses the idea of enlightened self-interest in doctrinaire fashion, it has no relevance to the question at hand.

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