Does Rational Self-Interest Mean “Faith for Hire”?

The first step of my philosophical journey was reading The Fountainhead. The novel taught me to uncompromisingly seek my own rational self-interest. If values are personal and selfish, then I must choose them myself. From my smallest choice of personal taste, to my choices in friends or career, I cannot depend on others to set my direction. For every choice I make, I must have a reason.

But what are my values? How do I know?

The second step of my philosophical journey started when I began to look more at the question: what does it mean to value something? I was especially curious about the concept of an “imperative.” What does it mean to say, “I need X,” or, “I need to do Y?” And how does rational self-interest relate to my Christian faith? What does it mean to say, “I need to obey God”?

At the time I wondered whether there was something wrong if a man loved God simply for what he expected to get out of the arrangement. A common smear was to say that somebody was only a Christian only because they wanted “fire insurance.” In several church settings I heard it suggested that only an inferior kind of faith would seek God for what he can do for the individual. There was even a praise song to that effect: “We don’t want blessings, we want You.”

Although I knew it was in my rational self-interest to seek God, I worried that there was something “mercenary” about approaching God on the basis of self-interest. Was my newfound approach to values even compatible with Christianity? I didn’t know how to answer these questions until I began to look at the concept of “ought.”

“Ought”

Growing up in a Christian home, we do the right thing because “we ought to.” God says so. These facts are true, but they do not support an adult level of understanding. I needed to learn for myself what was meant by “ought.”

Here’s how it happened: I was a driven person, and I often gave myself imperatives: I must do this or that. I must be on time. I must remember my homework. I must smile and be courteous. If you have seen a person in this condition, you will know what kind of ugly smile results from duty and imperative not integrated to one’s own chosen values.

At some point I realized I was stressing myself out, and I asked where all these “musts” were coming from. I realized that a “must” is always related to an “if.” You must drive safely if you want to protect your life and property. You must drink water if you want to stay in good health. Imperatives do not multiply on us except by our own choice. They are conditional, every one of them. We decide what our goals will be, and then the imperatives follow. I myself was the source of all my goals and actions. No one made me do anything. I chose to live as I did.

I thought more about the subject, and I realized that all of life consists of series of choices made in the form of “If you want A, you must do B… If you want B, you must do C.” I realized the importance of viewing any given imperative in light of the context of my whole life.

As a young person, it was not easy to take a long-ranged perspective on values.

I felt the immediate weight of the many tasks needing doing. Much rested on my performance. Being a perfectionist, I would have thought it was the end of the world if I had made some small error.

For example, say I had one day headed to school and forgotten to brush my teeth. This would have stressed me out! But, really, what would happen if I forgot? Did the course of my life depend on having brushed my teeth this day?

Long-range success, while it does depend on many small steps, cannot usually be ruined by a single day of under-performance. So I asked “what is at stake?” Why does it matter whether I perform well? I realized that it’s my own prerogative to perform well or poorly, and I should make my choice based on what I personally value.

If I am less than stellar, it will not ruin another person’s life. The main consequence will only be to my own happiness and well-being. Looked at in this way, how little of that well-being does depend on my brushing my teeth a given day! It would not ruin my life. All my imperatives are my own, of my own choosing, for the purpose of the broader whole of my own life.

And what was that whole life?

What were all my smaller choices building up to? This was the question I began to ask.

Why brush my teeth? …So they won’t fall out.

Why keep my teeth? …So I can eat.

Why eat? …So I can have strength for the day.

Why have strength today? …So I can live and enjoy living over the course of my lifetime.

I realized I could only go so far backward in chasing the puzzle of “why.” Why live? To enjoy living. Why enjoy living? There was no deeper answer. Because it is enjoyable to live. I realized that, logically, my own happy life is the only thing that can be the deepest purpose for my chosen actions. Other purposes work toward this one.

This surprised me because it was a self-interested purpose. Could it be that the fundamental purpose of all my choices was to seek my own interest? This went against the common idea that our fundamental purpose is to help others or even to glorify God. But, logically, what could be a more proper interest for myself than my “self-interest?” This is the reasonable way to understand values. And it fit with what I had already learned about the virtue of self-interest by reading The Fountainhead.

But what about giving glory to God?

How can our worship of God be self-interested? I told a friend about the ideas I was considering, and I asked him, “Why do you love God?” He answered, “Because he first loved me.”

This didn’t seem to be a full answer. God’s love for us is indeed amazing. But what exactly is the logical connection? Why does God’s great love for us create a response in us?

I explained my own view to my friend: “We love God because God is good for us. We love him because he is a personal value. We love him for what he does for our own life and happiness. That’s what it means to love. So we don’t love God selflessly. We love him with our full self, for the reason of self-interest.”

Do I worship God for my own sake? Yes. And for the pleasure it brings him — because it pleases me to see the pleasure of the one I love. He is what is best for me. He is my value. He is a value to me. I realized that there is nothing wrong with thinking about God in these terms. It does not make me a mercenary (a different kind of phenomenon).

It is moral to seek my own self-interest.

I didn’t clearly know it until then. I knew that I needed to seek my own self-interest some of the time. But when I did seek my own self-interest it was often accompanied by a vague sense of uncertainty, as if I was taking something that didn’t really belong to me and doing it only as a matter of practical necessity.

Gladly, all it took to gain some clarity was to keep asking “why?” For every choice it is proper that there be a reason. And at the heart of any sequence of reasons all reasons have one commonality: they are the reasons of a person. There is no escaping this.

It is not merely permissible to seek my own good; it is right.

Self-interest is not only practical; it is moral.

There is no shame in self-interest; it is in fact the essence of morality.