Salvation Through Englightened Self-Interest and Other Pipedreams

After a long afternoon of running errands (during which time, for purposes of update, I did purchase an additional pair of pants, overlooking their lack of pockets because they were on crazy good sale), I came home to find the latest copy of the PAW (for the benefit of my non-Nassauian readers, PAW stands for Princeton Alumni Weekly). As usual, I skimmed over the intensely irritating articles about how Princeton is progressing in it’s determination to wipe out everything that makes it an interesting place to go to college (“What happened to you, Princeton? You used to be COOL!”), read over the class notes section to see if anyone I know got married or did something interesting lately, and finally stopped to read the last page column containing an interview with visiting professor and alumnus Robert Wright ’79.

Wright, the author of The Moral Animal and Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, is a philosopher and ethicist who apparently works with a mesh of vague sentiments left over from his upbringing as a Southern Baptist, added to his more determined belief in Darwinism, to reach a theory about life and where humanity is heading. In addition to the PAW article, I also looked up and read several of Wright’s articles, excerpts from his books, and reviews of his work that I found online. From what I could ascertain from my limited study (admittedly, to critique someone’s work in an academically honest manner, one should generally read that person’s books, but this blog is not intended to be that type of discussion), Wright is basically a utilitarian who explores topics such as how evolution can be defended in the face of undeniable realities like altruism and self-sacrifice.

What caught my attention was a quote from the PAW interview, in which Wright states, “All that the salvation of the world requires is enlightened self-interest.” Elsewhere in the interview, Wright declared that he was not “an optimist by nature” to which I responded “umm…ok, if you say so.” To put it simply, enlightened self-interest is selfishness that helps others as a side effect. In other words, it’s helping other people because of what you get out of it. What could be more optimistic than believing that any form of salvation, whether eternal or temporal, could come from everyone acting selfishly, restrained only by having to be selfish in ways that also benefit others?

At root, Wright is a utilitarian, as is another Princeton professor, Peter Singer (whose class in Practical Ethics I did take while I was there, just to see what the buzz was about – a topic for another post perhaps). Utilitarianism, a philosophy based on the idea that people generally act in their own self interest, and that the procurement of personal happiness is the one universal value, lends itself to an ethics of cold reductionism with no room for mercy, kindness, or acts of unselfishness motivated by love for others. Wright’s approach attempts to put a warm and fuzzy spin on utilitarianism by suggesting that if only people could be persuaded to act with enlightened self-interest (the idea that everyone would be happier if we treated each other nicely, the philosophical equivalent of “Can’t we all just get along?”) the world would be a better place. That’s a pretty big “if only” and seems to require a lot more faith than the Biblical alternatives…

World Magazine’s recent article Mr. Singer’s Soaped Slope by Marvin Olasky describes how Peter Singer’s utilitarianism shapes his views of the sanctity of human life. While I personally find Singer’s views on abortion, infanticide, euthanasia and so on to be morally repugnant, I accord him considerable respect for the fact that he is relentlessly consistent in his philosophy. Unlike Wright, Singer’s views are not clouded by a church upbringing, and so he does not apparently feel the need to cloak the logical outcomes of his premises with generic cultural norms of godly morality. What frightens me FAR more than Singer’s conclusions is the fact that so many people in our culture agree with so many of his premises, with the only thing standing in the way of mass adoption of his conclusions being the vestiges of our loosely Judeo-Christian culture.

We’ve been coasting on fumes for a long time now, living off of the benefits of former convictions. If the current trend continues, I have no doubt but that Singer’s prediction that by 2040 “only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct” will come to pass.

So what should I be doing about it? I have to confess that I’m all too often put to shame by Singer’s consistency. As a Christian I do have a responsibility to consistently take godly action, not just talk about it in a theoretical sense.

James 1:22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

James 4:17 Therefore to him who knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.

Going by Singer’s prediction, we’ve got about 34 years left to stand in the gap. That said, the ultimate outcome of human history does not depend on our actions, or on the philosophies of men. If salvation in any sense depends on our actions (whether driven by unselfishness or enlightened self-interest), then frankly, we’re doomed. Thankfully, that’s not the case.

Titus 3:5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.

Romans 8:37-39 But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This doesn’t give us authority to slack off or absolve us from the sins of our generation, but it does give us a hope that Wright and Singer can neither understand nor dream of attaining.

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