Are we always selfish?

November 7, 2023 in Uncategorized

BILL TONER SJ :: I am a great admirer of the late Fr Tony de Mello and have often quoted him in my blogs. I always bring one of his books on retreat and work my way through it during the week. But when I am reading his book Awareness (1990), I am always pulled up short by his chapter ‘The Masquerade of Charity’. ‘Charity’, Fr de Mello says, ‘is really self-interest masquerading under the form of altruism’. He gives the example of the woman who goes to the rectory and gives several hours of her time. But in fact, he says, she is really doing it for a selfish reason, based on the need to be needed. He gives a more dramatic example, of a soldier who falls on a grenade to keep it from hurting others. But the soldier may be thinking, “I’ll be remembered as a great hero”. In this way of looking at things, every ‘good’ thing we do is ultimately selfish.

Fr de Mello is quite right to remind his readers that they should be cautious about patting themselves on the back, but I do not think he is correct in saying that we always act from selfish motives. I think this way of looking at things can easily become an insidious doctrine that can be used to undermine people or groups who devote their lives to helping others, like religious congregations. The theory that we always act from selfish motives goes under the name of ‘psychological egoism’. It has attracted as much criticism as it has support.

The main problem with the theory is that it is based on ‘circular’ reasoning. It is a neat sort of hypothesis, and perhaps someone who, for instance, has read Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene might be attracted to psychological egoism as a simple theory that explains all human behaviour. But once people ‘adopt’ a theory like that, they may use it to explain everything in creation, and no example will shake them in their belief. Why do parents look after their children? It must give them a good feeling to be ‘caring’. Why do people give money to the poor? It must give them an inner glow to be ‘generous’. This kind of interpretation is easily extended to all kinds of activities, so ‘good deeds’ are explained simply by the need to have good feelings. If no counter-arguments are allowed, the theory becomes incapable of being proved wrong. This is what is meant by ‘circular’ reasoning.

The theory also confuses reasons with incidental side-effects. To take another example: we generally eat every day to stay alive. A pleasant aspect of food is that it often tastes nice. If we are in a restaurant, we usually choose dishes that have (to us) a pleasant taste or texture. But during famines or other survival crises, people have eaten all kinds of things and creatures, such as domestic pets, tulip bulbs, other (dead) people, and insects such as crickets and weevils. Little thought is given to flavour. For most people, a pleasant taste is a side-effect to eating, not the reason for eating. In the case of ‘good deeds’, people do them for all kinds of reasons, such as sympathy for a lonely person, or a wish to make a contribution to society by, for instance, supporting a housing association. People doing such deeds may experience all kinds of internal side-effects such as the satisfaction of having done something worthwhile, but that does not imply that the reason for their action was to experience pleasure.

In the last twenty years, an opposing theory, called psychological altruism has gained ground. This has been given an impetus by the discovery that, as well as genes that promote selfish behaviour, there are a number of genes (seven have so far been identified) that seem to give rise to altruistic, i.e. selfless, behaviour, whereby individuals perform actions that benefit others, at some cost to themselves Like the ‘selfish’ genes, these altruistic genes are thought to have an important role in the evolution of species, by ensuring the survival of the group. Bees and ants are particularly noted for their altruistic behaviour. When we see a sparrow fighting against a magpie in order to protect its chicks, is it not easier to explain this caring behaviour by attributing it to a ‘caring’ gene, rather than engaging in the mental gymnastics required to establish that it is really due to a ‘selfish’ gene?

The Christian gospels give little support to the full-blown theory of psychological egoism. Nevertheless, Jesus draws attention to various kinds of almsgiving: “When you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues”, contrasting this with the offering of a poor widow whom he observed giving away all the little she had. Jesus recognized that people can give alms for selfish motives. Rather strikingly, he also told his followers that when they have done all the things they were supposed to do, they are simply ‘unprofitable servants’ who have only done their duty. Perhaps he is reminding us here that at the end of the day all the good and charitable things we do are prompted by God’s grace. Our own will is autonomous only in its ability to reject that grace. In this respect, Fr de Mello is correct in saying that we should never pat ourselves on the back, even for deeds that are genuinely altruistic.

But, in general, we do not find the Jesus of the gospels looking for selfish motives underlying people’s good deeds. He defended Mary of Bethany when Judas criticised her for pouring expensive ointment on the feet of Jesus. When Peter exclaimed that he and the disciples had left everything and followed Jesus, Jesus did not suggest that Peter had done this in his own interests, but promised a ‘hundredfold’ of what Peter had given up. Nor does Jesus allude to possible hidden motives when he says “No man has greater love than this, than he lays down his life for his friends”. It is true that we carry out our good deeds under the impulse of God’s grace, but it is a distortion to say that they arise from an underlying selfishness.