As mentioned in yesterday’s article, Ayn Rand was known for her views of “anti-altruism,” or what she called the virtue of selfishness. However, what Rand called “selfishness” would be more accurate if it was referred to as “self-interest.” Pure selfishness is a total ignorance of the wants or needs of others, while self-interest does not promote such egotistical notions. Leonard Read explains:
A vast majority of people in this and other countries, including many noted scholars, confuse self-interest with selfishness. The definition of selfishness? ” . . . having such regard for one’s own interests and advantage that the happiness and welfare of others becomes of less concern than is considered right and just.” Selfish individuals range all the way from thieves to political and private power mongers. All who gain at the expense of others fall in this despicable category!
It may be simple enough to say that we don’t support “selfishness,” but what exactly do we mean instead by “self-interest”? Isn’t this just another way of saying much the same thing? Not really. According to Read, “self-interest is the motivator of creative human action. Minding one’s own business amounts to serving oneself by serving others. This is a task of a size to fit the individual—whatever his talents.” Talent is the key word here. Selfishness assumes that the individual is primary, while self-interest assumes that the individual is a necessary component. Self-interest teaches that it is not a good business decision to rip off your customers; selfishness—at least in its pure form—teaches the opposite.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments were to love God with your whole being and to love your neighbor as yourself. A lawyer standing nearby thought a legal test was in order, and asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-29). Jesus’ response to this test is known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Rather than directly answering the lawyer’s question, Jesus told a story about a man who was left on the side of the road to die and the response of those who passed by. Two men—first a priest and then a Levite—ignored the man and passed by him on the other side of the road. Finally, a Samaritan (whom the Jews considered to be unclean, John 4:9) happened by and took pity on the man and brought him to an inn and paid for his care. Jesus concluded his story by asking the lawyer, “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor to the man?” When the lawyer rightly answered that it was the third man, Jesus told him to “Go and do the same.”
What is most interesting about this short passage from the New Testament is that we have both selfishness and self-interest on display. The first two men—the priest and the Levite—were acting selfishly, but the Samaritan actually acted self-interestedly. How? In this way: what would the priest and Levite have wanted others to do if they had been the ones on the roadside? Obviously they would want someone to stop and help. And yet they could not be bothered to slow down and offer so much as a comforting word to the man. Their own desires to get where they were going were more important to them than helping someone in need. Their selfishness is apparent.
But what is less apparent is the self-interest of the Samaritan. While it may be argued that he was naturally good-hearted, kind, and helpful, it should not be forgotten that Jesus was using this parable to teach about the second of the two great commandments: to love your neighbor as yourself. The Samaritan put himself in the man’s position for a moment and knew what he must do. Injured people require help and care. “Some day,” the Samaritan reasoned, “I may be in a similar situation and I would want someone to stop rather than hurry on by. Even though it is inconvenient and costly to me now, it is in my best interest to help this man, because it may very well be me the next time.” The Samaritan’s own view of self-interest motivated his compassion.
Some may say that this is a selfish way of encouraging good behavior. After all, it was “right” what the Samaritan did and “wrong” what the priest and Levite did. This is true, but notice that Jesus does not appeal to the lawyer’s sense of morality, but to his sense of justice. He was, after all, an expert in legal matters and the law does not make moral judgments based on feelings, but on fairness. The lawyer himself was indignant with the priest and Levite because of what they did, not because of their possible motivations for doing so. He was brought face-to-face with the difference between selfishness and self-interest and he easily chose the latter. And so should we. And to which Jesus would answer: “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”