Selfish "Charity"

Intent and Purpose

Nathan Richardson

In a series of previous posts beginning with “There Are No One-ended Sticks,” I described two broad currents in psychology that compete for our loyalty and adherence. Beginning with certain assumptions about the nature of self, they lead to different conclusions regarding how we can understand reality, what freedom and agency are, and what is right and wrong. Depending on which paradigm we adopt, we end up with two different ideas of the intent and purpose behind our actions and choices in life. (The following discussion relies heavily on a thesis by Renée Beckwith,1 and I am indebted to her for her insights.)


In the first paradigm, each individual chooses for himself what is right and wrong, and freedom consists of pursuing those desires with no obligations to other selves, except those which the individual voluntarily chooses. Therefore, the main purpose or intent behind each action then becomes maximizing personal gain. There are two ways to do this: ignoring the desires of others, or giving space for others’ desires to increase the odds of obtaining your own desires. “As long you see the individual and the community as independent, there will never be harmony between them. On one end you will have hostility—one encroaching upon the other—and the other end you have permissiveness, or non-involvement.”2 (An example of this ethic exists in the fictional series Star Trek, in which the Prime Directive is non-interference; the highest moral good is seen as not treading on anyone’s feet by interacting with their choices.)

Thus, some attempt to maximize personal gain in spite of the desires and intents of others, while some see considering others’ desires as a useful auxiliary to advancing their own. Both approaches, however, use people; the only difference is whether the Other consents to being used. In this paradigm, “man … cares little about the needs of the other and is concerned with them only insofar as they affect his personal interests. … People become objects that either hinder or facilitate personal objectives and are treated in a purely instrumental fashion.” Governments and laws become a way that people “agree to contractual restraints on the ways everyone may pursue their interests” so that individuals are not hindered in their pursuits. This is not because hindering another is inherently wrong, but rather because it increases the odds that someone else will hinder you. “This ideal of moral autonomy, in turn, forms the basis for the justice tradition’s stress on the dignity of the individual person.”4

In this paradigm, if a person and her attachments inconvenience you, then she ceases to be relevant in your ultimate intent of maximizing personal gain. This paradigm cannot account for genuine love or altruism; it ends up reducing love to a phenomenon that can be explained by selfish motives, such as passing on your genes or indebting another to you.


In this paradigm, all selves are inherently connected by obligations that they did not choose. Selfhood is impossible without them, and thus the purpose and intent of individual lives must involve, at least in part, honoring and fulfilling those natural and indelible bonds. This perspective creates the possibility that people can do things “just because they should.” People keep promises, people help strangers, and spouses stay married. They can do these things not in order to maximize personal gain or increase the odds that others will fulfill their desires or to build up good karma that will some day pay off (although some may have those reasons). They can do these things simply because “that’s the way things ought to be.” Their very makeup calls for those actions as a facticity of existence. Perhaps that is why Paul calls charity “the pure love of Christ”—mixing in any other motives only dilutes our selfless love for another.

Because this paradigm includes the idea that we are all connected, it implies that when I help another, his happiness inevitably increases my own. Joy is not a finite commodity, and any increase in genuine joy is an increase in joy for each individual. But this fact does not necessarily negate the previous idea, that we can act selflessly. In fact, in order to truly do right to the Other, we must forget ourselves, because thinking of our needs first is a distorted perspective of the reality that my self (and therefore my needs) inherently includes all other selves. If I ignore that fact of relatedness by thinking of myself as having true needs that genuinely conflict with the happiness of others, then I cannot truly honor my bonds to them or serve them. By forgetting myself, I am most able to serve others, which only tangentially happens to fulfill myself as well.


I had a hard time thinking of how to write the “Other-interest” section of this article (in fact, this whole series has been a very difficult task). I think that may be the case for two reasons. First, the Self-interest paradigm is one we hear explained and corroborated so often, and on so many different fronts—in economics, in biology, and in law. So it was much easier to articulate because we all hear it described so often in so many areas of life.

But second, perhaps it’s because the first paradigm, Self-interest, relies on rational thought and articulation for its power. Because it can be described verbally, it has a certain appeal and ethos. It begins on the page and works its way into our hearts. The second paradigm, Other-interest, is harder to articulate, at least for me. It begins in the heart, and only works its way onto the page, into articulable expression, after much pondering, patience, and brain-sweat. To me, that is one sign that it is true. In spite of my weakness and inability to express it as aptly, it continues to press itself on me. To say it another way, it feels real in the same way as my love for my wife. I learned a long time ago not to dismiss realities just because I have a hard time describing them. Indeed, they are often the most import realities of all.


1. Renée Beckwith, “Exploring Maternal Ambivalence: Comparing Findings with Two Opposing Paradigms of Intent,” master’s thesis (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2003), p. 28.
2. Dorothy Lee, Valuing the Self: What We can Learn from Other Cultures (Illinois: Waveland Press, 1986), p. 24.
3. Virginia Held, “Mothering versus Contract“; in Jane J. Mansbridge (ed.), Beyond Self-interest (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1990), p. 296.
4. E. F. Kittay and D. T. Meyers (eds.). Women and Moral Theory (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987), p. 5.


  1. Thank Renée. I have definitely expanded on and fleshed out her work, but she’s the one who originally showed me the thread of implications that runs through all these areas of philosophy that don’t seem related at first glance.

  2. Nathan and Jeff,

    After much discussion with Jeff and others on self-interest (egoism) and other-interest (altruism), I want to defend the first. Of all the articles here on your guys’ blog I thought this article would be the best to engage (although I expect to quote from other articles too).


    Nathan writes, “each individual chooses for himself what is right and wrong.” I would say the egoist does not have to concede this point. If (un)preferable consequences determine rightness (or wrongness), and since consequences are beyond individuals’ control, then right and wrong are unchosen. Note that what makes something right (or good) is that it has good consequences for me. The deontologist disagrees (your view) affirming instead that rightness is determined independent of consequences. So, I cannot chose what is good for me (like the effects drinking gasoline might have), and this is compatible with the doctrine that only chosen obligations exist. You don’t consider this possibility. Here’s how I think of it: an action’s (un)preferable consequences does not entail an obligation (not) to do what is (un)preferable. So, it seems that no unchosen obligations can exist in a world where right and wrong are unchosen.

    You continue, “the main purpose or intent behind each action then becomes maximizing personal gain.” I agree. This is often expressed as “one should act in his best interests.” The word “should,” however, is misleading because it technically expresses the idea of an unchosen obligation. Yet, when the egoist says, “you should act in your best interests,” he is really saying, “I want you to act in your best interests.” And this brings me to your next point. You put up a false dilemma: you say assuming people act in their best interests, people either live together at war or can achieve peace by not living in contact with one another. You conclude that altruism solves this problem since people can live together and not be at war as long as they are not self-interested but other-interested. However, you put up a false dilemma. You have not shown how I must be at war with others if I act self-interestedly, but only assume it. I don’t believe evidence exists to support your claim. I believe people can achieve their best interests only if they cooperate.

    Battling over Buber

    Jeff describes in another post, “Martin Buber’s Relationality,” that Buber discusses two ways of being. At any given time we are either treating people like objects (I-It relationship) or like people (I-Thou relationship). (Interesting aside: what do we mean by “people” when we say “treat people like people”? A non-object maybe? We now have two concepts for only one word.) Nathan continues his argument saying the egoist must treat others as objects. I disagree. Egoists distinguish between self-interestedness and selfishness. The selfish person treats the other as an object—that is, as merely a means to his ends, as Kant would say. The self-interested person does treat the other as a means to his ends, but he also treats the other as a person—that is as an end in herself. To make your case Nathan—that the egoist treats others as objects—you must argue something like “treating the other as a means at all is to treat the other as an object.” When Jeff and I talked he actually said that. It left me with my mouth open.


    If you believe that treating the other as a means at all is to treat the other as an object, you can then conclude, as you do, that “genuine love” is when I help you only because I want to help you; I cannot also do it because I benefit in some way. Because I deny the antecedent I don’t have to accept your conclusion. I redefine genuine love as helping another when at least one motive for my action is to help her. If it happens to be the only motive I have for helping her, that’s fine; I just don’t think I am more praiseworthy because of it.

    Nathan, you write that the egoist refrains from hindering another “not because hindering another is inherently wrong, but rather because it increases the odds that someone else will hinder you.” I definitely think this is why we act. I had one professor who refused to say we could behave for these reasons and behave lovingly because he thought this brought economics into the home. I think we shouldn’t behave otherwise lovingly (although what I really mean is I don’t what you to behave otherwise lovingly because it’s not in my best interest). And this brings me to my view of selflessness. I think it is a deadly virtue (because of its consequences, it’s harmful). This is best seen by analogy. Person A and person B both fear God, but they both put this belief into practice differently. Person A believes this belief requires him to stand on street corners at Mormon events and tell Mormons they are going to hell. Person B, however, believes fearing God is compatible with merely telling others about blessings he’s received from his religion and inviting them to experience what he’s experienced. So, what I mean to say is that the altruist has a beautiful belief, love, but he puts it into practice in a terrible way by promoting self-sacrifice as a virtue.

    Another problem is this notion of things being inherently right or wrong. I don’t side with Hume on many things but I think his attack on deontology is spot on. You can’t find rightness in a swirl of atoms. Moral judgments are not like physical properties we observe. But you can account for morality through consequences.

    Extra Thoughts

    I view the war in heaven not as a battle between altruism and egoism but as a battle between self-interestedness and selfishness.

    I disagree with you that self-interest is articulated all over the place. It is lived (because it’s practical) but it is hardly as articulated as selflessness is like in poetry and on the radio. Sure you’ll find speak of self-interest in biology and economic theories but that’s because you’re a student. You probably won’t hear much on it after.

    If this discussion takes us into unchosen obligations, I would like to compare the duty ethics of Kant, Buber, and Levians. I was firmly against no unchosen obligations until I saw it defended well from a Mormon point of view. I remember thinking “that might be right,” then it grew on me. Because I took a lot of courses on ethics where the professors pushed altruism, I can’t stress how big of a change it made in my own philosophies, but I like it much more.

  3. David Hume brings up this “is-ought problem”: Check out the wiki article on it and specifically how John Searle proposes we derive “obligations” and how Alasdair MacIntyre proposes we derive “good” and “bad.” I agree with them.

    Also here is the link to the LDS philosopher who proposes a Mormon egoism: I agree with a lot of what he says.

  4. Hey Aaron, sorry I haven’t gotten to your comment. Life has been very busy!

    I’m just gonna think out loud a little. Here’s a question: Supposing what is right and good is synonymous with what benefits me the most. Do I, in my mortal, fallen condition, have the wisdom to discern which option will benefit me the most?

    I would think the answer is no. When presented with several options, we cannot know enough about the consequences of each option to soundly choose that which will benefit us the most. We don’t have the capacity to see that far in the future or to ferret out all the cause-effect threads that follow each option. So how could self-interest inform our choices? We could never really be sure we were choosing what will truly benefit us the most, which means we could never really be sure what is the “good” thing to do.

    (Of course, we could ask the same question about other-interest. Do I have the wisdom to discern what is truly best for my neighbor based on beneficial outcomes? I suppose the answer is also no.)

    To me, the resolution is to choose what God impels me to through the Spirit. I think the Good choice is whatever the written commandments say generally and what the Spirit says specifically. That seems to be the most practical way of searching out what is good and doing it. What-The-Spirit-Says-Is-Good is the best prescriptive view I can think of, when it comes to prescribing choices.

    Some might want to go further and try to figure out the thought process behind what God says to do, in order to figure out what principles he is basing his instructions on. Such a person might say, “Well, what God tells you to do is that which will benefit you the most. The Good that he steers you toward is simply self-interest, informed by God’s omniscient, wise, all-seeing ability to know the full outcomes of each option. Self-interest is what makes one option the Good option. The Spirit is your way of discerning the most self-interested option.”

    That doesn’t sit right with me, especially because the Spirit so often impels me to inconvenience myself for the well-being of others. That’s one reason I don’t find it persuasive.

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