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Selfishness, Despite Claims To Justify It, Is Not Virtuous

March 10, 2012

We often do things for ourselves and justify it by some sort of “trickle down” theory of goods. If we get what we want, we will be able to help others. If we get what we want, then what we get beyond our desire can be put to use for others. Though this intention can be the foundation for real charity, because it shows someone beginning to think of others, it is not in itself charity. Charity gives of the self to others; this takes for the self, distributing the scraps, justifying the selfishness through a false sense of benevolence. The sin of avarice remains so long as such self-seeking lies behind one’s so-called charity, and indeed, can be served by it:

“The pretext of almsgiving is the start of avarice, and the finish is detestation of the poor. The collector is stirred by charity, but, when the money is in, the grip tightens.”[1]

A prime example of this is found in the book of Job. At first, they appear as if they have come to Job to render to him the charity he needs:

Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to condole with him and comfort him.  And when they saw him from afar, they did not recognize him; and they raised their voices and wept; and they rent their robes and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven.  And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great (Job 2:11- 13 RSV).

Once Job speaks and complains about the suffering he has suffered, that charity is lost as they seek to defend their own status and justify Job’s sufferings. They act as if they are wise teachers come to reprove him: this is their charity, to tell him what to do in order to get into the good graces of God. Job, like so many of the poor, only has himself to blame. They have come not to help him with what they have, but to tell him how to fix the situation himself. This is exactly the attitude of so many today: they are willing to tell people what to do, and assume that how things worked for them is exactly how things work in the world. The righteous, the worthy, will work hard and find themselves rich; those who are poor are poor because they are lazy sinners. “The core of this teaching, which Eliphaz and his companions expound with unshakeable conviction, is that God punishes the wicked and rewards the upright.” [2] Thus, “Riches and health on the one side, poverty and sickness on the other, are what God decrees, respectively, for those who live virtuously or unvirtuously.”[3] We hear this theme from Job’s friends: Job had to have done something wrong, so he should take their kind advice and repent.  But this does not make sense: if people are poor because of their own wrongdoing, why is there is obligation for the poor, why has God himself shown himself on the side of the poor?  Why is giving to the poor a sign of justice? Job defends himself on the grounds of the compassion he gave to the poor, showing his own sense of obligation to them (cf. Job 29:12 – 17). “The obligation to care for the poor means that the poor are not persons being punished by God (as the doctrine of temporal retribution implicitly asserts), but rather God’s friends.”[4] Avarice teaches us that we are being rewarded for our small good, and thus argues against charity until it teaches us to despise the poor as those who are cursed by God. It rejects God’s obligation to us. Avarice makes us issue a judgment upon others and condemn ourselves because of it.

This is not to say the poor are necessarily righteous. To confuse poverty as righteousness is to follow the same error which sees it as indicative of sin. One who is rich or poor can be filled with avarice. One who has no riches might not be able to manifest their avarice, but once they get it, they practice the same kind of injustice as they once faced when they were impoverished. What is necessary is a heart open for others, a desire to make sure everyone is well off, to seek to fix systems where injustice reigns. We must stop seeking only for ourselves. We must stop reinforcing systems which benefit us if we see so many people are hurt by them. We must stop justifying selfishness by saying others will benefit from it. Only then can we put away avarice and find ourselves turning away from the love of money, the root of all evil.


[1] St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent. Trans. Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 187.

[2] Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, NY: ORBIS Books, 2000), 21.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 40.

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14 Comments
  1. March 10, 2012 12:49 pm

    Excellent, excellent post!

  2. Jacob W Torbeck permalink
    March 11, 2012 12:50 am

    It was a real watershed moment for me when I realized that selfishness was an illusion. Glad you posted this.

    • March 11, 2012 10:06 am

      Did you mean, the arguments selfishness give were illusory?

      • Jacob W Torbeck permalink
        March 11, 2012 8:54 pm

        No, I mean that selfishness itself is an illusion. It doesn’t really exist. What we think is “selfish” is actually antithetical to self.

        • March 12, 2012 1:01 pm

          I’m still trying to understand what you mean. Is it that, like all sins, it is a deficit and not something positive, but yet something we identify as a concept? Or are you saying there is no such thing as selfishness, and no one is “selfish?” The first, I would agree with, which is why it ends up harming the person who is selfish.

      • March 13, 2012 10:14 am

        The latter. If someone ‘truly’ wills the good for themselves, then they will be seeking the good for others, and is thus not selfish. If someone seeks not to will the good for others, but to serve himself only, then he is actually not seeking his own good, and thus, is not being selfish. I would say that what people often think of as “selfishness,” as a concept is more akin to masochism

        • March 13, 2012 10:22 am

          Well, selfishness is a desire for the self. You are pointing out the end result contradicts the desire, and I would agree, but this is how sin always works. It always promises one thing and results in something else.

  3. March 11, 2012 6:44 am

    I read T19 mostly for masochistic reasons now, but I found the comments in the following post to be illuminating:

    http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/41609/

    In the first, the commenter (apparently, a lawyer) insinuates that people with EBT cards really don’t need them since they are hoarding their money to buy other things. In the second, the commenter states how the people she delivers food to have better things than she does, even though they live in a much smaller house in a worse part of town. I won’t post a comment there because I don’t want to feed the trolls, but I would merely suggest that if the lives of those these people are forced to help are so sweet and bearable, why don’t they just switch places with those they are “helping”? Why doesn’t the lawyer live off of the income of those who have EBT cards, and why doesn’t that other commenter move into a smaller house in the bad part of town, where the schools are probably worse, crime as well, etc.? I didn’t think so.

    The problem in the modern world is that Christians can be driven to think that their advice to the poor to live “morally” and stop asking for charity is somehow “tough love”, a “hand up” not a “hand out”, etc. That’s not a very traditional attitude to begin with, but it also barely veils the selfishness at the heart of it all as spoken of in this post. This is not a religion of saints and sinners, but of winners and losers, and the winners take all: money, salvation, everything.

    • March 11, 2012 10:08 am

      I really never have been to that site before, but I can see what you mean. Capitalism, when turned as a norm for society, forms the moral position which we see — the virtue of selfishness. But what lies beyond it is exactly what we both see.

  4. onlein permalink
    March 11, 2012 11:37 am

    “The love of money (greed) is the root of all evil.” In our corporation-dominated culture, we spend almost all our waking hours trying to rationalize our way out of this prominent message of both the Old and New Testaments — or trying to distract our attention from it. We are trying hard to forget that the problem of abortion is rooted in greed, which is still one of the seven deadly sins. We have been so successful in this that we see no problem in advocating further welfare cuts, including in WIC (thus taking milk from babies) rather than re-regulating the investment bankers that caused our 2008 economic collapse. It wasn’t babies nursing on bottles that caused it. We also won’t look at the reality of welfare cuts increasing the number of abortions. We’d rather keep the wealth in the top one percent than reduce abortions. We prefer money to babies. For us greed is good, when in fact it is blatantly evil.

    And we overlook post-birth abortion. This is cutting a newborn off from sufficent sustenance, so that they die. But, hey, at least this wasn’t an abortion. Yes it was. Pro-life doesn’t stop at birth.

    Jesus help us.

    • onlein permalink
      March 11, 2012 11:53 am

      I should have edited this before I sent it. I meant to emphasize more that the overall culture exerts strong financial pressures that are anti-family, anti-children, anti-life. This is especially felt by the poorest among us. We are all responsible for this cultural pressure — and many self-called pro-lifers seem blind to this, blind to the fact that they advocate racheting up this pressure when they advocate further cuts in family programs.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      March 11, 2012 7:58 pm

      Onlein, I know exactly what you mean, and I agree that too many in the pro-life movement (at least in its narrower definition) fail to make those connections. And being strongly pro-life in the broadest sense, I am often embarrassed by this disconnect. Fortunately, Catholic Social Teaching does make the same connections you’re making. Here’s how John Paul II describes the right to life:

      “…the right of the child to develop in the mother’s womb from the moment of conception; the right to live in a united family and in a moral environment conducive to the growth of the child’s personality; the right to develop one’s intelligence and freedom in seeking and knowing the truth; the right to share in the work which makes wise use of the earth’s material resources, and to derive from that work the means to support oneself and one’s dependents; and the right freely to establish one’s sexuality…. to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person.”

      (Centesimus Annus 47)

  5. Julia Smucker permalink*
    March 11, 2012 7:43 pm

    I always think “trickle-down economics” sounds like Lazarus getting the crumbs from the rich man’s table.

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