Material Self Interest

Over here being a word nerd and exploring the term “self-interest.”

I have to admit I got a little caught up in my brain with this one, so I made the 13-year-old read this before I hit “publish.” Her assessment is that it makes sense but it’s kind of boring. Sorry ’bout that.

So in yesterday’s post I mentioned that I’m learning about Robert Cialdini’s weapons of influence: reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity. Cialdini’s theory is that these six weapons are rooted in principles so ingrained in people that they produce a “click-whirr” response of action, a Pavlov’s response to action without a bit of critical thinking. His work is used by “compliance professionals” like salespeople, advertisers, marketers, fundraisers, and social media influencers.

Those who are adept at using these weapons of influence can practice “steering” (i.e. manipulation or mind control) on the average person.

Besides the six weapons of influence, there is an additional principle Cialdini feels is so prevalent and so deeply ingrained that, according to Cialdini, it really needs no explanation: Material Self-Interest.

According to this principle, people want to give the least to get the most (so the phrase ‘I can give you a good deal’ is a very powerful motivator). Cialdini believes this concept of material self-interest is so universal he does not need to say much about it.

So, of course, because I’m contrary, his glossing over the term made me want to know more and start researching! My question: Why is self-interest so ingrained it doesn’t need any explanation? My short answer after researching is that self-interest is a component of survival instinct. I’ve also learned that self-interest is NOT a synonym of selfishness or greed.

Ready to learn how I know that?

You might be surprised that Self-Interest is most strongly an economics term! It was coined by Adam Smith in the 1700s in his economics books like The Wealth of Nations, and is the basis of what makes capitalism work! I never knew that, as I’ve always considered self-interest from a relational perspective until now. I’ve also wrongly affiliated it with selfishness and greed.

Here’s a real definition of self-interest:

“Self-interest helps society to achieve it’s economic goals because people who act in their own self-interest (according to the theory of capitalism) will help make their society richer. As they try to make money for themselves, they will do things to help the society as a whole.” (How does self-interest help achieve society’s economic goals? |

This is the epitome of “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

Self-interest becomes an “invisible hand” that guides the decision making of the people – with the idea that whatever benefits the individual will also benefit the larger society.

“… Acting in accordance with one’s self-interest produces socially beneficial results. An underlying unifying force that [Lord] Shaftesbury called the “Will of Nature” maintains equilibrium, congruency, and harmony. This force, to operate freely, requires the individual pursuit of rational self-interest, and the preservation and advancement of self.” (Invisible Hand | Wikipedia)

It’s like trickle-down economics applied to human behavior! The idea is that in a perfect world, what benefits me will also benefit you, so self-interest, in and of itself, it NOT a product of selfishness or greed. It’s actually the root of benevolence.

Sponsoring city parks will also beautify my own environment, so I am willing to contribute to building them.

Scientific advancements will better my own quality of life, so, as a philanthropist I will contribute to your efforts.

This is self-interest.

Am I the only Christian who struggles with the term self-interest? Who feels guilty about charging for work completed? I don’t think so!

When we talk about “self,” we most often associate it with “dying to self.” However, when we discount our own desire for survival, and quality of life, we learn that the tool of self-interest is actually very positive.

Forget economics for a moment, and explore with me what the Bible says about self-interest. The Biblical working definition of the Golden Rule (“Do Unto Others As You’d Have them Do Unto You”) is actually a statement of what our cultural and economic definitions should be an an endorsement of self-interest!

Even Philippians 2, which I think it the best chapter ever written for marriages, says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others.” (ESV version). Note here that the Scripture doesn’t make this an “either/or” statement, but an “and also” statement. This is not a ruling that you can’t look out for your own survival, but instead that you should consider others at the same time!

What is God saying here? Consider that you aren’t the center of the universe. Consider others… but in doing that, don’t discount your own needs.

Sounds a bit like “put the oxygen mask on your own face and then help others,” doesn’t it?

Let’s untangle some more definitions in an attempt to actually figure out what we’re dealing with here.

According to the Institute of Faith, Work, and Economics, our confusion about this subject is because our cultural definition of “self-interest” at this time is grounded in our definition of “greed.” That institute makes an argument that our cultural norms are defining Greed as “having more than you need.” Thus, anyone who is rich is greedy. An extrapolation from that is that anyone who wants to be paid a reasonable or competitive wage is less than holy.

However, a study of the Biblical definition of self-interest is just the opposite: the Biblical concept of greed “fosters the taking of something that is not rightfully ours [… however…] many in our world today are wealthy not because they were driven by greed, but just the opposite: they were motivated by their own self-interest.” ” (What is Biblical Self-Interest? | Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics)

Take a moment to think on that.

Are you motivated by a desire to take what is not rightfully yours? Or just to provide for your family? To earn an honest wage and provide a service that if uniquely beneficial?

Then think on this one:

“Nothing makes us better understand what trifling things Providence thinks He bestows on men in granting them wealth, money, dignities, and other advantages, than the manner in which they are distributed and the kind of men who have the largest share.”

Jean de la Bruyere, “Of the Gifts of Fortune,” Les Caracteres

What have you been fretting about? Is it the same stuff the Lord might fret about? (If there were lordly fretting?)

In trying to understand this concept of sales, I have gone down a path that’s wholly personal and also wholly Scriptural.

Self-interest is not an inherently evil thing. In fact, it’s a good thing, a thing that speaks to our belief in the value of right living, in provision for those we care for, and a practical application of love.

According to the Institute, “there is a very clear difference between greed and self-interest. Self-interest is the willingness to do something of value for other human beings to secure the things that benefit themselves.” (What is Biblical Self-Interest? | Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics)

Look at that again:

Self-interest is the willingness to do something of value for other human beings to secure the things that benefit themselves.

I read this and immediately think about relationships.

For example, I was willing to be a leader in an organization in order to make sure that the benefits of the organization were available to my own children. Then, I stepped away from that leadership when I realized that the liability far outweighed the benefits to my own family.

Was that leadership role one of Self-Interest? What about Selfishness because I received accolades as a leader and a wage? Or maybe Greed because I was paid even though it benefitted my children?

Based on these definitions, I believe it was a Biblically endorsed Self Interest. I acted in self-interest when I started the work with that organization… and I acted in self-interest when I ended the work with that organization because it became too risky.

Is that wrong? Biblically, I don’t think so. I did not act with Greed in any of those situations because I wasn’t ever taking something that didn’t belong to me.

What about starting a business that works with people who have a specific need that comes from a feeling of being bamboozled? Does it right that trickery when you help people run compliant programs for a consultation fee?

NO. In charging for a service that helps others to have confidence, it benefits the ones paying and it benefits the being paid for specialized work.

The judgement should stop. Period.

It is not selfish to provide for your needs. At least, not according to the Biblical definitions of self interest. Self interest only becomes wrong when you take something that is not yours, and take something from others that they need to survive themselves.

The Biblical definition of self-interest is healthy because it speaks to mutual benefit… yet the cultural definition of self-interest is one-sided because it speaks to an unequal power distribution rather than to collaboration.

Does this make sense?

So how does this play out in our everyday life?

Well first, let’s go back to economics. Biblically, someone making money is only wrong if that money is not rightfully theirs to take. At that point they cross the line from self-interest to greed.

Second, economically we need to be stronger consumers if we believe in supporting the health of the broader human condition.

For example:

  • If we purchase products because they are cheap, even though we know they were created using inhumane practices, we support Greed. Or perhaps we’re enrolling our children in programs knowing that the leaders are required to take on a liability that we would never take on ourselves. This is problematic because the quality of life of another human is not rightfully ours to take. You’re either part of the problem, or part of the solution. As long as there’s a market for products provided with unethical practices, there’s no need for those in charge to change the production model. (Practices can be unethical, even if they are legal.)
  • Perhaps we buy single-use plastic products like bottled water even though we know that plastics stay in the environment on a floating island of trash far beyond our own lifetimes. In that small choice we are prioritizing our own momentary convenience over the reality of a healthy future for our children. The environment of the future is not ours to take or destroy with our actions today. We are either a part of the problem or a part of the solution. As a response to a conviction about our own plastic use, this summer I’ve transitioned away from using plastic shopping bags, even produce bags. I feel like a complete kook, but I want to be intentional in my actions, even if they cause me to be inconvenienced.

Secondly, the sum of individual, daily actions, make up the life of integrity and a life of integrity is also in our self-interest. I have a material self-interest in my grandchildren having a world where they can swim in non-polluted oceans. You have a self-interest in your reputation and providing for your family.

Self-interest is not a problem. Small choices have long term consequences.

Our goal should be to honor, not manipulate others, through our self-interest. In honoring ourselves we have the confidence to provide a service that will be beneficial to the population at large.

And that’s all I have to say about that. Thanks for sticking with me to the end, even if it’s boring!

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