The allure of self-interest

Fr. Grant

By Father Bud Grant

I had a reminder recently of how deeply ingrained it is for us to confuse self-interest with doing good.

It happened during a presentation to the Geology Department at Northern Illinois University.  Being a humanities guy surrounded by natural science folks, I was nervous: I’d better have my ecological facts straight!  As a Catholic priest speaking at a secular state university I felt handcuffed: I had to temper my faith perspective.

Oddly, the only person to challenge me was a graduate of Marquette University’s history program … a humanities guy and an avowed Catholic! Later I learned that he had trumpeted that he was “gonna get the priest,” having determined in advance what he thought I was going to say and preparing a rebuttal.

His was a very long question laced with opinion and seeded with half-concealed assumptions — but the gist of it was that if I can’t convince others of my views, then I have failed. “Oh!” I replied, “You think I want to make a difference! But I don’t.” He was stumped and, I suppose, so were a lot of other more generous thinkers in the room, so let me try to clarify a fundamental element of Catholic environmental ethics: duty.


We are so accustomed to work within a goal-oriented matrix that we can’t imagine a non-teleological (that is: not aimed at some end or goal) approach to ethics. Catholics, of course, are not immune to this: we desire to go to heaven, for example, and so we obey the legal, moral and ritual maxims of our faith. But obeying a set of principles in order to gain personal advantage isn’t morality at all, is it?  It is, rather, a quid pro quo commercial exchange of services for goods: I do this, I get this.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach … but it is not the Gospel, regardless of any proof-texted quotes to the contrary.

Christ calls us to fidelity, not success; to authenticity, not achievement; to duty, not reward. His ascension to the cross is not the only, but certainly the ultimate, expression of his own witness to the command to, in Augustine’s pithy summation, “Love and do what you will.”  To be clear, there is no doubt of the efficacy of Christ’s salvific act of self-sacrifice, it is just that he acted out of pure love for us and in obedience to the Father, not for gain. His was not a play-act, a hollow gesture, or a covertly arranged guaranteed “win.”

To act in love, consequences be damned; to obey the command of love with no thought of compensation; to do what one knows to be true, good, and just without reward … this is an essential Christian virtue.

Retired private equity expert Ray Chambers has decided to eradicate malaria in Africa. Mosquito netting costs about $10 per unit. If the cost comes down to $3, he says, a real difference will be seen. He convinces corporations to finance his efforts on the grounds that it is in their commercial interests to have a healthier labor class and a more vibrant consumer population. There is no denying the goodness of the cause: every 45 seconds a child in Africa dies of malaria (please re-read that). It is hard to object to any strategy that aims to end such a horror and sin (sin because it is preventable, of course).  But it lays bare the chilling presumption that the only way to get people (OK, in this case corporations) to act for the common good is to demonstrate that it is in their interests to do so.

Really? It is not cost-effective to save lives at $10 per net? Is that the best we can expect of ourselves?  

In addressing environmental problems, the connection between narrow self-interest and the good of God’s Creation is illusory.  Rather, working for the good of the Earth and future generations requires Christ-like suffering, not personal advantage.  It is our duty.  To argue that Christianity is advantageous is to miss the point.

(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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