Ethics and Self-Interest: Mises, Clark, Piper, and Rand

Among those conservatives skeptical of the rise of libertarian political theory are those who assume that the entire philosophy begins and ends with Ayn Rand, her egoism, and the idea that men should be selfish and never look out for the betterment of his fellow man. Similarly, a common complaint against Ludwig von Mises, which stems entirely from a misunderstanding of his Human Action principle, is that Mises assumes that everybody is always acting off of a “profit motive” and they seek to correct Mises by pointing out that there is “more to the human race” than profit. Related to these things are the problems in Christian ethics that have to do with whether humans are chiefly to pursue their “Christian duties,” or rather to chiefly pursue their joy. Which of course leads to John Piper’s self-labelled “Christian Hedonism.”  What follows is a reflection of the problem and an attempt to provide a clear approach to the issue.

Ayn Rand is either famous or infamous for her idea that man is most ethical when he acts to serve his own self-interest. Calling Christianity an enemy of humanity, she interpreted the ethical teachings of this religion as the idea that people were acting sinfully whenever they sought their own happiness. Christianity, in her eyes was a dull and anti-happiness religion, precisely because it was an altruistic religion. Moreover, it was the Christian idea of giving up what one wants in the pursuit of “doing one’s duty,” that, according to Rand, has led the Western world back to the dark ages and away from all the individualistic progress that had been made since the enlightenment.

Ayn Rand

The social system based on and consonant with the altruist morality—with the code of self-sacrifice—is socialism, in all or any of its variants: fascism, Nazism, communism. All of them treat man as a sacrificial animal to be immolated for the benefit of the group, the tribe, the society, the state. Soviet Russia is the ultimate result, the final product, the full, consistent embodiment of the altruist morality in practice; it represents the only way that that morality can ever be practiced.

-Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (195)

What we see in Ayn Rand more generally is a narrative of the self-interest principle that is normative in nature. That is, to Rand, we are obligated to make an effort to cast aside any tendency for altruism and aim instead to enrich our own lives. For this, according to Rand, is the true ethic for man:

The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. …[this means] that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence.

-The Virtue of Selfishness (49)

This is a different rendering than Mises’ understanding of the human as an actor who is always seeking to improve his situation. For Mises, contra Rand, it is not that man has an obligation to pursue his own self interest per se, it is that man has no choice but to pursue his own interest. In fact, for Mises, profit itself is the result and goal of action, independent of the market phenomenon of money.  In other words, every action that man takes is an effort to satisfy his desires. The increased satisfaction of his desires is the profit; and economic profit, that is, profit expressed in monetary units, is only one type of profit.  For Mises then, if you are thirsty and you make the decision to not sit on the couch but rather to walk over the sink and fill a glass of water, you profit because you “gave up” the opportunity (cost) you had to sit on the couch because you thought that the water would bring you more satisfaction. This decision to get water satisfied your desire to end your thirst, and therefore profit was the result.

In his book Theory and History, Mises writes:

Happiness—in the purely formal sense in which ethical theory applies the term—is the only ultimate end [of human action], and all other things and states of affairs sought are merely means to the realization of the supreme ultimate end. It is customary, however, to employ a less precise mode of expression, frequently assigning the name of ultimate ends to all those means that are fit to produce satisfaction directly and immediately.

Ludwig von Mises
Ludwig von Mises

For Mises, action itself presupposes self-interest. One cannot voluntarily act without calculating whether such action will indeed satisfy some sort of desire. We speak because staying silent is not what we want; we walk because sitting down is less desirable. We make choices, we act, all because we have a certain end in mind that the action is intended to achieve. Therefore, whereas Rand would say it is wrong for a person to give up his own desires to, say, help a homeless man find shelter, Mises would say that the very act of helping the man proves that the acting person judged that it would bring him more satisfaction than ignoring the homeless man. In other words, Rand taught that man should seek his own self interest, whereas Mises taught that man cannot help but seek his own self interest. For if he couldn’t, he wouldn’t even act in the first place. Self-interest is a prerequisite for human action and is therefore only avoided when dead.

As I have written previously regarding whether Misesian thought can account for a mother who gives up her own meal for her child,

Every single act is a revelation of the value placed on a given means/ends relationship as considered by the human actor.  The mother does not feed her child even though she would rather feed herself; she actually feeds her child because she sees the act of feeding her child as bring her more satisfaction than the act of feeding herself.  In other words, she weighs the value, mentally, of the satisfaction that would be brought about in her mind by feeding herself, against the value of the satisfaction that would be brought about by feeding her child.  Praxeology explains why she acted in that way: her self-interest made her choose the option that would satisfy her more.

Now, let’s move forward to two Christian thinkers: John Piper and Gordon Clark. Anyone who has read Piper understands that there is an underlying appreciation for the thought of Ayn Rand flowing throughout his works. In fact, Piper has expressed his being influenced greatly by Rand during his early professional years:

In the late seventies, I went on an Ayn Rand craze. I read most of her works, fiction and non-fiction. I recall sitting in the student center at Bethel College as a young professor of Bible reading Atlas Shrugged. An Old Testament professor from the seminary walked by and saw what I was reading. He paused and said, “That stuff is incredibly dangerous.” He was right. For a certain mindset, she is addicting and remarkably compelling in her atheistic rationalism.

To this day, I find her writings paradoxically attractive. I am a Christian Hedonist. This is partly why her work is alluring to me. She had her own brand of hedonism. It was not traditional hedonism that says whatever gives you pleasure is right. Hers was far more complex than that. It seems so close and yet so far to what I find in the Bible.

John Piper
John Piper

Piper agrees that man ought to pursue his own happiness in all that he does, but here is the catch: God made man to be satisfied in Him and therefore the only true source of satisfaction comes from “feasting” on God; learning more about him, joyfully obeying his commands, meditating on His Word.  Therefore, Piper says with Rand that the individual ought to pursue satisfaction, but he (obviously) dissents from Rand when he argues that man can only find his true joy in God.  Piper is famous (perhaps infamous) for his alteration of the Westminster Catechism’s phrase “glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” For those that are not familiar with the change, Piper has written it as “glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”  This change marks one of the most important points in Piper’s long writing career.

Gordon Clark also embraces the presence of self-interest in human ethics, though his version seems more like Mises’ than Piper’s (we will get to what I mean by this below). For Clark, in dismissing (as Rand herself had done) Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethic wherein something was good only if it did not serve the interest of the acting person, indicates that man has it built into him to act according to his own interest; and this is not a result of the Fall, but is rather created into man by a Creator who also pursues his own self-interest. Clark admits that “such a principle is usually designated egoistic, and egoism usually carries unpleasant connotations.”  And yet, Clark later writes,

“Christ… did not think it immoral to seek one’s good. If you judge that Hebrews xii.2, ‘who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,’ does not warrant any conclusion as the nature of Christ’s motives in undertaking the work of redemption, still we think we can insist that both Christ and the Apostles made abundant use of hope and fear in appealing for converts.  So if anyone reproach Christianity as being egoistic and based on fear, partially, ask the objector if fear and self-interest are or are not worthy motives for preferring orange juice to carbolic acid for breakfast.

The Bible appeals directly to… self-interest; it teaches that although the Christian may have temporary tribulation, he ultimately loses nothing but gains everything in accepting Christ.”

-Essays on Ethics and Politics (146)

To be clear, Mises, as opposed to the other three, never discussed the implications for ethics that might result from his understanding of self-interest, except to opine that ethics itself cannot be defended. Mises you’ll remember, contra his followers such as Murray Rothbard, was a utilitarian who did not believe in a transcendent code of ethics.

Now, Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises railed against Christianity in their defenses of the individualism of the capitalist system. And yet, each in their own way, both Piper and Clark seem to agree more with Mises and Rand than whomever the latter two wrote against in their diatribes against the Christian religion. The problem is historical. Rand opposed the collectivist Christianity that she observed during her childhood in the Soviet Union; Mises opposed the liberal and irrationalist Christianity that he faced at the academic level in Germany and Austria. Neither of these two confronted historical Reformed scholarship, not to mention the improvements in the Reformed world that came about with the rise of the English separatist and independent movements which culminated in the establishment of American Presbyterianism (the Old School Princeton Theology) and the always-minority particular (Calvinisitic) Baptists.

My point here is simply that we must understand the context of the Rand/Mises opposition to Christianity by considering the “Christianity” they had in mind. In short, they were the type of Christians that, in my estimation, shouldn’t be referred to as Christians in the orthodox, proper sense. As such, we should conclude that agreeing with Rand and Mises (that self-interest is not an evil) does not constitute an admittance that there is something wrong with Christian teaching on the issue. Hence Piper and Clark.

So then, Rand’s egoism itself is not a reason to reject libertarianism (aside from the obvious fact that libertarianism is a principle of justice, having little to do with man’s motivations). There are certainly mistakes made by Rand riddled throughout her Objectivist philosophy, but we ought no more reject libertarianism because of self-interest than we should welcome socialism simply because Rand opposed it.  Our job isn’t to disagree or agree with Rand, but rather to discover truth and justice and judge Rand’s philosophy accordingly.

There are many in the greater Reformed world who criticize Piper’s “Christian Hedonism” because it embraces self-interest. That is, the criticism aims to point out that man’s obligation to obey the commands of God is more important than man’s self-interest. But this is a grave mistake. This assumes that man can act without concern for one’s self-interest. This criticism ignores that, if one acts in such a way so as to purposefully obey God’s commands, his desire, the end toward which his action aims, is literally the obedience of God’s commands. That is, one cannot both obey God and ignore his own desire at the same time. As Piper’s own hero, Jonathan Edwards, wrote:

A man never, in any instance, wills any thing contrary to his desires, or desires any thing contrary to his will.

…but yet his Will and Desire do not run counter all: the thing which he wills, the very same he desires; and he does not will a thing, and desire the contrary, in any particular.

That is to say, the very act of obeying God, when done voluntarily, is by definition done in accordance with one’s desires; which indicates that man was therefore acting in self-interest. After all, what is self-interest other than a pursuit of one’s own desires? The issue then is not that man his self-interested, that he pursues his desires; rather, the issue is what these desires are! We misunderstand the problem when we try to distance ourselves from our desires; for what we should be doing is pursuing, or perhaps praying for, different desires.

But now we have another problem: is it not part and parcel of Reformed doctrine that man does never obey God’s commands “voluntarily?” That is, must not the Holy Spirit be involved somehow? The answer to this concerns the definition of “voluntary.”  Robert Reymond explains:

According to Reformed theology, if an act is done voluntarily, that is, if it is done spontaneously with no violence being done to the man’s will, then that act is a free act. This is happily acknowledged in order to preclude the conclusions of a Hobbesian or a Skinnerian determinism that would insist that man’s will is mechanistically, genetically, or chemically forced or determined to good or evil by an absolute necessity of nature. What all of this means is this: If at the moment of willing, the man wanted to do the thing being considered for reasons sufficient to him, then Reformed theology declares that he acted freely. There is, Reformed theology would affirm in other words, a liberty of spontaneity. It is in this sense that I used the term “freely” earlier.

-A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Kindle Locations 7788-7794).

Stated differently, the Reformed understanding of voluntary action includes that idea that the Holy Spirit is not forcing man to act against his will or desires; that is, if anything, the reality is that the Holy Spirit changes the will or desire so that the man may voluntary pursue it. Man does not act against his own will, because it is the will that causes the action. Calvinists are not Hobbesians or Skinnerians (who might deny the existence of the will). In short, every action is caused by the will, the will is not counter to desire, and desire itself is what constitutes self-interest.

Now, Piper may not be perfect; and in fact, I think his largest mistake is his inherent emotionalism. Pleasure, relying on feelings, is largely subjective, vague, and imprecise. It is here that we find trouble with Piper’s passionate emotionalism. Now, the reader should not misunderstand me; for many misunderstand Piper’s use of hedonism. Piper does not place pleasure or happiness as the highest good, contrary to traditional hedonism. Rather, he writes that “pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end.”

Piper correctly understands that it is not immoral to act in pursuit of one’s self-interest, and he correctly understands that only acting according to the standards of God can bring one happiness, but if Piper dropped the emotionalism in preference for, say, Jonathan Edwards’ more intellectual satisfaction, his case could be improved. Emotions and passions are dangerous and ambiguous; they are misleading and, since God Himself is without passions, one cannot truly rely on them to become closer to God in order to be satisfied.

Piper then, while on the right path, can be improved with a hearty dose of intellectualism.  An example of how to make self-interest an intellectual reality rather than an emotional one can be found in people like Mises and Clark, who considered happiness a cognition rather than an emotion. Clark, in A Christian View of Men and Things, distinguished between hedonism and egoism precisely in that hedonism was emotionalistic, and egoism was not necessarily so.

In my own estimation, if Piper’s works can be reconstructed on intellectualist lines, much of it is useful and beneficial for the reader. Indeed, I advise one to work through Piper’s thoughts on self-interest and merely shift the emotional pleas so that they become intellectual. Once one realizes that man is a rational being, and that the distinction between the “heart” and the “head” is a result of a faulty psychology, one can agree with Clark that Christianity endorses the primacy of the intellect, and is wary of emotion; for emotion itself is deceitful.

In the end, we mustn’t respond in a reactionary way to Ayn Rand’s dismissal of Christianity as basically embracing Kant’s joyless ethic; we can agree with Clark that “a polite acquaintance with the Bible would remedy [the] misapprehension” that Kant in anyway represented Christian thinking on self-interest and also with Piper who stated quite clearly that “Against this Kantian morality (which has passed as Christian for too long!), we must herald the unabashedly hedonistic biblical morality.”  Of course, with Piper we merely need to change hedonistic to egoistic and emphasize the mind, not the emotion.

As for egoism, I will end this article with Gordon Clark:

The word egoism in colloquial language has unpleasant connotations, and to the uninitiated it might seem that no thoughtful person would deliberately adopt an egoistic philosophy.

Confusion has arisen, first, because of unwarranted but popular connotations; and, second, on a higher level, because of failure to distinguish between two very different questions.

In the first place, egoism has attracted to itself the unwarranted connotation of selfishness. To be sure, this is no objection unless selfishness can be shown to be immoral, and at this point in the argument not even massacre has been proved wrong. However, even a discussion on a superficial level will serve to clarify the meaning of egoism.

Gordon Clark
Gordon Clark

People think of an egoist as self‑centered and inconsiderate. The egoist looks out for his own interest and by shady dealings takes every possible advantage of his associates. There are, of course, some men who act in this way. And very unpleasant people they are. But they are not egoists in the technical ethical sense, or at least they are not intelligent egoists. Even selfish people are not usually habitual shoplifters or embezzlers, for there is not enough profit in the one, and there is too much danger in the other. Little intelligence is required to avoid these methods of taking advantage of the public. A little more intelligence will suggest that inconsiderateness does not pay, either. Friends are useful, and it is quite worthwhile cultivating them. Further intelligence will make the “selfish” man quite an agreeable gentleman: perhaps more agreeable than the unselfish do-gooder whose virtues stick out like the quills of a porcupine. The theory of egoism therefore does not necessarily inculcate inconsiderateness or “selfishness.” It still remains an open question whether to give complete approval to one who is an agreeable gentleman because it is to his interest to be; it is still an open question whether to recommend honesty because it is the best policy; but at any rate the theory of egoism can be distinguished from ordinary selfishness. More than this: Does not egoism have a prima facie claim to reasonableness? With all due regard to other people, should I not seek my own good? Should I ever deliberately seek my own harm? No doubt I should sometimes inconvenience myself, no doubt I should make certain sacrifices on occasion; but is there any justification for aiming at my ultimate evil instead of my ultimate good?

A Christian View of Men and Things (Kindle Locations 2321-2322).

Self-interest is not the problem: though our specific desires may be immoral and destructive. Ayn Rand then, was not wrong to dismiss Kant and to embrace self-interest. But she was certainly far from the truth when she assumed that man could both reject God and pursue one’s ultimate good.

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