To what degree, if at all, should self-interest influence the lives of those who follow the restored gospel? In some ways, the gospel seems to completely minimize the role of self-interest, since we learn that we must “lose ourselves” in the service of others, “seek not our own,” and strive to be selfless.In other ways, however, the gospel advocates a legitimate focus on our own interest, since happiness and joy seem to constitute the very purpose of our existence. Those who emphasize this latter focus may even come to think that the gospel advocates ethical egoism. Indeed, whenever we discuss the moral theory known as ethical egoism in my philosophy courses at Brigham Young University, there are always students who are completely convinced that the gospel is identical to such egoism. The reasoning for this claim might go as follows: ethical egoism holds that we should act only in our own interest, where such interest is viewed from an overall and long-term perspective. Furthermore, the gospel teaches that we should act only in harmony with righteousness and that only righteousness is in our long-term interest. It follows, therefore, that according to the gospel we should act only in our long-term interest, and so it would seem that the gospel does in fact advocate ethical egoism.
In this paper, I will examine the relationship between ethical egoism and the restored gospel and show that although one can make a fairly strong case for the gospel as ethical egoism, there are overriding reasons that prevent us from equating the two. I will present two main reasons: (1) the gospel and ethical egoism accept different normative grounds for right actions, and (2) they contain incompatible accounts of motivation. In my analysis as to why the gospel cannot be reduced to ethical egoism, I will also address the closely related claim of psychological egoism, since it will be important in my response to the gospel-as-ethical-egoism claim.
Defining Ethical Egoism
At first glance, one might think it obvious that the gospel is incompatible with any kind of egoism. However, once we clarify what is meant by ethical egoism, we find there are actually fairly convincing reasons for viewing the gospel as ethical egoism. Ethical egoism holds that morality is based on self-interest, though it need not advocate selfishness, if by that term we mean taking advantage of or harming others. Nor need it endorse an indifferent and uncaring attitude toward helping others, since such indifference is most likely not in our long-term interest, even from a mortal perspective. If we never care about others, we are less likely to receive help we may need; if we harm or take advantage of others, we may end up in prison; and so on. Thus, for an ethical egoist, there are ample reasons to suppose that being good to others is in fact in our long-term self-interest, and therefore such an egoist will likely be quite different from the cold, calculating egotist who perhaps comes to mind when we hear the term “egoism.” In fact, it turns out that ethical egoism aligns with most of the principles of common-sense morality such as respect, honesty, beneficence, and following the golden rule—all because it is very probable that following such moral principles best promotes our long-term interest.
It is unusual to find fully developed versions of ethical egoism as a moral theory. Though traces of it may appear in some ancient sources,we find the clearest cases in more modern times. For example, Thomas Hobbes, the famous seventeenth-century philosopher, held a version of ethical egoism. However, fully elaborated versions show up only in the twentieth century. In the essay “What Is Ethical Egoism?” Edward Regis Jr. outlines the main principles found in contemporary versions of ethical egoism. These principles can be summed up by saying that self-interest is the ground of any morally right action. Therefore, because self-interest constitutes the basis of any moral obligation, ethical egoism holds that we ought to do only what is in our long-term self-interest. Other moral theories may emphasize the connection between morality and self-interest, but ethical egoism makes self-interest the entire basis of morality.
One popular contemporary version of ethical egoism is found in the writings of Ayn Rand, who, in her book The Virtue of Selfishness, argues that for a human being “to live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”For Rand, our highest moral purpose, and the basis for any moral action, is our own individual self-interest. She writes, “Objectivist ethics [her name for her moral theory] holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest.” This does not mean we can just do anything we want in the name of self-interest. Again, ethical egoism is most often said to require that we do what is in our long-term interest. It therefore need not advocate either foolishness or selfishness, if by that term we mean actions that most would consider morally blameworthy, since such actions are not typically in our long-term interest. While Rand herself argues that we should be selfish and that selfishness is a virtue, she does not advocate harming others in the blameworthy ways often connected with selfishness. In any case, she illustrates well the core principle of ethical egoism: namely, that morality is based completely on our own self-interest.
Philosophical Arguments for and against Ethical Egoism
There are various philosophical arguments that may be presented in support of ethical egoism—though it is true that, as one writer puts it, “the theory is asserted more often than it is argued for.”Some arguments begin with the fact that self-interest is strong in most everyone and conclude with the claim that if everyone takes care of his or her own interests exclusively, then we would all be better off. Of course, as several people have pointed out, such an argument is actually more of an argument for utilitarianism or consequentialism than for ethical egoism, since it argues that we should do what will make everyone better off (and ethical egoism calls that into question).
Another argument is presented by Ayn Rand, who claims that unlike what she calls the “ethics of altruism,” ethical egoism is the only moral theory that takes seriously the value of the human individual. The argument says, “If we value the life of the individual—that is, if the individual has moral worth—then we must agree that this life is of supreme importance.” Unlike ethical egoism, “the ethics of altruism regards the life of the individual as something that one must be ready to sacrifice for the good of others. Therefore the ethics of altruism does not take seriously the value of each human individual.”
Yet another argument for ethical egoism connects self-interest to the notion of good reasons. As one contemporary moral philosopher points out, ethical egoism claims that advancing our interests is necessary if something is to count as a good reason for us to do something. The argument runs: “If you are morally required to do something, then you have a good reason to do it. If there is a good reason to do something, then doing it must advance your interests. Therefore, if you are morally required to do something, then it must advance your interests.”The first premise here is fairly strong since it does seem plausible to say that if something is our duty, we have a good reason to do it. However, there is a serious problem with the second premise, which simply assumes that all good reasons must be grounded in self-interest. On the contrary, it seems clear that we have good reasons to do (or refrain from doing) certain things even if they do not advance our own interests. Think of encountering someone who is choking, having a heart attack, or who has been severely injured—and no one else is around to help. In such cases, we clearly have a reason to help, and such a reason cannot be reduced to the fact that helping advances our own interest. Can we seriously argue that we have no reason to help any of these people if helping them in no way benefits ourselves? Furthermore, can we really say that the only reason (or even the main reason) why we should refrain from acts that harm others is that such acts are not in our self-interest? Consider the absurdity of saying that the only reason morally heinous actions (such as murder) are wrong is that such acts are not really in our interest. It should be intuitively clear that something is fundamentally wrong with such a position.
Thus, for ethical egoism, the normative ground of right action consists entirely in the self-interest of the individual agent.Again, this would mean that the only reason helping someone in need counts as a right action is that it furthers our own interest, and that the only reason something counts as a wrong action is because it would have an adverse effect on our own interest. Such claims are highly implausible. We can certainly recognize that there are reasons to refrain from harming others, as well as reasons to help others, even when doing so has no apparent influence—against or in favor of—our own interests.
One argument against ethical egoism that develops this line of reasoning comes from the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel. In his book The Possibility of Altruism, he focuses on the way in which our attitude toward our own needs undermines the claims of ethical egoism. Nagel argues that there is an “objective interest” we attribute to many of our needs and desires and that we are able to recognize an “objective element in the concern we feel for ourselves.”That is, we attribute an objective status to our needs in the sense that we believe such needs give other people reasons not to harm us and, in certain instances, reasons to help us. Such objective interest shows up in the fact that when another person harms us, we not only dislike it, but we resent it. In other words, we think that “our plight [gives the other person] a reason” not to harm us. We, in turn, are able to recognize the legitimacy of extending that “objective interest” to the needs of others. Thus, if there are others with needs and interests similar to ours, then we can see that their needs and interests deserve the similar objective respect that ours do. Furthermore, ethical egoism would undercut the most plausible appeal we might make to others either to refrain from harming us or to help us when such help is desperately needed. As Nagel points out, because “egoism holds that each individual’s reasons for acting . . . must arise from his own interests and desires,” one would be unable “to regard one’s own concerns as being of interest to anyone else, except instrumentally.” Since we can see the absurdity of the situation in which others could not recognize our needs as giving them at least some reason not to harm us (or reason to help us in certain circumstances), there is good reason to believe that the normative claims of ethical egoism are fundamentally wrong.
There are other philosophical arguments against egoism I could give, but I will limit myself to one more that comes from the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. In Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant articulates one version of his “Categorical Imperative” that is known as the “Formula of Humanity as an End.” It states that we should treat the humanity in ourselves and others always “as an end and never merely as a means.”This imperative is based on the value of rational agency, which rational beings can recognize in both themselves and others. While we will not go into the full argument here, Kant argues that we can each recognize (at least after due consideration) that all other people have a value or dignity—as an end in themselves. It is this value—often referred to as rational agency—that is the basis of our moral obligations: both the obligation not to harm others and the obligation to help others. Thus, unlike ethical egoism, Kant argues that we have a duty of beneficence. Kant’s notion of acting from duty is also relevant here, since he argues that we can do what is right because it is right and not simply from a desire for reward or from a fear of punishment. Kant thus presents an important account of why moral obligation cannot be based simply on self-interest.
The Question of Psychological Egoism
At this point, we need to address the closely related issue of whether it is even possible to care about others for their own sakes in a way that is not based on our own interest. Ethical egoism says that all morality and moral obligation should be based on self-interest. However, an ethical egoist may also accept the further claim of psychological egoism, which holds that all concern for others is really just a concern for oneself.That is, every act is wholly motivated by self-interest. If psychological egoism were true, then true charity would be impossible. Even though the claims of psychological and ethical egoism are distinct, it is important to analyze psychological egoism, because the claim that we can care about others in a way that is not based on our own self-interest will be at the heart of the effort to show that the gospel is not ethical egoism.
One argument for psychological egoism says that all actions aim to produce a sense of pleasure, satisfaction, or peace of mind and are thus actually based on self-interest. A story from the life of Abraham Lincoln illustrates this argument. Supposedly, Lincoln argued in support of such egoism during a carriage ride with another gentleman.During the ride, Lincoln told the driver to stop so that he could help some little piglets stuck in the mud. When his companion responded that his act seemed to contradict psychological egoism, Lincoln responded that even that act was for his own self-interest since, if he had not helped, it would have bothered his conscience and ruined his peace of mind all day. To this, one might respond that if failing to help would have bothered him so much, then that shows he actually did care about them. While such a response is not foolproof, it does certainly show that just because we gain satisfaction from helping others does not necessarily imply we do not genuinely care about them.
One common argument used in support of psychological egoism says that we always do what we value most. As one psychological egoist put it, “We never intentionally follow a course of action that, from the point of view of our self-regarding ends, appears worse than another open to us.”However, even if it were true that we always choose to do what we value most, this does not prove that psychological egoism is correct. Just because I wouldn’t choose some option unless I valued it more than the other options available to me at the time does not imply that I value that option so highly because of what it will do for me. It could just as well be that I value it most because it benefits someone else or because I know it is the right thing to do. Recognition of what is morally right cannot be reduced to self-interest. As Francis Hutcheson, one of the great Scottish “moral sense” philosophers, points out: we can tell that certain actions are right even when they in no way benefit us, and we can tell that certain actions are wrong even when they in no way harm us. Therefore, the assumption that we value an option only because of what it will do for us begs the question in favor of psychological egoism. Of course, one might ask why we would ever be good, if it were not for the benefit (at least in the sense of satisfaction, peace of mind) that we get when we do what is right. Doesn’t that prove psychological egoism? We can respond that we do indeed need some positive, confirmatory sense that what we are doing is right. Why else would we think we are doing what is right? It is true this will usually be an affirmative state of mind or feeling that confirms the rightness of the action, but that does not mean the only reason we did it is because of a perceived sense of benefit that comes from such an awareness.
Nevertheless, we can appreciate the tenacity of similar arguments for psychological egoism. For example, if we think about why we choose to become connected to others in our lives—why we date those we date, why we marry the person we marry, why we seek out certain friends—it can be tempting to accept psychological egoism. Think about the reasons we choose to be with such people. Perhaps they are enjoyable to be around; or we feel at home with them; or they are attractive, interesting, intelligent, and inspiring; or they simply meet our needs in some way. Does this not show that we care about others only because they meet our needs, desires, and interests? I think the answer is no, and one of the best ways to refute this claim is through a careful introspective analysis of our own experiences.
Since it is perhaps impossible to know the motives of others with certainty, introspection is crucial in this matter. Of course we can be mistaken about what our exact motives are in any given instance, and sometimes we engage in self-deception about our motives.Nevertheless, I submit that we cannot be wrong in every case. For instance, would it make sense to say that we know with certainty what anger or hate is like—based on our own experiences of being motivated by such feelings—but that we are not sure if we have ever felt motivated by genuine love or concern for another? If our knowledge of the existence of genuine dislike for others (as well as genuine selfishness) is itself based on our introspection of our own motives, then why can we not know (based on similar introspection) that we can also feel genuine love for others? Why would we be so certain of the existence of such negative emotions but not be certain of the existence of positive emotions that seem equally genuine? Of course, there is no perfect method to determine the precise make-up of our motives, but I think we know enough to tell (at least sometimes) whether we truly care about someone, as opposed to detesting or even being indifferent to him or her. At least some of the time we are correct judges of our own motives.
To take a common example, think of a time when you saw someone who was injured. Perhaps this person fell down the stairs, slipped on the ice, or was involved in a serious traffic accident. Is it not the case that you felt a genuine concern for such a person? It is simply too much of a stretch to say that in such instances we care about that person only because we will benefit from such concern or that such concern is based only on some interest we have. We can tell, if we think about it, that in many such instances we do experience genuine concern and love for others for their own sakes.
Often we detect the relevant difference between various motives by noticing the transition from those motives based mostly on self-concern to those based predominantly on concern for another person. Let me illustrate with an example from my own experience. One afternoon my wife called me at work to ask if I could check whether my daughter’s piano music had been left in my car. At first, I will admit, I was irritated because I had just sat down to do some much-needed work after having taught two separate two-hour courses, and in order to check on the piano music, I would have had to walk a considerable distance to the car. My initial motivation to help was based mostly on not wanting my wife (or daughter) to be upset with me if I did not help. I suppose it was also based on the fact that they had helped me in the past and that I would want them to help me in similar future situations. While these were not the worst motives, neither were they based predominantly on a genuine concern or love for my wife or daughter; the focus was mainly on my own self-interest. However, after going all the way to the car and not finding the music, I called my daughter, who then began to cry because she urgently needed that music for a recital. At that moment, my motivation changed, and I almost instantly felt a genuine concern for her and her situation. No longer was I helping grudgingly or thinking about how my unwillingness to help might get me in trouble with my wife or daughter. My predominant motive changed to one of love and compassion; my whole focus became her happiness. I became, as the scripture says, “filled with love.”Thus, I believe that if we carefully attend to our own experience, we can all find there are times when our predominant motive has been a genuine concern for others.
Of course, we have more than introspection to rely on. We also have evidence from the behavior and testimony of individuals who seem to act for the sake of others and who often report that they do act for the sake of others without thinking of their own interests. Psychological egoists will have to discount both sorts of evidence. However, as Russ Shafer-Landau points out, while it is true that sometimes people are deceived about their motives, and sometimes we misinterpret behavior, it would be problematic to discount all such evidence.
Minimal Awareness of Self-Interest
I think one reason people are often persuaded by psychological egoism is that it may be true we rarely act without at least some awareness of our own interests. This is quite different, however, from the psychological egoistic claim that we care about others only because of what we get out of it. It may be that we rarely act without some self-interested motive.But even if this is true, it does not mean that we do not genuinely care about others for their own sake or that we care about people only as a means to our own happiness or self-interest. The presence of minimal self-concern in such moments does not imply that all other-directed concern is really just self-concern. Furthermore, in order to establish that we can be genuinely concerned for others, we do not need to show that we are completely concerned for others (in the sense that we have absolutely no awareness of any of our own needs). As long as there is some genuine concern, then the claim of psychological egoism cannot be correct. It is true that in our relationships with others there is a fine line between wanting them to be happy for their own sake and wanting them to be happy so that we can be happy, or so that we can get what we need or want out of the relationship. Nevertheless, there is a real distinction. It is the fine line between various degrees of loving another person as a means to some end we desire and loving another person for his or her own sake. The latter is a real possibility borne out by legitimate experiences we have all had. Such genuine concern is not nullified, even if there is a minimal self-awareness constantly at work in our consciousness. Before we return to this question, however, let us turn to the argument for and against the gospel as ethical egoism.
The Scriptural Argument for and against Ethical Egoism
To what degree, then, do ethical egoism and the gospel coincide? From a scriptural perspective, we can find much that would seem to support the claim that the gospel advocates ethical egoism. To begin with, it seems clear that the very purpose and goal of our existence is our eternal happiness. Earlier, I alluded to Lehi’s profound statement in 2 Nephi 2:25 that we exist so “that [we] might have joy.”This same idea is echoed in various ways over and over again in the teachings of all modern prophets and apostles. To cite just one of many examples from recent general conference talks, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated:
If only we could look beyond the horizon of mortality into what awaits us beyond this life. Is it possible to imagine a more glorious future than the one prepared for us by our Heavenly Father? . . . Those who come unto Christ, repent of their sins, and live in faith will reside forever in peace. Think of the worth of this eternal gift. Surrounded by those we love, we will know the meaning of ultimate joy as we progress in knowledge and in happiness. No matter how bleak the chapter of our lives may look today, because of the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we may hope and be assured that the ending of the book of our lives will exceed our grandest expectations.
Certainly statements such as this are intended as an appeal to our desire for long-term happiness and interest.
An appeal to our interest can further be found in the way many gospel principles are often presented. Take the principle of forgiveness, for instance. It is often emphasized that one of the main reasons we should forgive others is so that we ourselves may be forgiven, so that we ourselves may find peace—since being unforgiving often harms us more than it harms those we need to forgive. The same could be said for the principle of sacrifice, since we are taught that sacrifice will bring us great blessings. We are further taught—and it is certainly true—that gratitude is essential for our happiness, because without it we will always be unsatisfied and we will fail to appreciate what we have been blessed with. Other examples could be given to support the idea that the goal of gospel principles is our long-term interest. The doctrine of restoration in the Book of Mormon illustrates this as well. As Alma states, “That which ye do send out shall be returned unto you again” (Alma 41:15). He elaborates in his sermon to his son Corianton: “Therefore, my son, see that you are merciful unto your brethren; deal justly, judge righteously, and do good continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward; yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again; ye shall have justice restored unto you again; ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again; and ye shall have good rewarded unto you again” (Alma 41:14). Such gospel principles, and many others, can easily be read as supporting ethical egoism, since they seem to show that we are to follow such principles because it is in our long-term interest.
Certainly, the message of the gospel alerts us to the many ways in which our actions undermine, damage, or (in some extreme cases) destroy our long-term interest and happiness.Giving in to pride, selfishness, or self-justifying anger can actually frustrate what we would acknowledge as our long-term interest and happiness. Think, for example, of a quarrel with a loved one in which we cling to some point of dispute out of pride, when in fact the damage done to our relationship—as a result of what is said in anger—is far worse than actually losing the argument, or giving in and swallowing our pride. Again, there is no question but that doing what is right (striving to live a righteous life) is in fact in our long-term interest, and in this sense the gospel certainly accords with ethical egoism.
The Normative Grounds Objection to the Gospel as Ethical Egoism
Despite the areas of convergence outlined above, there are several significant problems with attempting to equate the gospel and ethical egoism. The first problem concerns the question of what constitutes the normative grounds of moral obligation; the second concerns the question of what constitutes righteous motives. Let me preface the analysis of these two problems by noting that, from a gospel perspective, any moral imperatives must certainly focus on becoming like God. As Jesus states in 3 Nephi 27:27, “What manner of men [and women] ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.” Thus, if God is love (1 John 4:8), then we must strive to love like God loves. This recognition that we are to become like God should give pause to anyone tempted to accept the gospel-as-egoism claim.
Let us now look at the question of normativity. In terms of the normative grounds for rightness, egoism’s claim that an action is right only because it contributes to one’s overall self-interest is problematic. The fact that it benefited or blessed another person has no bearing on the rightness of that action—except insofar as his or her happiness is bound up with our happiness.While it is difficult to say definitively what constitutes the normative grounds of righteous actions, it is quite clear we cannot say the only thing that makes an action right is that it is in our own interest. If that were true, then when we serve others, the rightness of such actions would consist solely in the fact that they serve our own interest. Surely that cannot be correct. The weight of multitudes of scriptures speak against this. As we will see in the next section, for instance, such an idea would undercut the possibility of charity—the pure love of Christ.
Consider each of the gospel principles mentioned above (forgiveness, gratitude, sacrifice, and so on), each of which is often advocated in conjunction with how it will benefit us. There is no question, for example, that gratitude is one of the most important keys to happiness. It is correctly emphasized that being grateful will bring us peace and happiness. However, we have a moral obligation to be grateful that is not simply based on the fact that gratitude will make us happy. We should be grateful because there is something right in responding in such a way when others have done something for us. Our obligation to be grateful also impacts our obligations to serve others. This is illustrated well by King Benjamin’s discourse in the Book of Mormon. As John Welch points out in his analysis of the logic of King Benjamin’s speech:
Benjamin based moral obligation on the fact that, by serving his people, he has put them in his debt—a debt they ought to repay by serving others and by thanking God. For example, the question of why one should care about others or give freely to another is one of the most basic issues of moral philosophy. It is a question King Benjamin’s speech answers like no other. Benjamin’s logic of love, service, and charity is cogent, thorough, and persuasive. He offers at least eight answers to this crucial and persistent question of ethics and morality.
The first of these answers is that “we should serve one another because we have received benefits from the service of others.”Notice that we are not obligated simply because of the fact that showing gratitude is in our interest, since it will bless us—even though that is true. We are obligated to show gratitude regardless of the benefit it brings us. The same could be said for each of the other gospel principles listed; what makes the act right is not simply that it is in our interest. Ethical egoism cannot allow for such a possibility, since it bases moral normativity entirely on self-interest.
Righteousness and Love Unfeigned:
The Motivational Objection
The most significant problem in considering the gospel as ethical egoism concerns the issue of motivation, since ethical egoism makes self-interest both the normative basis and our governing and ultimate motive.The question is whether self-interest should be our ultimate and governing motive, according to the gospel. Does it follow that the main reason we should be righteous is that it is in our long-term interest? It is true the gospel teaches that we should live a righteous life and that only such a life is in our long-term interest. Does it follow, however, that the reason we should lead a righteous life is that it is in our long-term interest? Would it pose a problem if self-interest served as our main motivation for being righteous?
Some clarification is needed here, since the way we use the term righteousness often allows an ambiguity. We sometimes call actions righteous if they do not violate the commandments—whether in the sense of commission or omission.This sense refers to external compliance or, as we say, the letter of the law. But the meaning of righteousness certainly goes beyond this sense of the term, since it implies that certain motives must be present in actions (in cases of doing good) or nonactions (in cases of refraining from doing harm or evil). Think, for example, of how Jesus says our righteousness must “exceed” that of the scribes (Matt. 5:20). It requires that we have (or strive to have) a pure heart. A central feature connected with having a pure heart is the motive of charity. As we read in 1 Timothy 1:5, “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart.” Furthermore, as Mormon tells us, we should seek charity—the pure love of Christ—so “that we may be purified even as he is pure” (Moro. 7:48).
Is such motivation compatible with ethical egoism? Ethical egoism certainly advocates caring about other people if such actions are in fact the only way to bring about our long-term interest. This is why ethical egoism may well require us to develop good relations with other people, since such relations are in our long-term interest. But while ethical egoism may proscribe acts that are selfish in the most blameworthy sense, it still allows one’s motivational focus to center entirely on one’s own interests or well-being. It is highly doubtful, however, that caring about others because doing so is in our long-term interest captures what it means to have such a pure heart.
Of course, a proponent of the gospel as egoism might respond that if acting from pure motives will bring about our greatest long-term happiness, then having pure motives is just what we should seek to have—because that is in our long-term interest. In this way, a sophisticated egoist might argue that the motive objection fails to refute the gospel-as-ethical-egoism claim because we can simply include having such pure motives as a means to long-term interest and happiness. But this raises two questions: (1) Would such motives actually be pure motives? (2) Would such a mind-set actually bring about the desired end? In regard to the first question, there would be something impure about seeking to attain a pure heart only because it is best for us. We are told that righteousness requires “love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41), but there would be something feigned about loving others only because—or even predominantly because—that is in our best interest. This does not mean that the gospel precludes all self-interest from our motives, but it does mean that long-term self-interest cannot be our predominant motive.Thus, what is involved in becoming righteous and having a pure heart goes beyond the governing self-referential structure of ethical egoism.
The second question points to a related problem: if self-interest remains our predominant motive, this may well block the very possibility we are trying to attain—namely acquiring a pure heart. If that is the case, our effort would fall prey to an analogue of the paradox of hedonism, the idea that the “single-minded pursuit of happiness is necessarily self-defeating” and that we need to somehow not think about the fact that we want to be happy if we truly want to be happy.Thus, trying to have a pure heart because it is in our long-term interest will likely not bring about such a pure heart. Truly having a pure heart requires a limitation on the self-referential mind-set of ethical egoism. It requires that we genuinely let go of thinking that we should care about others because doing so would be in our long-term interest. Attaining a pure heart means we will not always be the center of our world in the way ethical egoism prescribes. It requires that we forget ourselves—not in the sense that we have absolutely no awareness of our needs and interests, but in the sense that the interests of others are (often) more important to us than our own needs and interests. Then other people will really matter to us in a way that disrupts the governing grip of self-interest.
Of course, developing this love for others may not always be an easy thing to do. This is why we need divine power to influence our motives. It is why we are told to pray “with all the energy of heart, that [we] may be filled with this love” (Moro. 7:48). This is not to say there is nothing we can do to initiate such a change in our motives. We can focus our minds on others’ needs or desires; we can think about the worth of other people;we can try to change our motives when we realize we are acting more out of a concern for our interests than out of a genuine concern for others. And we can pray “with all the energy of heart.” Ultimately, though, our hearts are purified by the Spirit of God and the redeeming power of the Atonement of Christ. So, acting from our long-term interest as our predominant motive may actually prevent us from attaining the object of our long-term interest, if such a result can come about only through divine instrumentality. The love that righteousness requires cannot be reduced either to a desire for our self-interest or to a desire to have a pure heart because that is in our long-term interest.
Again, it may be that we almost always act with some awareness of self-interest,but that is very different from saying either that everything we do is based entirely on self-interest or that such awareness prevents us from having a genuine concern for others. Since genuine concern for others is compatible with some self-concern, it follows that righteous motives—let us say, for example, the pure love of Christ—would not require the complete absence of any possible awareness of self-interest. Furthermore, we may certainly have righteous desires for our own long-term happiness (the object and design of existence). It is just that all our actions cannot be entirely governed by or based on that desire for happiness. That is the problem with ethical egoism. Thus, while it is true that only righteousness is in our long-term interest and that we ought to act only in harmony with a righteous life, it does not follow that the main reason why we ought to perform righteous actions is because they are in our long-term self-interest. The gospel clearly does not teach that everything we do should be done from the predominant thought of how it will bless ourselves. That is why the gospel and ethical egoism diverge. Righteousness thus involves more than doing what is right from motives of self-interest. On the other hand, the gospel does not require that we eliminate any possible thought of our own interest. In fact, it both permits and encourages us to hope for our own glorious future.
Because righteous motives are compatible with some awareness of self-interest, Truman Madsen can say that “we are to be egoists in the sense of the Divine”:
A religion which makes central the concept of love, as does the religion of Christ and therefore of Joseph Smith, we might assume, would not be egoistic. But in one important sense it is. The Prophet speaks on this issue as follows: . . . Some people denounce the principle of self-aggrandizement as wrong. It is a correct principle that may be indulged upon only one rule or plan—and that is to elevate, benefit and bless others first. If you elevate others, the very work itself will exalt you. Upon no other plan can a man justly and permanently aggrandize himself.
While this statement supports the idea that we can legitimately call the gospel egoist in some sense, I do not think it supports the claim that the gospel is ethical egoism. First, the Prophet does not say that our primary motive in attempting to elevate others can be our own exaltation. In this context, self-aggrandizement certainly does not endorse caring about others only because doing so will exalt us. It does not imply that when we are in the service of others, we are (or should be) only in the service of ourselves (to rephrase Mosiah 2:17). The quote on permissible self-aggrandizement does, I think, imply there is nothing wrong with having some sense that serving others will bless us. Thus, it is one thing to elevate others when our own exaltation is our predominant motive, but quite another thing to elevate others because genuine love for them is our predominant motive. If we look at what the Prophet Joseph said about charity and love, it is not really plausible to claim that he advocated ethical egoism in the sense defined in this paper.
We have seen that, in the end, the gospel cannot be equated with ethical egoism. While it is true that we should live only in harmony with righteousness and that only a righteous life is in our long-term interest, it does not follow that the complete reason we should live such a life is because it is in our long-term interest. If ethical egoism were limited simply to the claim that we should do only what is in our long-term interest, this moral theory might be compatible with the gospel. However, as ethical egoism is understood in contemporary moral philosophy, it includes several other claims that are not compatible with the gospel.The gospel does say we ought to do only what is in our long-term interest—if we define that interest as living a righteous life. However, as we have seen, ethical egoism differs in important ways from the principles of the restored gospel. It differs in terms of what it proposes as the normative basis of right actions, and it especially differs from the gospel’s emphasis on righteous motives. The necessity of having a pure heart accentuates the distinction between the gospel and ethical egoism. Genuine righteousness requires a type of love that is not reducible to acting from the primary motive of self-interest. However, it is important to note that this does not mean there cannot be righteous self-interest. Part of the reason we should do what is right is because it makes us happy. Self-interest simply cannot be the complete and governing principle in the gospel as it is in ethical egoism. Thus, allowing self-interest to exert such an unconditional force in our motivational life would likely prevent us from living a genuinely righteous life.