Tuesday, January 02, 2007

If Virtue is Self Interest, is it still Virtue?

As I wrote in this post, I've long been fascinated with the connection between virtue and self interest. That is, I've noticed that often the universe seems structured in such a way that behaviors which are generally considered to be altruistic virtues are in fact in the best interests of the person exhibiting those behaviors. Of course, that they are in that person's interests does not necessarily make them selfish, as it turns out that the ancients may well be right, and our universe may be so interconnected and interdependent that there is finally no real conflict between the best interests of persons. Or, to put it more plainly, virtue may be in the interests of the virtuous, but it is also in the interests of everyone else. When people act in ways that have long been identified by ancient philosophies and religions as virtuous, everyone benefits.

For me this notion has been an intuitive suspicion, with no hard data to back it up. I have observed it, but by no means in any kind of clinical or scientific way. Rather, it has been the sort of folksy it seems to me... kind of intuition derived from anecdotal observation. As I do more reading, however, it seems that sometimes hard science really does support folk wisdom.

For Christmas by brother Tom got me Gregg Easterbrook's book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Easterbrook, who's been mentioned here before, is perhaps best known for his football column the Tuesday Morning Quarterback, now published on ESPN.com's Page 2. Being a geek who likes sports, I love the geek take on sports. But, in addition to being a geeky sports writer, Easterbrook is also a fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution, a senior editor of The New Republic, and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, an intellectual "heavy dude" who may be an insufferable know-it-all, but is by God a witty insufferable know-it-all.

As you can probably guess from its title, Easterbrook's book is an attempt to understand how it can be that, while most indicators of quality of life in the West (the United States and the European Union, though Easterbrook is primarily concerned with the United States) have been constantly improving for generations, happiness (to the extent that it can be measured) has remained static while unhappiness has increased dramatically. Having been enthralled with this book I've been meaning to write about its broader project since I started reading it last week. However, today I am interested in a much more narrow part of it.

Easterbrook, as you might have guessed from the context, devotes a chapter of his book to the relationship between virtue and self interest. That chapter, titled "Selfish Reasons to Become a Better Person," depends heavily on recent scientific studies which support my contention that the universe is structured in such a way as to reward virtue. Perhaps the best example of this, though by no means the only, is forgiveness. Easterbrook, by way of summary, writes:

Forgiveness is good not only for the person forgiven, but for the person who forgives.

That being forgiving is good for
you, in addition to the person you forgive, is among the most compelling findings of positive psychology. Research now suggests that those who take a forgiving attitude toward others not only make better friends, neighbors, and coworkers - anyone would guess that - but are themselves happier, healthier people who live longer than others and know more success in life. Are they forgiving because happiness makes them magnanimous, or does forgiving improve their well being? Studies suggest the latter.

If this is true, if it is in fact the case that virtue in general and forgiveness in particular actually produce ultimately better outcomes for the virtuous and the forgiving; what does this have to teach us about the nature of the religions which have long taught the value of virtue, and especially forgiveness? My own faith, Christianity, is built on the virtue of forgiveness, stressing both the liberating power of God's grace, and the moral mandate to extend that grace to others. Jesus taught that forgiveness is an essential part of the nature and will of God. In a very real sense, if to be Christian is to be a follower of Jesus, then Christians are (or ought to be) marked by forgiveness, both as receivers (being fundamentally forgiven by God) and especially as givers (forgiving all others in light of God's forgiveness). Forgiveness is the virtue modelled by the incarnation, and should be present in the lives of all Christians.

So, is religion in general and Christianity in particular vindicated by modern studies which, if Easterbrook has summarized them correctly (and it seems to me that he has, though I am no expert on recent trends in psychology) teach that the universe is structured in such a way as to reward the virtue of forgiveness? In at least a limited sense, I think the answer must be "yes." But it is a very limited "yes."

Much has been written recently about the harm done by religion. We are all too aware of the violent dangers of fundamentalism. We are surrounded by the very credible claims that, at least in some cases, religious devotion makes people much worse, both in terms of their own happiness and in terms of their moral behavior. While the events of 9-11 or the violence in the Middle East are the most poignant examples of the corrupting power of at least some expressions of religious devotion, we have also probably all experienced this in at least some degree in our own lives.

We have probably all known someone who, in the sublime ecstasy which follows a religious conversion experience, became so self-absorbed and self-righteous that we simply couldn't stand to be near them any longer. And, of course, while the recently converted may see the conflicts that arise between the newly converted and their former social circle in more spiritual terms (rejecting the ways of "the world" creates conflict with "the world," etc.) many of us know that at least in some cases this conflict is brought about because, simply put, when the convert "found religion" they became an insufferable ass.

But, to the extent to which a religion correctly identifies virtues and encourages virtuous behavior, these studies suggest that it has manifested a very tangible good. This good is felt both in the life of the virtuous and in all those touched by that virtuous behavior. As Christianity encourages forgiveness, it encourages a trait which brings about positive outcomes.

But this raises a couple of troubling questions:

First: is it in fact the case that Christianity encourages forgiveness? As a theological question, the answer must, of course, be "yes." Forgiveness is at the heart of Christian teaching. But, if this is a sociological or historical question, I am sure that the answer will be more nuanced. At its worst, rather than encouraging publicly beneficial virtues like forgiveness Christianity can become the kind of purity cult that Jesus so strongly protested against.

Second: even if it is the case that Christianity encourages forgiveness, and that other religions through history have correctly identified various similarly beneficial virtues; does the fact that the universe seems to reward virtue point to the existence of a benevolent creator, or instead does it simply mean that religions have identified traits which natural selection tends to favor, and labeled them "virtue"?

That question may well be impossible to answer, though research does indicate that the benefit from forgiveness does not depend on any religious motivation for forgiving. Easterbrook writes:

[F]orgiveness can have either a spiritual or secular basis, and both seem equally effective at improving the life of the person who forgives. One of [Kenneth] Pargament's [note: Kenneth Pargament is a psychologist at Bowling Green State University, whose research on forgiveness came up earlier in the book. One of his theories is that, despite the health benefits of forgiveness, many therapists do not discuss forgiveness with patients because they assume that is can only have a religious motivation. - CB] studies, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, compared three groups of subjects who had been wronged by someone in a significant way and sought counseling. The first group received forgiveness counseling based on religious precepts; the second group received forgiveness counseling that made no mention of faith, simply argued for the benefits of forgiving; the third group, which was the control, received conventional anger-management counseling that said nothing about forgiveness. The study found that people in the first and second groups had better outcomes than those in the third, and by about the same margins in each case. This is to say, whether someone forgave for reasons of faith or of secular ethics, the benefits were the same. What mattered was not the reason the person forgave, but simply that he or she decided to forgive.

Jesus was right, then, when he asserted that clinging to the claims of self brings about a kind of death, while releasing those claims, "dying to" those claims and learning how to forgive and let go brings about a kind of liberating rebirth. But Jesus is not the only on to teach the merits of forgiveness, and, clinically speaking it doesn't matter whether you forgive someone because Jesus told you to, or simply because you realized it was in your best interests to. The outcome is the same in either case.

This brings up an interesting paradox. If altruism (at least of a kind) is in a person's self interest, can someone be motivated by self interest to be altruistic, or does it then cease to be altruism? Can someone give and forgive selfishly, or is there merely a self interest benefit for the selfless?

That question may never be answered, and it may not even be that important. We have already discussed (in an earlier post) the Buddhist concept of "giving without attachment." But, does it matter to the person receiving the gift whether it was really given without any sort of attachment, so long as the attachment can never be detected? In other words, if you were motivated to give a gift without attachment because you were convinced that doing so would eliminate your own potential for suffering in the act of gift giving, but held on to the cessation of suffering as a sort of attachment, would that kind of attachment, which could never be detected by the person receiving the gift, matter to the receiver? Would it detract from their ability to enjoy the gift, which has all the appearances of being given freely?

Similarly, should it matter to me whether someone forgives me, or acts charitably towards me, because God told them to, they thought it was the "right" thing, or simply because they honestly believed that a little bit of charity might make them happier? In any case, I will have benefited from their act, whether it is truly altruistic or a case of enlightened self interest. In any case the world would be much better off if people acted virtuously, whether their motivation comes from God, ethics, or self interest.

If virtue is self interest, is it still virtue? That question is the title of this post, though so far this post has not directly considered it. It seems to me that, if virtue is defined as acting in such a way as to bring about positive outcomes for all people impacted by a particular action, then it matters not one whit why someone acted the way that they did, what their motive was, so long as that motive was not to harm. If good is the collateral benefit of a selflessly selfish action, then so be it. May the universe reward virtue wherever it appears. And may there be more virtue to reward.


PamBG said...

Interesting post. Good dissection of a philosophical problem and its many angles; not sure if I have any answers. Just a couple of comments.

I suspect that altruism is still altruism if there is some self-interest. If "perfect altruism" is the Christian ideal, then I think that God's forgiveness of us means that God recognises that we can never be perfectly altruistic. I do have a sense that it's ethically OK in a Christian context, to "do our best" in loving the other person. God may call us to increasing holiness but not only does he not despise our early efforts but he is also the source of them.

There is a philosophical/theological "in between-ness" here that defies easy categories.

You also said: At its worst, rather than encouraging publicly beneficial virtues like forgiveness Christianity can become the kind of purity cult that Jesus so strongly protested against.

I agree totally but I suspect that this is the nature of all religious systems. There are even Buddhist terrorists in some countries, for heaven's sake - a category you'd think is a contradiction in terms.

My gut sense is that religion goes wrong and takes on purity cult tendencies when we fail to have real faith in forgiveness - either God's forgiveness or the power of human forgviness. Some people despise the concept of tolerance, but the fundamental bedrock of tolerance is forgiveness.

crystal said...


It sounds like the book you are reading would be in the opposite direction of stuff like The Root of All Evil by Richard Dawkins.

I read something once about the difference between Jesus idea of forgiveness and the lesser standard of do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It seemed to say that the do unto others standard (also called "tit for tat") worked out better for "bebefiting" people/societies than the higher standard of universal forgiveness.

Wikipedia has a page about ethical reciprocity that's interesting.

I can't help thinking that although the end results of an act done for altruistic reasons and an act done for selfish reasons are the same, that intent matters and that true altruism means doing something for others at personal expense.

Sandalstraps said...


There are even Buddhist terrorists in some countries, for heaven's sake - a category you'd think is a contradiction in terms.

I'm stunned. Nearly speechless.

What's next? Unitarian absolutists? Bahai exclusivists?

Another example of how culture corrupts religion even as religion attempts to transform culture.

Sandalstraps said...


The book I'm reading, The Progress Paradox, is not directly concerned with religion. While Easterbrook is a Christian, he does not claim that his research has any bearing on the truth or value of Christianity.

The chapter under discussion here is principally concerned with a discipline called positive psychology, the study of what goes right with our minds rather than what goes wrong. The main contention of positive psychology is that psychology in general tends to be pathalogical in nature, more concerned with mental illness than mental health. Positive psychology, rather than focusing on the treatment of mental illness, focuses instead on the cultivation of mental health.

The development of virtues is an essential component of the project to build mental health, as studies done by positive psychologists have shown that behaviors identified as virtues are often connected to psychological well being.

This particular essay, along with much of the chapter discussed here, focused on forgiveness as an example of a virtue which has been clinically shown to produce more positive outcomes. That Christianity teaches the virtue of forgiveness is incidental to the research, and is not much stressed by Easterbrook. Easterbrook's personal views certainly counter those of a Richard Dawkins or a Sam Harris, but his book does not aim to be an antidote to their characterization of religion.

The comments in this post which aim to counter the influence of Dawkins and Harris - though they no doubt coincide with Easterbrook's personal beliefs, as he identifies himself as a "church going Christian" - are my own rather than a summary of his. His book is more concerned with cultural and especially economic, psychological and sociological trends.