Egoism and Belief in God (Psychological Egoism)

If I ask why we help others, what would you answer? You may say, “God’s love is so big that it overflows.” Or perhaps, “God called us to love our neighbor” (or something along those lines). Another response might be: “It feels good to help others.”

All this seem like valid answers, but the psychological egoist will say that only the third answer is true. Psychological egoism claims that all that we do, all the time, is motivated by self-interest. Friendships are self-interested; the same goes for romantic relationships. I think in a way we can understand this.

The problem is that psychological egoism claims that all our actions, all the time, come from self-interest. Now, if true, this brings all sorts of problems of morality. But what happens to belief in God?

Last week, I talked about the anonymous Sonnet to Christ Crucified. It could well represent a cry against psychological egoism. In the English translation this might not come across, but it also seems at times that the author, whoever he or she is, feels somewhat trapped in this game of self-interest and wants out.

If psychological egoism is true, it means that our belief in God is simply egoist. We believe in a God because of what He promises (and how many times don’t we say, “Cling to His promises”). We believe in a God because He promises utopia at the end of the world if only we pay the small price of obedience.

That’s a really cynical paragraph and I cringe at reading it. However, it unfortunately contains some truth at least in my experience.

One of the challenges to psychological egoism might serve us well. Isn’t there a difference between an act motivated by self-interest and one attended by self-interest? We might well find satisfaction  in helping others, but it does not mean that was our motivation. But the psychological egoist will claim that the satisfaction derived from the action is in fact the motivation behind it.

It feels like we move in circles, and in many ways this will always be the case. Because motives are personal and private there is no way we can prove psychological egoism is wrong. At the same time, the private nature of motives doesn’t provide proof for psychological egoism. At the end, it might just be an autobiographical claim.

Of course, psychological egoism is still true but not the extent that all our decisions, all the time, are motivated by self-interest. If our motivations are attended by self-interest our belief in God does not have to be based on what He promised to give us. That’s just a plus. That means we might be able to look forward to the Second Coming not because of heaven or the new earth, but because we will be united with the Creator.

Granted, many of us start our Christian walk out of self-interest. Well, maybe not, but we sometimes do try to convince people of believing in a God because of what He promised to give those who love Him. This might be good to start, but we must move towards a place where we desire God because He is God. A place where there is no doubt the first two answer at the beginning of this post are true.

This might all seem like really dumb ideas but if you really give them a chance, you’ll find they are challenging and useful. Our language internalized can take us either way, and we must stop and think if we are being selfish or selfless.

Are we motivated by riches in heaven or are we attracted to God by His love

Can we desire Jesus for Jesus’ sake? Can we yearn for Love for Love’s sake?