I received this question by email:
I was discussing ethics with an atheist friend, and he approaches morals from the point of view of what brings the most pleasure, so he is basically a hedonist. I argued that hedonism is selfish (even if as a moral system advocates pleasure for all or most of us) because it can only look at things from the perspective of how it benefits US, and there is no moral law outside of ourselves.
He then replied that even if we follow some abstract moral law that exists outside of ourselves, such as from a God, we are still selfish, because the reasons we chose to follow those rules are what makes us happy. He claims that even if we gain nothing physically from a good deed, and even if we don’t do good deeds with the intention to make ourselves feel better, we still derive happiness from the fact that we follow this so-called “objective moral truth” that exists outside of ourselves, because we know that it is objectively provable that it is “moral.”
He is basically saying that, even if objective morality exists, our motivation to follow such abstract laws ultimately are selfish because we are happy knowing we are doing the right thing. What reply can I give?
This is a good question, for it addresses one of the basic misconceptions both of Christianity and of ethics. ()These mistaken views never cease to amaze me.)
Consider the proposition, “It is good to do good.” Along with that comes, “The experience of doing good is good,” which contrasts with, “It is good to do good, especially if one does not experience it as good to do good.” To demonstrate the error of that contrasting third statement, consider the love between two married persons. I actually tested this theory with my wife. I was reading John Piper’s Desiring God (a book you must read on this subject!) and I decided to personalize one of his illustrations. It was a dangerous thing I did: she almost slugged me for it.
Piper was illustrating the error in thinking it’s more saintly to follow God when we receive no reward from it whatsoever. The illustration as I told it to Sara went like this:
Suppose I were to tell you, Sara, that I love you deeply. I will spend all my days with you. I will give my all for you. I am yours forever. And here is the proof of how greatly I love you: I make this commitment eternally, even though I don’t actually enjoy being with you.
Note to other husbands: if you try this with your wife, be very careful to emphasize it’s only an illustration. Sara nearly forgot; I nearly got punched in the gut. But it’s an apt illustration anyway, and it applies to all of our good-doing. The goodness of an act is not reduced by enjoying it.
It is good to do good. So is it good to pursue the pleasure of doing good? Yes and no. It is fine to have the reward in mind. When I ask my wife out for a date night, I know very well I’m going to enjoy the time with her. But suppose I were to ask her out just for the sake of my own pleasure. That would be perverse, backwards, and wrong—and it would ruin the evening for both of us. Pleasure rightly accompanies good-doing, but we cannot pursue that kind of pleasure on its own. We reach it only indirectly, through the path of doing what is right.
Somehow—and I cannot imagine where this came from—some people have gotten the idea that the purest morality consists in unrewarded, thankless, self-denying self-sacrifice. That’s not in the Bible. The language of reward is written throughout all of Scripture. Eternal life is an incentive. The joy of love is an incentive. But these are not rewards to pursue directly. Jesus endured the cross on his path to joy (Hebrews 12:2). We gain life by giving it away (Matthew 16:25). I could multiply these examples, but I trust you get the picture.
Now the Bible does teach that there are rewards that we cannot see, which means there are times when we do good with no visible reward in sight. That might be where the error I just mentioned could have come from: for sometimes we do good with no benefit to ourselves anywhere in view. But that is not the same as doing good with no hope of any reward. Rather it is an exercise of the virtues of faith and hope. Christian faith, rightly understood, is an evidence-based conviction that God is real, God is good, and (here is where trusting him for the not-yet-seen comes in) in his goodness he will reward us with far more than we could ever give up for him. Again, though, I rush to emphasize that the benefit or reward is not something we pursue for its own sake. This kind of pleasure never travels alone. It is always a by-product, an expected result, an accompaniment to good-doing.
The relation between morality and pleasure, then, can be summed up this way:
- It is good to do good.
- The goodness of doing good is a goodness we can enjoy.
- That enjoyment comes only through doing good; it cannot be attained along any other path.
- To pursue enjoyment for its own sake is likely to ruin that enjoyment in the end.[1. We could talk about whether or how this applies to private, morally neutral pleasures like listening to good music during an evening home alone, but that would be complex discussion that does not seem to be necessary for present purposes.]
- To trust God to reward us for doing good is a biblically supported, good thing to do.
There is one further point to address in the question that was asked: if our good-doing is motivated by the rewards we expect from it, does that make us selfish? To that I say, Let the world be filled with such “selfishness”! Let it overflow with people doing good and enjoying the goodness of the good! Let there be many giving away their time and money for the poor, and enjoying it! Let there be many caring for those who are rejected, and feeling the satisfaction of those relationships! Let there be many sacrificing themselves to fight for justice, and feeling happy when it is accomplished!
I have trouble viewing that as selfishness. I have even more trouble viewing it as unchristian. The idea that morality equals “selflessness” equals unrewarded self-sacrifice comes from some strange place I do not understand. It is good to do good.