Really? The "Dismal Science" and the increasingly irrelevant discipline of theology?

Does anyone not look out for their own self-interest?

Before I get to far, there is a great opinion piece about the government’s role in the sub-prime mortgage crisis and how this led to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the Wall Street Journal this morning.

My real concern, as I state at the top, is the question about what is greed? Is it a bad thing? Are all forms of self-interest necessarily a bad thing? In the popular media, moralizing abounds about people being greedy and only looking out for themselves. Usually, it is CEOs, bankers, businessmen, pretty much anybody involved in finance or business broadly. I started thinking about this while listening to this radio show from Here and Now on NPR. The main guest Mr. Ron Hira, calls out the heads of Microsoft and other IT companies for being “greedy” and “only looking out for their own self-interest.” The entire show is about older IT workers who can’t get jobs, while at the same time, IT companies are looking for relaxed immigration regulations to higher new workers. The story is mildly interesting but the whole time I was thinking, “the IT workers are looking out for their own self-interest too.”
It seems to me that this is a classic case of people using ethics as a will to power. Of course the IT workers are looking out for their own self-interest. They need work. But, it is not correct to say that the only ones looking out for their own self-interest are the CEOs. I am trying here to clarify some terms. On the popular level, greed means something like “wanting any amount of money more than I say you can have.” I should think we could do a little better. I am proposing something like greed meaning, “wanting an excessive amount of money or wealth.” Excessive being the key term that would be difficult to pin down. The old IT worker would be immune from being called greedy simply because he does not have a good enough job (he is a janitor) and wants to work in IT because at one point in his life he was qualified. The CEO, who already has a high paying job, wants cheaper, younger, better trained employees so his/her company can run more efficiently to maker more money is the greedy one.*
*I guess at this point, we should say that because this show was on an American radio station, and presumably most of the listeners are Americans, that we should not be concerned with Indians being able to get work that they are qualified for.
I guess I am just wondering do we really expect people not to act in their own self-interest? Maybe there is a better way to frame this discussion such that we do not just resort to amateurish moralizing in order to get the upper hand in a debate.
I guess I can’t get away from my academic days, so I like a lot of citing. I recently read a great piece by Michael Lewis on the problems in California government, focusing on the local level. He writes, “Alone in a dark room with a pile of money, Americans knew exactly what they wanted to do, from the top of the society to the bottom. They’d been conditioned to grab as much as they could, without thinking about the long-term consequences. Afterward, the people on Wall Street would privately bemoan the low morals of the American people who walked away from their subprime loans, and the American people would express outrage at the Wall Street people who paid themselves a fortune to design the bad loans.”
So, I am circling back to Occupy Wall Street and the IT workers. We are all grabbing as much as we can. We are all self-interested. Let’s not deny that this is the case. What we need to do is find a way to be for our own self-interest while also looking out for the self-interests of others. The mad grabbing and name calling will not work out in the end. I think that there is some kind of “selfishness” that is a bad thing. But, it has to be more than just looking out for your own self-interest because that is unavoidable. Selfishness has to go deeper and more insidious. Selfishness must me grabbing so that no one else can have any and totally denying that my grabbing won’t have larger social implications or caring about those larger social implications.
I have said much about selfishness without bringing it into the theological or religious arena. Some must be wondering, “where is the Scripture quoting and theological language about selfishness?” That is where we get the idea that selfishness is bad isn’t it? Scripture? Certainly, it is. Much of the discussion of selfishness and money comes form Jesus himself. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” Moreover, you do not need a prooftext to realize that the purpose of Jesus life was to lay down his life humankind. This example is clear, we should not just look out for ourselves. While, I am not going to exegete all of this, I think that the interesting part in the whole discussion is just before the previously quoted verse. Jesus discusses storing up for yourselves “treasures in heaven.” Jesus does not spell out exactly what he has in mind. However, it is clear that Jesus knows that incentive drives behavior. He does not say, “do not seek out treasure or reward, or any self-interest.” He wants us to have self-interest. Not self-interest that grabs at the complete expense of others. Self-interest that looks out for the interest of others. In the broader context, the Sermon on the Mount is primarily about looking out for other people. This is probably what Jesus has in mind for treasures in heaven, although it is not made explicit.
I think that Paul sums it up nicely when he writes, Phillipians 2:4 – “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” What I am arguing for is really nothing new. I am not saying St. Paul could have foreseen what is going on in today’s society, but the injunction seems particularly apropos. And, let’s be clear. The people who have failed to look out for the interest of others, are NOT just Wall Street bankers or CEOs. People signed up for the mortgages that they should have known they could not pay for. Our ENTIRE society is at fault for what is going on here and it will take much more cooperation to rebuild it then what I have seen is going on.
Sorry that was so long. Bonbons for those who finished! Although I doubt there were any! Let me know if you did!


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