Essay / Philosophy

Is the Desire to Avoid Hell Egotistical? (Part I)

Read Part II here.

Recently the topic of Hell has been in the news. In case you were entirely unaware, yes, Hell is in fact a real place (as Pope Benedict reminded us just last week). Hell, being an altogether unpleasant place, is not a destination where many desire to go, but is this desire to avoid Hell egotistical? JP Moreland reflects on this question:

As a matter of commonsense, must people recognize that if one does his/her moral dusty solely because of self-interest, then one has not really done one’s duty. If I am kind to a friend totally because it makes me happy or look good in front of others, I haven’t really been kind, I have faked it to look good. I have acted egotistically. To count as my moral duty, I must do an act at least in part because it is the right thing to do.

Some claim that the Bible, with its emphasis on avoiding hell and going to heaven and on securing eternal rewards for life on earth, implicitly affirms egotism as an appropriate moral standard for action. This is supposed to count as an argument against Christianity since, granting the inadequacy of ethical egotism, Christianity implies an incorrect moral theory. What should we make of this claim? It is clear that legitimate self-interest is part of Biblical teaching. But does this mean that Scripture implies egotism as a moral theory?

Towards an answer to this charge, we need to distinguish between achieving what is in my self- interest as a by-product of an act vs. self-interest as the sole intent of an act. Scriptural passages that appeal to self interest may simply be pointing out that if you intentionally do the right thing, then a good by-product of this will be rewards of various kinds. It could be argued that these passages do not clearly use self-interest as the sole legitimate intent of a moral action. For example, Exodus 20:12 says “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Clearly, the Ten Commandments, of which this verse is a part, are to be obeyed largely because they are the correct moral commands of a Holy God, not solely because they are in the self-interests of the believer.

This observation relates to a second distinction between a motive and a reason. Roughly, a motive is some state within a person that influences and moves that person to believe something or to act in a certain way. By contrast, a reason is something that serves rationally to justify some belief that one has or action that one has done. Citing a reason for believing x is an attempt to cite something that makes it likely that x is true. Citing a reason for doing x is an attempt to cite something that makes x the thing that I rationally or morally ought to do. In this context, just because something, say self-interest, serves as a motive for an action, it does not follow that it also serves as the reason that justifies the action in the first place. Self-interest may be a legitimate motive for moral action, but, it could be argued, God’s commands, the objective moral law, etc. could be rationally cited as the things that make an act our duty in the first place. The Scriptures may be citing self-interest as a motive for action and not as the reason for what makes the act our duty.

Moreover, even if Scripture is teaching that self-interest is a reason for doing some duty, it may be offering self-interest as a prudential and not a moral reason for doing the duty. In other words, the Bible may be saying that it is wise, reasonable, and a matter of good judgment to avoid hell and seek rewards without claiming that these considerations are moral reasons for acting according to self-interest. In sum, it could be argued that Scripture can be understood as advocating self-interest as a by-product and not an intent for action, as a motive and not a reason, or as a prudential and not a moral reason. If this is so, then these Scriptural ideas do not entail ethical egoism.

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