Essay / Philosophy

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

Read Part I here.

Last week, JP Moreland began his discussion on whether or not the desire to avoid hell was egotistical. The following is the second part of his two part discussion. The second part begins with a summarization of the first part:

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.

Second, even if Scripture teaches that self-interest contributes to making something my moral duty, egotism still does not follow. For one thing, ethical egotism teaches that an act is moral if and only if it maximizes my own self-interests. Ethical egoism teaches that self-interest is both necessary and sufficient for something to be my duty. It could be argued, however, that egoistic factors, while not the sole factors that are morally relevant to an act (other things like self-sacrifice and obeying God because it is intrinsically right may also be relevant), nevertheless, are at least one feature often important for assessing the moral worth of an act. Moral duty is not exhausted by self-interest as ethical egoism implies, but self-interest can be a legitimate factor in moral deliberation and Scripture may be expressing this point.

Additionally, it is likely that the precise nature of self-interest contained in Scripture is different in two ways from the self-interest that forms part of ethical egotism. For one thing, according to ethical egotism, the thing that makes an act right is that it is in my self-interest. The important value making property here is the fact that something promotes the first person interests of the actor. Here, the moral agent attends to himself precisely as being identical to himself and to no one else.

By contrast, the Scriptural emphasis on self-interest most likely grounds the appropriateness of that self-interest, not in the mere fact that such interests are mine, but in the fact that I am a creature of intrinsic value made in God’s image and, as such, I ought to care about what happens to me. Here I seek my own welfare not because it is my own, but because of what I am, viz. a creature with high intrinsic value. Consider a possible world where human persons have no value whatever. In that world, ethical egoism would still legislate self-interest, but the second view under consideration (that self-interest follows from the fact that I am a creature of value) would not because the necessary condition for self-interest (being a creature of intrinsic value) does not obtain in that world.

Adequate moral views have to take the self into consideration no less than others. My self is relevant in universalizability considerations (if something is right for me to do, it is right for everyone in relevantly similar circumstances). Also, there may be special contexts in which my own interests are a fundamental consideration, for example, where my own eternal destiny is at stake. Furthermore, for the gift of heaven to be significant, it must answer some personal interest or desire for salvation. Could God be glorified for His provision of salvation if it was not something in which we had an interest?

There is a second way that the nature of self-interest in Scripture and in ethical egotism differ. As C. S. Lewis argued, there are different kinds of rewards, and some are proper because they have a natural connection with the things we do to earn them and because they are expressions of what God made us to be by nature. Money is not a natural reward for love (one is mercenary to marry for money) because money is foreign to the desires that ought to accompany love. By contrast, victory is a natural reward for battle. It is a proper reward because it is not tacked onto the activity for which the reward is given, but rather victory is the consummation of the activity itself.

According to Lewis, the desire for heaven and rewards is a natural desire expressing what we, by nature, are. We were made to desire honor before God, to be in his presence, and to hunger to enjoy the rewards he will offer us and these things are the natural consummations of our activity on earth. Thus, the appropriateness of seeking heaven and rewards derives from the fact that these results are genuine expressions of our natures and are the natural consummation of our activities for God. By contrast, according to ethical egotism, the value of results has nothing to do essentially with our natures or with natural consummations of activities. Rather, the worth of those outcomes is solely a function of the fact that they benefit the agent himself. And that’s all there is to it.

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