Compassion in Houston: Altruism or Selfishness?

On a Fox News group show this morning (Saturday, Sept 2 on “Bulls and Bears”) I heard one person say that businesses in Houston had opened their buildings for individuals and even were giving merchandise away to those in need.  The pundit then added that the owners of these businesses probably acted as they did for self-interested reasons, believing that it would be good for sales in the future.  I’m sure he wasn’t trying to be cynical, but his comment played into the hands of many who see capitalism as just that–an institution that incentivizes selfishness and greed, and that most merchants never or almost never do anything out of charity or altruism.  

On the other hand, this view implies and sometimes is stated baldly, that government (politicians, bureaucrats) always or mostly act out of genuine compassion.

Both of these views are seriously flawed, even though of course one will find examples of each in any institutional environment.  First, Adam Smith, the so-called “founder” of modern free market economics (a misnomer, but he was undoubtedly a major force in changing ideas), wrote in both The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and in The Wealth of Nations (1776), especially in the former, that human beings are motivated by more than simple, raw self-interest or selfishness.  He distinguished between self-interest and selfishness–the former was something we all legitimately possess, when for example, we provide for our life, our nourishment, our clothing and our families, the latter which is more or less ethical egoism.  But we also have a kind of second nature, which is the moral sense, and it moves people to benevolence, sometimes for one’s own self-interest but also sometimes out of pure altruism. There is no reason to think businessmen must always be selfish.  Some may be, and others not.  Even those who are at least are doing a compassionate deed.  We can at least thank them for the work they did, even if the motivation may not always be good.

But more than this, the Fox News speaker failed to acknowledge the importance of Christianity as a driving force among many in our society, despite the increasing secularizing trends, or perhaps just a “changing of the gods.”  Christians, to be sure, though not perfect, are often, if they take their faith seriously, willing to go to great lengths to help others in need, even those they don’t know and those who could never reciprocate.  Christians don’t expect to be reciprocated.  They do what they do out of a love for God and (the second great command) a love for their neighbor.

Even non-Christians sometimes act out of genuine compassion simply due to the common grace of God operating in them.  We should not discount this possibility, especially in times of need.

On the other hand, we ought to have disabused ourselves long ago of the attitude that government officials somehow possess better natures then the rest of us.  Why would we expect human beings in any environment to become different than they were in another setting?  The problem with such a viewpoint is not that all public officials must always be selfish.  That would be just as wrong as the view that all private individuals are selfish.  The problem is that it leads many to argue that only government is able to respond to problems.  Government then can grow very large, squeezing out civil society and squashing market activity.  People begin to think government is the only institutional arrangement that is able to be compassionate.

It is surprising that this insight into the essential uniformity of human nature was so quickly forgotten as the Progressive/Modern Liberal era began in the late 1800s.  But then perhaps it isn’t surprising;  That era corresponded almost precisely with the rise of a derision of the orthodox doctrine of sin and, along with it, the growth of an extreme optimism about the capabilities of humans and their eventual perfection.  It was only in the 1960s, in scholars like Vincent and Elinor Ostrom, James Buchanan, and the Public Choice school, that political though returned to the idea that even “public spirited” officials might be motivated by their own self-interest and that private individuals might be motivated by altruism.  I should add that these resurrected ideas are more subtle than I am able to articulate here.  Christians of course have always known this.  The Bible has always shown man for what he is as well as what he can be in Christ.  And that is why we could use a healthy dose of “Christian Realism” about government.

On a related note from the same show, the CEO of Home Depot argued that now is not the time for talk of tax cuts, that is, in this emergency in Texas.  I ask, why not?  Yes, the federal aid to Houston will cost a few billion dollars.  But is that a reason to postpone or sideline tax reform–reform which help even people in Houston.  And it is not likely that Congress would hesitate to spend money anyway, or for that matter, for any item they really want, no matter the budget impact.  It is time that those who actually pay taxes not be continually forced to pay for more and more government largesse.  If need be (and the extent of “need be” is something worth a debate), help Texas.  But don’t avoid tax reform by using Texas as an excuse.

32 thoughts on “Compassion in Houston: Altruism or Selfishness?”

  1. So “private” capitalists can be altruistic and “public” governmental actors can be self-interested. Got it. Though I am a bit baffled by your concern that either of those viewpoints is underrepresented in contemporary American life. Especially on Fox News, of all places.

    But once you’ve set up a continuum of altruism to selfishness, it seems a bit convenient to entrench Christianity on one end of the spectrum. What in the history of Christianity (American or otherwise) suggests that we’re somehow more disposed to altruism than rank self-interest? Certainly Christ is an admirable model to emulate, but our track record seems embarrassingly mixed at best.

    Perhaps if we could manage a healthy dose of “Christian realism” about the persistent shortcomings of our Christianity (personal, historical, institutional, et. al.), we might not have to strain so hard to imagine “even non-Christians” acting out of genuine compassion. As if altruism were just another way to keep score in game only we understand. That kind of thinking strikes me as very self-interested, indeed.

    1. Ben, do you disagree that private capitalists can be altruistic and government actors can be self-interested? Because that was all he was saying. He was not saying capitalists are always altruistic and governmental actors are always self-interested. He just said they can be. i did not see him say that the reverse cannot be true as well.

  2. Tax cuts?! I thought that Bereans were so concerned about the budget deficit, that we were going to be the next Greece, yada yada yada?

    So when Democrats are in power, the big concern on the minds of conservatives is the deficit, but when Republicans are in charge, the big concern for conservatives is a lack of tax cuts? Talk about inconsistency, if not hypocrisy.

    Tax cuts during a presidency that wants to increase the defense budget at a rate far above that of inflation? Talk about inconsistency, if not hypocrisy.

    Republicans who were such deficit hawks when it came to responding after Hurricane Sandy now want the government to help now that Hurricane Harvey has destroyed Texas and Louisiana, two red states. Talk about inconsistency, if not hypocrisy.

    Really, really lame, Marc. Really, really lame. Let’s talk about tax cuts once we have a surplus, or once we have a recession. Right now, it is just silly talk.

    1. Jeff,

      Even though you probably consider yourself an expert on tax policy, like everything else, let me try to explain a logical viewpoint on tax cuts.

      First, corporate taxes: If corporate rates are lowered it allows businesses to do some or all of the following: employ more people, offer better benefits to current employees, produce more goods and/or services and, more importantly, gives them a higher incentive to do all these things. If more people are employed it increases the number of people contributing to the tax base. Also more business will be inclined to enter the market which increases the competition which will lower prices and increase productivity.

      Personal tax: If personal taxes are lowered it gives more incentive for people to purchase goods/services or invest money in other ventures that they currently do not.

      When it comes to the deficit, tax cuts can be accomplished without increasing it by increasing the tax base.

    2. Jeff:
      You are not understanding fiscal policy or fiscal economics. The choice between tax cuts and budget balancing is not an either or. The key of course is to cut spending. And as the economy improves with the tax cuts then revenue will increase anyway, ceteris paribus. Republicans have been just as bad about fiscal policy as Democrats. I choose neither side on this one.

  3. I had heard about this too, My father and I were talking and he came with the mindset of the selfish businessman looking to get a tax write-off. I mostly agree with him, but I love in your blog when you said “Some may be, and others not. Even those who are at least are doing a compassionate deed. We can at least thank them for the work they did, even if the motivation may not always be good.” Showing that even in greedy selfish times God can still use us to for fill his goal of taking care of the people in Texas.

    About that last little section about tax reform, I say if any of our politicians tries to postpone it we call them out upon it. We have let politicians lie too many times and do things we don’t want them to do.

  4. Does it truly matter, on an economic level, if the motivation is selfishness or altruism? Smith’s idea of benevolence holds true on a micro level. He wrote that it extends to neighbors, family, and the like. However, when speaking of the entire economy, Smith used the term “Self-Interest.” He did make a distinction between this and selfishness, but does the distinction truly matter in this case? Mandeville applauded greed as good for society because it motivated individuals to work hard and benefit the whole in the end. This sounds very similar to this arguement. What I’m trying to point out is that, in a free market system, selfishness and benevolence can often result in the same social benefit. I would rather people be benevolent because Christ calls His followers to love their neighbor, but that does not mean that these business owners must act benevolently to produce a social and economic good.

    1. I think we can even see evidence of this scripture. Paul talks about some people who preach the gospel because they want to and others who only preach it out of selfish means. Paul basically gives a big “doesn’t matter to me” to this activity. Either way the gospel is preached. Now, as far as motives go, we ought to be generous out of a sincere heart desire, but either way the money goes to the benefit of others. It’s worth noting that if greed is behind the giving, than that would seem to me to be a rather risky, long-term investment. Most likely, a better reputation is the main thing a corporation or person could get out of this (of course, we could even question this given that most people will end up giving anyway [read: American generosity is a given]). Interesting how we find the principles of pragmatism and motivation so delicately balanced in Scripture…

  5. As stated in a previous comment, I frankly don’t think it matters from an economic standpoint if the motivation to help and save someone is an act of altruism or selfishness. If a Hilton hotel offers free rooms for a week for Hurricane Harvey victims and they receive great PR from the act, boosting their overall sales on the year, isn’t that just a win-win for everyone, providing some kind of example of a free market? In fact, I would be more willing to stay with a company that helped during Harvey than a company that didn’t, and I believe others might feel the same way. Whether you’re a government official, a small business owner, or a regular individual, I believe we all make decisions that represent both self-interest and selfless generosity for others. Anyone is capable of doing either one in a given situation. We should just hope that more and more people act out of Christ-like generosity without any thought of self-interest at all. After all, helping one another is a large part of helping this nation grow stronger.

  6. I liked this article for the defense of capitalism and the belief the the human spirit. Too often the left can show big businesses as companies full of greedy and selfish people. It is true that many people in these groups can be very, self-interest oriented. The US is far and way the most charitable country on earth, and it is thanks to the personal wealth of many individuals and companies. With the lowering of taxes, the giving of American’s increase as their wealth does as well. The government does do many different things for the people, but I sense that their giving versus the people’s and companies giving is done out of more selfish reasons.

  7. I think that it is a mixture of altruism and self-interest, I also think that all humans are subject to some pity, no matter how little it is, that moves them to help others in need. I also agree with what everyone else is saying that even though the help may be for self-interest, it is still help nonetheless and it’s better than no help at all.

  8. Motives today seem to vary, but it seems to me a common one is fame and fortune. Immediately, the public viewers will see this business as a compassionate one with a caring owner. After this, customers remember the business and will always return. Is this the motive for the owner? No one can know. All we do know is that what he did works. In a business perspective, its something all business should strive to do (help the community). In a believer’s perspective, did he do it out of pride and desire for money? Well, thats again something we can’t know. What I get from this scenario is that all business owners (specifically believers) should shape their business in the way their motives/values are of their personal life.

  9. There’s no doubt that businesses that are helping the people in need are going to get publicity. This could lead to an increase in sales.. but that doesn’t mean they are being selfish. Maybe they actually want to help and the extra business is just a cherry on top!

  10. The main reason the free market works is that most works done in self -interest ultimately work out for the better of the entire economy. Which is why even if people are helping others primarily for a tax cut, they are still helping others. So it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

  11. I think that this might be a good chance for Christians to show why they do what they do. Not everyone who are being this generous to the people in Dallas, but there may be more to their motives than just what can be seen. Those who expect just the government to help us in our time of need are so surprised when others do it because they aren’t used to the government helping out like that. You are totally right in saying that government officials do not have better natures in us; we all have that sin nature it depends on how we live with it.

  12. I have been think about why these companies do what they do a lot recently. Especially with the current situation in Texas. That cynical part of me seems to see their acts as publicity stunts and nothing more, yet in the same instance another part really wants to believe that they are genuine compassionate people who just want to help. I hope that it is the later, but I’m not that naive either. However when it comes down to it these people are being helped regardless of the motives behind those who do it, and that is what I think really matters right now.

  13. I wouldn’t rule out altogether the possibility that businesses are donating resources to Houston purely out of self-interest, but I wouldn’t assume it. It’s only natural for people to want to help when a disaster happens, like what happened in Houston, and businesses often have great ways to help, ways that individual people might not be able to do by themselves. Even if they are acting out of self-interest, they’re still helping.

  14. No matter what, donating money or resources to victims of natural disasters brings positive press for a company. However, the amount of attention drawn to the action can be controlled to a certain extent. Companies that are clearly ‘tooting their horn’ and making other pushes to grab the spotlight may have ulterior motives; companies that simply give are most likely just trying to help those in need. Like anything in life, it comes down to the heart issue. If the motive of the company is pure, that is all that matters.

    The correspondence between Christianity and charity is also overlooked far too often. Christian businessmen are seen as money grubbing neo-capitalists willing to do anything to bring in a few more bucks. In reality, Christians are one of the most generous and charitable people groups in America. Private donation should fund aid and relief efforts, not the government. Unfortunately, those stirring the ire of social media fail to understand that.

  15. It certainly starts to become a sticky subject when it comes to businesses helping communities in times of crisis for selfish gain. However, as stated, in this incident this was only a comment made with no evidence at all. With all this said there certainly different ways to look at issues as such. In a perfect world, all would be Christ Followers and all would respond this way simply out of compassion. Now in the case that a helpful act as such in Houston is with selfish motive, there are several ways to respond. While to some extent I think there is a reasonable amount of frustration that we should feel, I also feel that we can find some positive. I believe this to be one of the positive ways that our economy and society functions. In an incredibly basic sense the economy is run by demand, or even more simply what society wants. If what society wants is for the world to donate to the needy and seek to help one another, then I view that as a major win. Even if for the wrong motive it causes businesses to act similarly, then praise God for the companion of society and the influence it is having. Would it be better if it were pure motives? Of course. However, ultimately every situation should be one where we try to honor God and love others.

  16. I would say that it is a little of both, and government and merchants are the same in this. A good example of this was when everyone thought Obama was going to get rid of guns so the demand to buy guns, as well as the prices, skyrocketed. The gun stores jacked up the rates to buy a gun because everyone desired to get them at the time. Some gun stores barely, if at all raised their prices. People remembered the stores who didn’t raise their prices, so i go back to saying that I think it is a little of both.

  17. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, and felt it’s discussion was well balanced and sensible. It highlighted the fact that people will always hold different perspectives over issues and the actions of others, regardless if they’re for the great social good. And in a similar manner individuals and firms alike with carry different motives behind various decisions and actions; that too is a reality. However, as informative as this blog post was, I would’ve enjoyed more application. Knowing all this, what is the responsibility of Christians to act upon it? Or is there even any action required at all?

  18. I believe that this article tackles both of the sides of this topic. I agree that both of these sides are very flawed concerning the idea that everyone is always selfish and the idea that government workers are always more responsible and caring to the people. Everyone in this world is fallen and only by the grace of God do we help anyone in need. I believe in this case there is a incentive for the shop owners to help because of the publicity they could get, however it is also very possible they were acting out of the love in their hearts. I believe it is important to recognize what they did was good for the community and let God judge the heart.

  19. I personally do not see how people could make the argument that business owners act selfishly while the government is selfless and compassionate. I agree with your criticism about how we should not expect humans to become different in different settings. My dad used to be involved in local politics and I would go to a lot of events with him and interact with people who were either campaigning or held a position in the local government. In my experience, it did not seem like these people had a better nature at all. My perception was that for elected officials, everything is about getting more attention or getting that photo- op. If anything, this seems more selfish to me. They advocate for something that makes them appear to be compassionate, but are they really? Or is it just an act to gain favor with the public? Some businesses may help people in order to improve their reputation, but if this is true, then the actions of some government officials are no different.

  20. I do not think Houston businesses opening their doors is purely selfish because they are helping those in need of shelter and supplies. Both parties win in this situation – the victims of the hurricane get help and the businesses possibly gain better business in the future. Sure, they were wanting positive attention but at least they were helping those in need. On a side note, Joel Osteen did not immediately open his church to those in need of shelter in Houston and got plenty of media hate for it. Although he was not obligated to open his church to those in need, it would have been expected of a Christian to help those who cannot help themselves (Phil 2:4-8). So what is the right thing? Critics will talk no matter what the case is. I would not expect anyone without a relationship with Christ to act according to the Bible. In a perfect world, those who can give would without any reward.

  21. 1st: ” …that political though returned to…”
    You meant Political Thought?

    2nd: Could it be argued that Christian altruism is simply self-interested because God will reward such actions?

    3rd: I find it ironic that people would want, the same folks in charge of the DMV and the VA, to be in charge of disaster relief.

  22. Many people believe the free market and capitalism is evil and only is meant for those who deceive and lie to get to the top but what most people fail to recognize is that during events like hurricanes and natural disasters when stores jack up prices in stores its to protect from people that would buy up all of there inventory and scalp it. If a store raises its prices though then everyone would get a chance to buy supplies during a natural disaster.

  23. Part of being in a free market means that individuals have to make decisions that will benefit themselves. This is actually very good for the economy and balances it out. When natural disasters take place, one raises the price because he knows others are in need and are willing to pay a little extra, and also so he wouldn’t run out of inventory instantly. This isn’t price gouging but rather a man acting as he should in a free market.

  24. I don’t think general statements like this should be made by reporters without more information. Sure some of the business might be giving stuff away with a hope of return of their generosity later. In this case, it makes more sense for the business owners to be doing what they are doing because they have sympathy for the people affected and want to be a good neighbor to them.

  25. It is interesting to see that believers and non-believers step up and give generously when there is a time of need. It also makes sense that businesses would give away items to be kind, but also as a way to gain a positive reputation and potential customers. I personally do not think there is anything wrong for the companies who are displaying generosity to have an alternative motive because they are primarily showing generosity.

  26. Unfortunately, people can be motivated to do good primarily for their own benefit. The motivation to think only about one’s own needs and not about others’ is no doubt selfish; however, it seems difficult to deem the whole act of businesses’ giving away merchandise or opening up their buildings as bad. People may have different motives behind doing what they’re doing, but they are, at least in some way, helping others.

  27. People in general (specifically their motives and actions, in this case at least) are interesting. The actions that companies and government take during disaster relief usually hurt them in the short run but usually benefit them in the long run. Some people can see that and others cannot. Why people decide to help during disasters relief cannot easily be determined – I believe it’s bad form to admit that you’re helping so that you get positive publicity.

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