Acton Commentary: Sacrifice and Self-Interest
Religion & Liberty Online

Acton Commentary: Sacrifice and Self-Interest

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at the relationship between sacrifice and self-interest. One of the common complaints against market economies is that they foster selfishness.

But as Paul Heyne points out, it is crucially important to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness: “Many of the most eminent and sophisticated theorists in the economics profession make no effort to distinguish between self-interest and selfishness or between rational behavior and greedy behavior.” The failure to make such a distinction leads to some pretty strange conclusions about the motivations behind human behavior. If you want to know why people work, just look at what they do with the money they earn.

To this end, I also highlight the perspective of Herman Bavinck, who describes the rhythmic relationship between the spheres of family and work:

Through the family God motivates us to work, inspiring, encouraging, and empowering us to work. Through this labor he equips us to survive not for the sake of satisfying our lusts but for the sake of providing for our family before God and with honor, and also to extend the hand of Christian compassion to the poor.

We go out to work to provide for our families, and we return home from work to enjoy and share the fruits of our labors. We do this daily, in fact. There is a deeply intimate connection here in the cycle between home and work, the dual aspects of the cultural mandate: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and exercise dominion over it.

Bavinck also notes that one of the reasons we labor productively is to generate a surplus to share with those who cannot work, whether in the case of those (like our children) who are too young, or those who are infirm or otherwise disabled. This corresponds nicely with one of the insights found in the Heidelberg Catechism in which it details the posture of gratitude that we are to take towards God for his grace. The exposition of the Eighth Commandment thus explores a person’s duty to “work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”

In this way, as Michael Novak observed in his landmark work of thirty years ago, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, “The real interests of individuals, furthermore, are seldom merely self-regarding. To most persons, their families mean more than their own interests; they frequently subordinate the latter to the former.” The idea that free enterprise “may be accused of institutionalizing selfishness and greed” is thus only valid “on the premise that individuals are so depraved that they never make any other choice.” We need not look far, however, to see that in real life in the context of the free society, people often voluntarily and gratuitously sacrifice their own narrow interests for the good of others. That aspect of our life together, which makes social life bearable if not merely possible, is something to truly be grateful for this holiday season.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.