Monday, December 12, 2005


Some of the people I hung out with in college were genuine liberatrians, a rare and often maligned breed. There are different types of libertarains, of course, but generally speaking, they are often sympathetic to progressive Catholic social teaching of the past two centuries, being concerned with the dignity of the average person and the tendency of power to corrupt.

On the other hand, while much of the thrust of contemporary libertarianism comes from Catholics (indeed, often Traditionalist Catholics), there are also many remnants of the classical liberals who were lost to the Democratic Party when it lurched from its roots in what was called liberalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into its present platform which is barely other than socialism. These leftover liberals tend to be of a more atheist bent. One college acquaintance of mine, knowing that I came from a religious background, challenged me on the idea of altruism. Is there such a thing? he asked. After all, if we are rewarded by God for our sacrifices, aren't we acting out of self-interest in the end? Here is the kernel of 'enlightened self-interest' so dear to market economists and educated philanthropists during the decades following the Enlightenment.

The problem, I have come to believe, is in the very concept of altruism. One familiar with classical and medieval philosophy will recognize that it wasn't much of a concern for them. Why did altruism become an ethical category in the Enlightenment? The Enlightenment, following Descartes and others, recognized the first state of man to be as an individual. This was a radical break with the classical tradition that saw man as a social being. We cannot know what is good for ourselves or anyone else for that matter, without knowing what is good for the whole. The idea that doing good for a neighbor should somehow be conscientiously 'selfless' seems abstruse in this context.

Let me conclude this too-short and cursory glance at the problem with the observation that what we do for God automatically is for the good, not only of ourselves, but for everyone. There is no contradiction between our good and someone else's good, if we truly understand that the Good is the Glory of God. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross was not altruistic nor selfish. In obedience to His Father, He selflessly gave His life, and in turn was glorified as King. But not only that, all humankind from Adam to the end of time, were benefitted by this act. When we act for the glory of God, who created all things good, why should we be limited in the good we expect to come of it?


David F. Buysse said...

Father Peter:

Altruism is hardly a Christian concept. "Altruisme" was a term popularized by Auguste Comte beginning around 1830. Comte intended that his new science of "sociologie" would lead to a "relgion of humanity" which would replace Christianity. We are called to love, mercy, justice - but not altruism.


Prior Peter, OSB said...

Thank you for connecting Comte's name to "altruisme"; I should have figured he was involved...


This blog is published with ecclesiastical approval.

If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
Locations of visitors to this page