Superrational Self-Interest: Defining a Term


crucifixion, sacrificeI recently wrote a three-part series on the topic of selfless self-interestedness — a concept I have also referred to as superrational self-interest.

As far as I know, the term is new to the realms of theology and political philosophy. Thus, I thought it might be worthwhile to create a post in which I define it a bit more clearly and explain why I think such a term is necessary. This post will also provide a central hub from which the three more extensive posts can be accessed and read as a whole.

The three-part introduction is as follows:

Upon hearing the term “selfless self-interestedness” I suspect many will dismiss it as an unproductive oxymoron. The rest, I hope, will ask “Why?”

Why, for instance, would someone who believes so adamantly in the power of self-sacrifice want to promote something called “self-interest”? Why, if sacrifice is the ultimate goal, would we even waste our time considering the self or the individual? Even if one actually believes that sacrificial acts are indeed in our self-interest, what’s the point of calling it “sacrifice” in the first place?

The first and most fundamental reason is relatively simple: Jesus himself promotes both and often talks about each in terms of the other. Perhaps the clearest example of this is Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” If this doesn’t provoke a wrestling match between the notions of self-interest and sacrifice, I don’t know what does.

The second and more practical answer is that we as humans tend to structure our most important discussions around the relationship between the self and the other. Unfortunately, such discussions tend to opt for one or the other, rather than looking beyond each as as an isolated entity. As I outline in the posts above, Christian obedience — or Christian self-interest — is neither me-centered nor them-centered. Instead, it is God-centered, and only through this transcendent orientation can we hope to achieve superrational (i.e. truly or holistically rational) decisionmaking.

Superrational self-interest, therefore, is most simply obedience to God. It is based on neither isolated individualism nor blurry collectivism. Rather, it promotes an ultimate alignment of the individual to God, through which an alignment toward the whole of the community will naturally follow. Such an alignment, I believe, will result in far more benefits than mere human “rationality” could ever achieve — both for ourselves and our communities. Only when we allow God to transform our own dreams and aspirations into his will our output to others be maximized in its productivity.

There will certainly be more discussion to follow, as well as much more clarification and refining of this term, but I think these posts provide a crucial foundation for understanding the integrated relationship between the individual and the community, and most importantly, their respective relationships to God.

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