What Griffiths Said: Self-Interest, Rightly Understood

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In the wake of the domestic credit crisis in America, the subsequent global economic downturn, and the various attempts to diagnose and correct the problems with today's business culture, politicians and pundits alike have been casting about for villains. Perhaps no one has filled that public role more prominently in recent months than the high-profile investment bank, Goldman Sachs. As The Times' John Arlidge wrote last November, "Goldman's reputation is suddenly as toxic as the credit default swaps and other inexplicably exotic financial instruments it used to buy with glee."

The firm was the target of a Saturday Night Live feature that included the advice to remove the words "gold" and "sack" from its name to improve a tarnished corporate image. Matthew Bishop, U.S. business editor at The Economist and co-author of The Road from Ruin: How to Revive Capitalism and Put America Back on Top, has said that "Goldman Sachs is a great firm - as good as you get on Wall Street and that's the problem." Things turned even worse for Goldman Sachs when the firm's leaders attempted to portray the bank's practices in a moral, even religious, light. In Arlidge's piece, Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein claimed that in his role at the bank he was doing "God's work."

At a panel discussion on morality and economics hosted at London's St. John's Cathedral late last year, Lord Brian Griffiths, a Goldman Sachs advisor and vice chairman, reportedly said, "The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest." This statement caused outcry not only among progressives, for whom Goldman Sachs is a favorite foil, but also from religious adherents across the political spectrum. At the Sojourners blog, Chuck Gutenson mocks Griffiths statement as "clever exegesis." Joseph Bottum, editor at First Things, expressed his skepticism of Griffiths' statement, observing (correctly) that Griffiths is "just not going to get much traction for the idea when he uses this phrasing." In its January 2010 print issue, Christianity Today included Griffith's quote in its "Quotation Marks" sidebar. Res ipsa loquitur; what we have here by representatives of Goldman Sachs is a craven attempt to get theological cover for very base human greed.

Recognizing Self-Interest

But a closer, more charitable look at Griffiths' comments reveals some things that casual dismissal does not. First, to Bottum's point regarding the ineffectiveness of Griffith's phrasing, it bears noting that the coverage of the panel discussion seems to have inaccurately reported Griffith's statement. According to the transcripts (PDF), Griffiths actually said not that Jesus' command was an "endorsement" of self-interest, but rather that it was an acknowledgment of self-interest as a motivating factor in human behavior. Said Griffiths, "I think that the injunction of Jesus to love our neighbours as ourselves is a recognition of self-interest" (emphasis added). This is a somewhat different claim than the one attributed to him in various news reports.

Second, the proximate context of Griffiths remark is a distinction he was making between self-interest (a broader category) and selfishness (a narrower category). Indeed, Griffiths was trying to communicate this distinction in dialogue with comments from another panelist, Adair Turner, Chair of Britain's Financial Services Authority, who introduced Adam Smith into the discussion. Griffiths says he was trying to "be just a little less academic," and notes that Smith's point "is that self-interested actions, they may sometimes be selfish, produce good results but I don't think of self-interest as something bad."

The theological background to Griffiths' claim is the broad Augustinian understanding of rightly ordered loves, the so-called ordo amoris. We are to love ourselves; self-love is recognized, acknowledged, and even endorsed, when understood correctly. But this self-love must be rightly ordered relative to other loves, the highest of which is God. From this perspective, Jesus' injunction to "love your neighbor as yourself" links the right level of love for ourselves with the level of love for other people. We are, all of us, created in God's image and bear equal dignity, and we therefore have equal claims to be loved. Self-love, self-regard, and self-interest are to be ordinate, rightly ordered relative to other loves, regards, and interests.

At this level, Griffiths' "clever exegesis" is nothing novel, and only the inaccurate citation of Jesus' instruction as an "endorsement" rather than a "recognition" makes it appear controversial. As C. S. Lewis writes, reflecting especially on the Gospels, "If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith."

Prosperity and Generosity

But perhaps more importantly, the attention paid to these passing remarks by Griffiths misses his larger point, which he spent much more time discussing at the event. This larger point could be characterized thusly: "To me as a Christian, I think that we should be committed not only to, as I said, laying the basis for prosperity; but also being seen to serve our society in all sorts of ways, and I think the hallmark of the Christian lifestyle is generosity." We have here an emphasis on giving and charity rather than selfishness and self-seeking.

The picture we get from looking at the larger context of the panel discussion and Griffiths' comments is not of a greedy banker seeking unwarranted justification in the Scriptures, but of a serious and committed Christian, attempting to wend his way through the difficult trials of a life called to discipleship. In his final thoughts to the audience, Griffiths says, "I think we all have to ask ourselves – in whatever institution we work – what is your moral compass and what is my moral compass? There will always come a time when you and I will have to stand up and be counted, and sometimes that is very difficult, can be very embarrassing and can be very painful – but I think that is what we have to do, and this evening has confirmed for me the need to examine my own moral compass more and more."

This is another way of saying that we need to learn more and more to properly relate love of ourselves and our interests to that of our fellow human beings, and subordinate all of these loves to God himself. I can think of no better way to summarize the life of Christian discipleship.