“Enlightened Selfishness”

Have you heard about “enlightened selfishness?” It’s the atheistic equivalent of living by God-given moral absolutes. It seems to be the rage on the NYU campus. When I ask the students if they believe in moral absolutes like “genocide and torturing babies is wrong” or even “justice and injustice,” they usually deny that there is a moral reality independent from ourselves, but also claim that they don’t need this type of morality. Why not? Their answer usually goes something like this:

If I act according to my best interests, it will also be in the best interests of others. It feels good to love others. I don’t need a God or a holy book to tell me this!

This echoes the atheistic Humanist Manifesto II:

How are these principles [of equality, freedom, etc.] to be justified? They are not derived from a divine or natural law nor do they have a special metaphysical [beyond the material world] status. They are rules offered to govern how we shall behave. They can be justified only by reference to their results.

Indeed, there is some truth to this claim. Moral living, for whatever reason, usually brings positive results. God has wired us for moral truth, and when we act in concert with our conscience and do what is right, we usually feel good about it. When we don’t and hurt others, we feel like garbage. However, this rationale isn’t enough for us to live a consistent moral life. Living for results alone present many problems:

1. If there are no moral absolutes and there is a drug that can dull our conscience, there is no reason to listen to our conscience. It becomes no more than an accidental chemical-electrical response.

2. If there are no moral absolutes, life can have no more intrinsic purpose than getting pleasurable results. This can only lead to morbid self-absorption: “Am I enjoying myself enough?”

3. If we just regard results, we might choose to condemn an innocent man if it provides positive results for the nation. All sorts of abominations can be justified with this reasoning.

4. If we only do good when it feels good or provides benefits, our “goodness” will eventually shrivel up. Heroism requires paying a steep price for doing what is right. Sometimes going against our conscience can provide the best results (as far as we can assess them.)

5. We can’t condemn the sexual predator for a crime. All we can say is that his behavior didn’t yield positive results. But according to whom? He might have been very pleased with the results, al least until he was caught. What charge then do we bring against him? That his selfishness wasn’t “enlightened” enough?

6. Everything becomes relative to who gets results or pleasure out of what. Without an absolute standard, we can’t bring any charge against a Hitler. He was merely doing what he thought would bring good results.

7. We have no rationale to resist our feelings and lusts. If it gives me relief to take revenge, there is nothing to say that this is wrong.

8. There is no basis to resolve conflict. If one party’s best results do not coincide with the second party, conflict will arise. When a wife catches her husband cheating on her, he might simply respond that his affair feels right to him and that she has to deal with her own feelings. Without an appeal to absolute truth, the only “resolution” left is either force or emotional separation.

9. There is no basis for moral persuasion if a person feels good doing evil. They already know how to get the results they want.

10. The prospect of getting good results isn’t enough to resist temptation.

11. This will force us to lead a schizoid life—our mind tells us that “enlightened selfishness” is adequate, while our conscience tells us that there are moral absolutes.

Denying moral truth is a sophisticated way of denying God, but we pay a price for denial. The focus upon results alone is like a relationship built on benefits alone, whose emptiness eventually becomes shamefully apparent.

Daniel Mann

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