Self-less Giving and the Corporate Self

Self-less Giving and the Corporate Self May 8, 2015
The Little Alms Collector
The Little Alms Collector

We finally have empirical evidence that Jesus knew everything.  The son of god, of course, said, “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.”  Now we have sociological data supporting the contention that people who are more self-less are more charitable.

Only, the idea of self-less-ness that produces this data may not be the same thing as traditional Christian selflessness.

Daniel M. Bartels, Trevor Kvaren, and Shaun Nichols, in a paper published in a 2013 issue of Cognition (129: 392-403), begin with a speculation:

If one judges one’s current self to be only weakly connected to one’s future self, this should make one assign less weight to the interests of one’s future self; consequently the interests of others should take on a relatively higher weight in one’s decision making (393).

And, indeed, the data from their first study seems to support their conclusion that “as people regard themselves as less connected to the future self, they give more generously” (394).  So: Jesus confirmed by science.

But this business of thinking of oneself as “connected to the future self” is the sticking point.  Bartels’, et al., are not interested in the traditional Christian notion that a person makes the best use of his or her self by not privileging himself or herself over others.  Rather, when these scientists get to talking about “weak connection to one’s future self”, they’re wondering what happens with a person who doesn’t think of himself or herself as a self, at all.

A self, tradition tells us, is a self largely because it doesn’t change.  We have a sense of individual, personal identity that rests largely on the extent to which we feel connected to the individual of our past (through memory) and to the individual of our future (through imagination), and we tell ourselves that “we” existed in the past as so-and-so and will continue to exist in the future as so-and-so.

The empirical evidence seems to be that people are more generous who don’t think very strongly that they really are the people they were back then, nor that they are the people they will be ten years from now.  That’s quite a different point than we get from Jesus, who insisted that no one gets into heaven without being born again (of water and spirit).  That assertion, after all, depends on a concept of the self as a continuous entity across time.  It’s kinda like Vegas: what gets born again, stays born again.

No, says the empirical data, it’s not surrendering the created and everlasting self to others that makes a person generous, it’s not having a self at all that makes a person generous.  The concept of me—that there is any such thing as a me that is god-created, inviolable, and unchanging—makes us less loving and more stingy.

We all know that Mormonism is a Christian heresy, but at least its blasphemy got something right.  The grand idea of “eternal progression” that is fundamental to Mormonism might work against the created and everlasting self of traditional Christianity that cannot reach what this researcher will call a “steep grace aptitude”.  Mormonism’s traditional enough to affirm that we have individual selves, but Mormonism is also so apostate as to deny both that god created us and that we remain the same, ever, eternally-ly.  An identity that is not god-determined and is subject to ongoing and everlasting change could make Mormons much less self-contained than traditional Christians.

On the other hand, Mormonism has gotten awfully institutional, and, of late, the version of Mormonism that is the LDS corporation has become ruefully mean in its defense of its unchanging-ness.  Does the LDS church’s zealotry for a continuity of identity from the past into the future have implications on the character of its present?

Bartels, et al., conclude, “when people come to believe that the self changes significantly, they are more generous with others.”

Does the empirical data tell us that a corporation will behave more charitably when it accepts that it has changed and that it will change, significantly?

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