You may well recall the famous scene in Les Miserables in which Jean Valjean comes clean in public to take the place of another who was in fact on trial instead of himself (Valjean). The scene poses the moral theory called altruism, that is, that one does what is good for others in a disinterested manner. It might be said that altruism is considered by many to be the highest form of moral action; heroic, in fact, when one poses that giving one’s life for others is the ultimate act when especially not connected to hope for reward after death. (Some think this kind of altruism is hardwired into us biologically — even if the hardwiring is a fiction that benefits human survival.)
Do you see altruism, a kind of naturalistic altruism or social altruism, as the major ethical posture of secularized Western cultures?
Others today contend no one does anything solely for the sake of others but instead all moral action springs from self-interest and may then be seen as selfishness. Thus, the debate is between altruism and egoism, between morality and self-interest, between other-ness and selfishness.
And one more theory needs to be put into the mix.
Jerry Walls, in Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory contends that the doctrines of heaven and hell are vital to an account of ultimate reality and that this makes best sense of moral obligation and what he calls “deeply persuasive moral motivation.”
When faced with a moral action — here he discusses Sidgwick’s famous Dualism of Practical Reason — ought we to choose what benefits ourselves or what benefits others (family, friends, community, nation)? But one wonders then if there is a God, choosing what benefits others also always benefits the individual. Moral duty may seem morally intuitive but will it be rewarded? Or does it fall flat into a social contribution by death? American culture is described in such a way that one can genuinely wonder if self-interest is not the ruling ground of action instead of morality or altruism.
Walls does not think we need to sever altruism from self-interest. He thinks the naturalistic basis for altruism is lacking. He proposes a heaven and hell basis for ethical behavior, and he also shows that such a view solves the dilemma of egoism vs. altruism.
Christian ethics are based in the Trinity and that we are made in God’s image and thus fit for relations with God in God’s way of relating. Doing good for the sake of others acts the way the Trinity acts: thus, altruism is Trinity-like. Sacrifice is how the Trinity acts in a fallen world. Thus, it is a foretaste of heaven; to act in egoism is foretaste, then, of hell. (Precisely what we will see in the second post on this blog today.)
Now the conclusion: belief in heaven, in effect, dissolves the dilemma between egoism and altruism. Acting for others is what makes a person most happy. This is not self-ishness but self-interest. Altruism with no hope of reward is not a heaven-based form of altruism. Resurrection, he shows, is the ground of Christian action.
Ultimate motivation comes from being loved by the ultimate lover and returning that love.