Is Selfishness What Sin Is?

Moral government theology recognises holiness to be reducible to a single principle, the principle of love. Love is defined as choosing the highest good of all, for its own sake. Good is seen to be the experience of happiness, satisfaction, which sentient beings are capable of experiencing. This good is understood to be valuable in itself, something which every moral being ought to choose for its own sake. The rightness or wrongness of any action or course of action is determined by its tendency to promote or hinder the highest happiness of all beings capable of it.(1) Different levels of happiness are possible, depending on the capacities for enjoyment of different sentient beings. Lower levels of animal life experience less enjoyment than higher levels, just as human’s capacity for satisfaction is higher again due to higher levels of consciousness. Angels may be on a similar plane to men. God must be on the highest level, being infinitely above his creatures in his capacities for pleasure and satisfaction. These differing degrees of capacity for happiness create corresponding degrees of value. When a choice arises between promoting the happiness of higher or lower forms of life, the choice is always the higher due to the greater capacity for happiness. These perceptions are direct judgments our minds make when they conceive the different capacities for happiness.

Sin As Self-Love

Most moral government advocates would also reduce sin to a single principle, the principle of selfishness. This is usually understood as a commitment to value one’s own highest happiness as one’s supreme purpose, in opposition to the demands of perceived moral obligation to value everyone’s happiness. One’s own happiness is an acceptable pursuit, when it is pursued as a part of a commitment to promote all good. Such a commitment would also include the pursuit of one’s own happiness, but never as the primary objective. Charles Finney defines sin this way:

Disobedience to God’s law must consist in the choice of self-gratification as an end. In other words, it must consist essentially in committing the will, and through the will committing the whole being, to the indulgence of self-love, as the supreme and ultimate end of life. This is selfishness. In other words, it is seeking to gratify the desire of personal good, in a manner prohibited by the law of God.(2)

Elsewhere he defines self-love as

. . . a constitutional dread of misery and love of happiness. God created us to love ourselves without being selfish. The constitutional desire of happiness and dread of misery is not itself sinful. . . . But, when the will consents . . . to a prohibited indulgence, then self-love becomes sinful.(3)

Finney says that when the preaching of the gospel appeals to men’s hopes for heaven and fears of hell, it never appeals to selfishness, but to self-love, the natural interest men have in their own well being. The attention of a self-centred person cannot be obtained except by motives regarding self. But such motives are not the final basis for decision when conversion takes place.

When the Bible appeals to hopes and fears, then even the minds of selfish people are prepared for the enlightened and powerful urgings of conscience.

The constitutional principle of self-love does not ultimately determine the mind’s choice of obedience to God. When, under the combined influence of hope, fear, and conscience, the mind has been led to the full consideration of the claims of God . . . The decision of the will is not made mainly because you hope to be saved or fear to be damned, but because to act thus is . . . reasonable and right and just. This is virtuous decision. This is a change of heart.(4)

This analysis seems convincing. If sin is a commitment to self-love as one’s ultimate end, the appeals of conscience and right are being deliberately ignored so this pursuit can be carried out. A person cannot be saved by appealing to his selfishness, getting him to be holy so he will go to heaven. But the threat of heaven and hell does draw his attention, since he is primarily concerned with his own well being. Once his attention is drawn, he can be shown the wrongness of his action and his conscience can be awakened to his true obligations. This cannot happen until he considers the claims of truth. Thus, while initially he gives his attention solely through his own interests, he soon begins to feel the demands of moral obligation, which condemn his focus on himself. Ultimately he sees this is the wrong course and forsakes his commitment solely to his own good, choosing instead the good of all. He now is saved, not by desiring heaven or fearing hell for himself, but by choosing to value what is truly valuable for its own sake. In doing so he does obtain as much of his own good as respecting the good of others will allow. This good does require he sacrifice some good he would otherwise have experienced.

The Problem

But there are problems with this analysis and definition of sin as a commitment to self-love, seeking one’s own highest good at the expense of the good of all. These are pointed out by James Fairchild in his Moral Philosophy.

The doctrine is . . . at fault when viewed in the light of the life and consciousness of the evil-doer himself. That he is not pursuing his own good as his end, is manifest upon the slightest consideration. One of the notorious facts of sin is that it is utterly opposed to the interests of the sinner. In its most promising and successful forms it is confessedly a sacrifice of greater interests to the less. . . . He seeks some temporary pleasure, and forgoes the higher joys of a virtuous and benevolent life. Even if we confine our attention to material, worldly good, the lower forms of satisfaction, we find few who have sufficient self-control to surrender an insignificant present enjoyment to a greater future good. . . . He sees, when he gives attention to his case, as those around him see, that he is his own worst enemy.(5)

Fairchild’s description of the common characteristics of sin is precise. Most sin is indulgence despite the conviction it is not for one’s good. People are not even pretending to act for their own highest good most times they sin. They are giving in to impulse, with the present awareness that this is not for their own good. It is choosing a lesser good because of the present gratification it will give. This is not self-love. Fairchild therefore denies sin is selfishness, in its classical definition as concern for one’s own interests. But he does concede

The only sense in which the sinner lives for himself is that he regards not his rational self, but his psychical self, the animal, or rather sentient nature, made up of the desires and passions. Here he finds his motives to action, and thus lives a life of impulse and not of reason. The name by which Paul designates this state is not selfishness, but carnal-mindedness – caring for the flesh, a term which expresses with philosophic accuracy the nature of the action. By the flesh he means not merely the bodily appetites, but the aggregate of the desires and passions, of which the bodily appetites are the most conspicuous.(6)

Is Some Sin Self-Love?

While Fairchild must be correct that most sin is not a focus on one’s own highest good at the expense of the good of all, but is a commitment to hedonistic pleasure,(7) surely this does not mean no sin can be reduced to these terms? For even if sin is a commitment to desires, as Fairchild suggests, it seems possible a person could commit herself to the desire of self-love and live for it, rather than the good of all. This seems to be the origin of the moral position known as egoism. Egoists recognise that a person’s happiness cannot be obtained by living impulsively, that commitment to the indulgence of whatever desire seeks gratification at any moment will lead only to one’s own destruction. Man must live rationally to be happy, and must be moderate in his gratification of desires. Happiness is “such a regulation of the desires and passions as leads to . . . the golden mean between excessive indulgence and the suppression of desire.”(8)

This position is argued strongly by Ayn Rand in The Virtue Of Selfishness.

This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism . . . To declare, as the ethical hedonists do, that “the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure” is to declare that “the proper value is whatever you happen to value” – which is an act of intellectual and philosophical abdication, an act which merely proclaims the futility of ethics and invites all men to play it deuces wild.(9)


The maintenance of life and the pursuit of happiness are not two separate issues. To hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose are two aspects of the same achievement. Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one’s life; psychologically its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness.(10)

The above would seem to suggest that a person could choose his own happiness as his goal, and select the desired means of obtaining this goal. This would require he not live impulsively, but rationally. This intention does not appear to require a commitment to the happiness of all. If this conclusion is accurate, Fairchild would be correct in denying self-love is the fundamental principle behind all sin, commitment to desire would constitute this principle, but it could be modified by a commitment to the particular desire for personal happiness, which would lead to rational action rather than impulsive action. Just as one sinner may indulge one desire more than others, and adapt his conduct to the promotion of this desire, the egoist indulges the desire for happiness in opposition to the obligation to choose all happiness, and directs his conduct to this end. Does such a conclusion hold?

Living With Yourself

Fairchild denies it holds because an egoist in pursuit of his own highest happiness must choose the conduct that will achieve this goal. Happiness is a goal that cannot be achieved without living up to moral obligation. To be as happy as possible, a person must do what he understands to be right, and this would involve choosing the happiness of all, not just his own happiness.

The evil-doer, then, is pursuing, as his supreme end, his own good. Pursuing this end, he must bring all his resources into service, and call upon his intelligence to devise ways and means to promote his own highest happiness, . . . He will not sacrifice a greater good in the future to a present indulgence . . . If he learns . . . that benevolence, virtue, is the truest source of satisfaction, he will give himself with all his soul to an honest and virtuous life; and if he does not do this, it will be because he is ignorant of the fact that blessedness comes with virtue. Thus, selfishness must, in the end, annihilate itself. In fact, it is only from ignorance that it can ever exist. It is from the beginning only a blunder. The truly selfish man, in the sense above defined, a man seeking his own highest good, needs only to learn the good which comes from benevolence, and he becomes virtuous at once, because his good requires it. If it be said that he cannot become virtuous for such a reason, I answer, then he cannot seek his own highest good as his supreme end, because that end requires him to become benevolent; and if he refuses he relinquishes his end – ceases to pursue his highest good. We have reached the conclusion, then, that it is impossible for a finite moral being to pursue his own highest good, or his own good at all, as his supreme end. In such a pursuit he must take his intelligence as his guide, otherwise he does not pursue the end proposed at all; and one of the first facts which reason offers to him is that benevolence is essential to happiness, and benevolence is the choice of all good as the supreme end. Thus he ceases to pursue his own good as supreme, and relinquishes his end in obedience to that end itself – a contradiction which is inevitable upon the theory that sin is the pursuit of one’s own good.(11)

Again Fairchild is most convincing. How could a person be committed to his own highest good, in opposition to the good of all, when his highest good requires he choose the good of all? Positions like Rand’s are only possible through a failure to make the same kind of distinction regarding the kinds of happiness possible, which Rand expects the hedonists to make regarding her position. Rand accuses hedonists of treating man like an animal, with no rational and higher capacities for enjoyment. She correctly points out that the enjoyment possible to the hedonist is minimal and “sub-human” because it ignores the rational capacities of man. Man is able to maximise his pleasures by being reasonable. Yet she is guilty of the same failure regarding man’s moral capacities. While moderation increases man’s total enjoyment and brings greater happiness through increased overall pleasures and satisfaction from functioning rationally, moderation alone ignores the even deeper spiritual moral values which come from the satisfaction of living for what is truly valuable, the good of all. As long as a person is violating his conscience by failing to live up to his moral obligations, he cannot be satisfied. Rand’s position is the pursuit of a higher happiness than the hedonist, but not the highest happiness possible to man. Is the pursuit of one’s own happiness as an ultimate goal truly impracticable? If it is impracticable, how are egoists to be categorised?

What If I Was Alone?

One attempt to revive the concept might be to envision a person living in total isolation from other individual beings with capacity for happiness. A Robinson Crusoe who always lived on his island, rather than having been stranded, would be the picture, although we would have to make him a vegetarian with no animals on the island, and he will have to make do without Friday. He has a desire for his happiness and he chooses to live for this. There are no other sentient beings in existence that he is aware of, so he does not find himself required to live for some other end. Everything he does is to promote his good. He does this because he has chosen this over other desires that would require him to sacrifice his good. He is not being benevolent, he is being selfish, living by the desire for personal happiness.

Even this scenario cannot work. Although self-love seems not in this case to come into conflict with loving others, since no others exist (as far as he is aware), his living by self-love simply because he wants to is impossible. For if he chose his desire for happiness as his ultimate purpose, he would immediately recognise that the fact he desires his happiness is not a sufficient reason to live for it. He must realise that his happiness is valuable in itself, and ought to be chosen for its own sake. Living impulsively is not a sufficient reason for living, even if the desire is for something valuable. There cannot actually be a desire except for some good. The reason to live for happiness is because it is most valuable. Thus, his choice to live by his desire for happiness would still lead him to realise that he could not be happy living for this reason. He could only be happy if he valued his happiness and chose it for this reason. But this would be to live for it because it was right, not only because he desired it. Hence, the desire for happiness could not be his ultimate intention. Desire for happiness can only be chosen in a way consistent with moral obligation. In addition to this, although he is unaware of others, he still would have the concept of the possibility of others and would be required to choose their good, on the supposition they existed, along with his own. He could not choose his own good alone.

More Of A Lesser Good?

The attempt just described to avoid the contradiction Fairchild suggests seeks to make the problem one of the existence of others. Even if it were successful it would not explain the existence of egoism in our world since others do exist and egoism is an argument for the pursuit of personal happiness as opposed to the happiness of all. The second attempt seeks to attack the conclusion that a person’s highest happiness is obtained through moral conduct. While it may be true that a position like Rand’s fails to obtain personal moral approval of one’s conscience, perhaps the higher accumulation of goods and pleasures obtained on the lower level would outweigh the happiness lost through violated conscience so that the aggregate happiness is greater. We can certainly see how putting our own good ahead of others in individual situations would accumulate more goods to ourselves.

A good is the satisfaction of some particular desire. If I am being benevolent, I will sacrifice what I might otherwise have taken, if my only concern was my desire. Clearly, if a person functioned consistently in this way he would obtain more goods than others. Over a lifetime, it is conceivable he would obtain so much good for himself, while being careful also to be moderate so as not to reduce through excess his own capacity for enjoyment, as to far outweigh the loss of personal satisfaction he would have had from his conscience approving him for the right conduct of appropriate acts of self sacrifice. While virtue would add to his happiness, it is only one contributing factor to his total enjoyment and satisfaction. Another major contributor is the desires and goods he is accumulating by sacrificing the rights of others. Could this not outweigh moral considerations and still make it possible to pursue his own highest good at the expense of the good of all?

Quantity And Quality

The fallacies of this argument are two-fold. First, every act of violation of obligation would carry with it a corresponding pang of conscience and loss of moral approval. Even if conscience became seared so the negative response was lacking, each violation would also represent a loss of moral satisfaction that had been possible if the right act had been chosen. Let us assume for the time being that the goods of moral self-approval would not exceed in value the goods obtained through the wrong satisfaction of desire (it is difficult to conceive them being of lesser value). It still is impossible to conceive a quantitative difference between desires satisfied and obligation violated that would ever be large enough to outweigh the satisfaction to be had from living morally. At the very least each lost moral good from self-approval would equal each good gained through violation of obligation. Since conscience only becomes seared through time, the disapproval of conscience would affect many acts of wrong in addition to the failure of goods from moral self-approval, robbing many obtained goods of their effective value initially. This would result, over the span of an individual life, of less good through wrong accumulation of illegitimately satisfied desires.

Second, the argument fails even if the quantity of non-moral happiness was incredibly larger than the moral satisfaction lost, due to the qualitative difference between moral satisfaction and the satisfaction of a simple desire. This difference is immense. John Stuart Mill expressed this perception when he said “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”.(12) This difference is seen in the fact that men perceive it consistent with their own highest happiness to sacrifice their lives (and consequently further happiness) for a higher cause like the good of country, and so forth. It is perceived that the failure to meet this moral obligation to sacrifice would make one unable to obtain happiness from continuance in lesser satisfaction. Better to die for the good cause and have the satisfaction of knowing you have done so even if it cannot be enjoyed further, than live with the dissatisfaction of knowing you chose the lesser good. Considerations of an afterlife would of course change the implications of such action, but do not seem necessary in most people’s minds to justify such action.(13)

These attempts do not avoid Fairchild’s contradiction. It does not seem possible someone could seek his own highest happiness at the expense of the good of all. As Fairchild says, the only way someone could do this is if he did not recognize his good was tied in to the good of all in this way. The desire for happiness might be pursued initially in this way, but it would not be able to be carried through. As soon as the necessary means of this happiness was seen, the pursuit would be forsaken and benevolence would become the chosen course.

Being Good To Be Happy

An odd implication of this is that it suggests a person could initially seek his own happiness exclusively, and become benevolent for selfish reasons. This would be choosing benevolence because it will make one happy, rather than because it is right. This seems to be the position presented by Nathaniel Taylor in Essays On The Means Of Regeneration. Taylor suggests that a moral being always chooses in light of his own self interest. What distinguishes a sinner from a saint is the method by which he seeks to satisfy this desire. The sinner seeks his own happiness through the world and its desires. The saint chooses God and benevolence. Conversion comes when a person is brought to see that God and benevolence is better suited to promote one’s good, than the world.

. . . self-love or desire of happiness, is the primary cause or reason of all acts of preference or choice which fix supremely on any object. . . This must respect some one object, God or mammon, as the chief good, or as an object of supreme affection. . . . the being constituted with a capacity for happiness desires to be happy; and knowing that he is capable of deriving happiness from different objects, considers from which the greatest happiness may be derived, and as in this respect he judges or estimates their relative value, so he chooses or prefers the one or the other as his chief good. While this must be the process by which a moral being forms his first moral preference, substantially the same process is indispensable to a change of this preference. The change involves . . . those acts of considering and comparing the sources of happiness, which are dictated by the desire of happiness or self-love.(14)

In initial fairness to Taylor, it must be noted that his definition of the desire for happiness may not be a desire for one’s highest happiness, but could be simply a desire for pleasure and aversion to pain. If this is the case, one could choose between God and the world as sources of pleasure, since they both can bring pleasure, and since the highest happiness is not what is aimed at. No doubt all sin is aiming at some pleasure to be had. But even here, Fairchild’s criticism must stand if the desire for pleasure itself is considered the ultimate aim of sinners, for a person who is living for pleasure would seek to maximise it, and would be forced ultimately to benevolence as the highest source of pleasure. Taylor’s picture of conversion seems to be a person coming to this realisation of the level of personal happiness to be found in God, as opposed to the world. He does not think this realisation necessitates becoming benevolent, however, but he does not explain how a person’s being motivated by self-love would lead him to reject what he sees is the higher source of happiness. Besides this inconsistent presentation, Taylor is in error assuming that all moral action is motivated by desire, specifically the desire to be happy, failing to recognise the influence of principle and obligation. He also fails to understand benevolence. Fairchild reminds us

We feel and know that benevolence is vitiated when it looks, for a motive, beyond the good itself, to some satisfaction to be derived from the action. We call such an action prudence or shrewdness, not benevolence. It is true, beyond doubt, that there is such satisfaction to be derived from benevolence – a satisfaction higher than any other; but when that satisfaction is the motive, it fails at once, because benevolence has failed.(15)

Ultimately Taylor’s distinction between saints and sinners is not a moral distinction. The difference is not one of motive, but of knowledge. Again

The theory fails to furnish ground for the difference between the good and the bad. Their subjective motive is the same – desire of happiness. They differ in the means they use. But in the pursuit of an end, every man uses the means which commend themselves to his judgment, and can use no other; else he surrenders his end. The difference between the virtuous and the sinful, then, must be a difference of judgment, and sin a mistake. The true difference is that the good man follows his convictions, and chooses the good of all; the bad man follows his desires, and neglects the good of all.(16)

The above conclusion is unavoidable unless Taylor can explain how a sinner could come to see God is of higher value to his happiness than the world and still reject God. It is difficult to imagine how any such explanation would not result in a denial that the desire for happiness is what ultimately motivates moral agents. No doubt Taylor is correct that desire for happiness, in the sense of some limited pleasure, is what motivates sinners. This is in opposition to the demands of principle and moral obligation. It cannot be a commitment to one’s highest happiness, but must be a choice of a perceived lesser good. A person could not become benevolent for such reasons.

Cultivated Hedonism

Fairchild’s description of Taylor’s view of conversion as an attempt to be benevolent to be happy does provide us with a way to classify the phenomenon of egoism. Egoism is “prudence or shrewdness.” The egoist recognises the higher levels of happiness attainable through moderation and is more “reasonable” in his pursuit of the gratification of desire. Hedonistic sinners live solely by immediate impulse and sacrifice the level of happiness attainable through discipline in favour of immediate gratification.

In the cultivated man the case is entirely different. The coarser passions are to a great extent subdued. His refined desires fasten on objects in the distant future; it may be even in a life hereafter; and his action assumes the intelligent, moderated forms which result from this wider view. Yet the principle of action is the same in every evil-doer; desire, impulse controls; the intelligence is subservient and not dominant.(17)

No doubt there are varying degrees of excess and moderation people function under. The main point is, wherever the motive is desire, irrespective of the claims of benevolence, this is sin and cannot be the pursuit of one’s own highest happiness. It cannot be living by self-love. One must forsake one’s happiness to live by immediate impulse. One must do so to live moderately but ignore moral obligation. The reason such wrong action is possible is because some limited happiness is available through each of these pursuits. We have seen this is probably why Taylor feels sin can be a choice to gratify the desire for happiness. He is defining happiness on a lower level than one’s highest happiness. It is right (though not morally right since animals have no moral consciousness) for a lower animal to live by impulse because this is where its only available good can be found. If it were possible for a being to have the capacity for satisfaction of desires and the capacity to reason the best means to maximise such desires, yet not have the ability to recognise the direct value of happiness in itself,(18) it would be proper to live for its own good solely. This would be all it would know. Such action would again be amoral since it would have no developed moral sense. Man’s reason does not provide such a middle ground. Man is conscious of the ability to maximise happiness through the same reason that shows him why he should maximise happiness. This reason tells him happiness should be chosen for its own sake, not solely because it will maximise his own happiness. Described loosely we could say the hedonist lives by animal desire; the egoist “subjugates”(19) his rational powers to enhance his enjoyment of animal and intellectual desires; the moral man lives by his reason.

Gratification of desire is always good, “even a duty,”(20) as long as it is a moderate gratification that does not sacrifice our own good, or anyone else’s. We are not required to give evidence it will do good to all in order to justify our own enjoyment. Our own enjoyment is part of why we should gratify desires, since it will contribute to our own happiness, which is valuable for its own sake. The only time such gratification would be wrong is if it would not serve our long term good, which is more valuable than a short term good, or would be harmful to someone else’s highest happiness.

The Desire For Personal Happiness

But what of the desire for happiness itself? Unlike Taylor’s assertion that all moral beings are ultimately motivated by the desire for happiness, stemming from a confusion of one’s highest happiness with lower forms of satisfaction, Fairchild’s analysis suggests a person cannot choose to gratify the desire for personal happiness, where happiness is defined as one’s highest good. Other desires terminate on some short-term gratification, which can be chosen in spite of moral obligation. The glutton chooses food when it is not for his good. The sexually immoral person chooses to feed his sexual desire, when it hurts others or him. If a person becomes aware of his desire for happiness, he discovers he cannot satisfy his desire, for to choose happiness for this reason is to fail to achieve it. He can only choose his own happiness as the indirect result of choosing happiness itself, wherever it can occur, as valuable. This choice results in personal happiness and the satisfaction of the desire for happiness, but this satisfaction comes precisely because he chooses happiness for its own sake, rather than because he desires it. The moral person does choose to gratify various personal desires as a means to his own happiness, but even here they are not chosen solely because they will make him happy, but because he values happiness and chooses its existence wherever it may be had. His own happiness requires him to satisfy these desires. He is only too aware that if he began to seek these desires solely for his own happiness, he would cease to be happy.

This paradox is the bridge by which God reaches sinful people, just as Finney (and Taylor) suggests. The gospel does make its appeal to self-love, to show men they cannot find life any other way but by losing their lives for something greater. When a person is committed to gratifying desires, he is aware his own good is sacrificed in the process. But the limited good he is seeking can become a springboard for calling him to higher good. Even before the gospel brings men to benevolence, many people become egoists, cultured hedonists, in this way. They feel the call to a higher good. In the gospel the threat of hell, and promise of heaven, act on a mind committed to impulse by “speaking its language.” The threat of pain to a person committed to immediate pleasure will draw his attention. The prudence of the egoist also is attracted to consideration of his long-term satisfaction both in this life and the life to come. This success is because in both cases satisfied desire is the motivating factor. This nature of the gospel call is what Taylor recognises when he suggests people are drawn from seeking their own happiness in the world to seeking it in God. They are actually called from seeking lower goods to seeking the highest good for themselves. His failure was in mistaking their initial commitment to desire as a commitment to seek their own highest good (though he may have meant merely seeking pleasure), and in mistaking the desire for personal happiness as the final motive of salvation.

Works Salvation

The gospel does bring the desire for personal happiness to the front of the sinner’s attention. All other desires become secondary to the primary desire to be happy. It is at this point that religion or conscience motivates many people.(21) Because they want to be happy, and happiness cannot be had without being holy, they begin to try to be holy to be happy. Works salvation in many of its forms results from people who are committed to desire, trying to satisfy the desire for personal happiness. This cannot succeed because desire for personal happiness cannot be gratified directly. It can only be gratified indirectly, by choosing the moral course one should choose. To choose this course for reason of the gratification is not to choose it. Thus, the desire for happiness becomes the pinnacle of desire for a person committed to gratifying desire, which brings him up short against a barrier that cannot be crossed, which shows him the error of his chosen way of living. It brings him face to face with the wrongness of living by desire, and the rightness of benevolence. It shows him even a person committed to desire for happiness, rather than truth, cannot be happy. A person committed to desire, following it up the scale of more valuable desires, finally comes face to face with the chief personal desire of his existence, which tells him to live for desire is wrong and cannot even bring him the greatest satisfaction of desire. This can only be fulfilled by living right.

To Find Life We Must Lose It

This is what Jesus meant when he said a person who sought to save his life would lose it, but whoever would lose his life for Christ’s sake would find it. We cannot be happy by seeking to be happy. We can only by happy by living for what is really valuable. Living by desire, irrespective of moral obligation is sin. This cannot produce happiness because we cannot be happy with ourselves, living this way. Holiness requires that desire cease to be our motivating influence. Reason must become our guide, rather than the slave we use to satisfy desires. The reason to do this is because it is right, not because it will make us happy. Reason tells us happiness is valuable in itself, and ought to be chosen for its own sake, wherever it can be had. The reason this will make us happy is because it is right. Even a person committed to living by desire cannot fail to see this. Desire is intended to be the servant of happiness, not to usurp its place.

Fairchild denies sin can be reduced to a single principle, like holiness can. Holiness is a commitment to the good of all, including our own good. “In sinful action we find no general comprehensive end, . . . In so far as there can be said to be a chosen end, it changes with the changing desires.”(22) Hence, Fairchild denies sin is selfishness. Does this conclusion stand?

Is Sin Selfishness?

It is undeniable that Fairchild succeeds in showing sin cannot be a commitment to self-love, to one’s own interests. In this definition of selfishness, sin cannot be called selfishness. But it is also clear that selfishness is not always defined in these terms. Ayn Rand struggles to “save” this classical definition from its more popular use.

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.(23)

We have seen “concern for one’s own interests” cannot be carried through as one’s ultimate end since such concern can only find satisfaction in seeking something else, the good of all. What Rand considers self-interest is actually a more cultivated form of the same impulsiveness she abhors in the popular definition. The definition she gives us seems to fit what we have concluded sin is. It is a commitment to desire, against the dictates of reason. We saw earlier that Fairchild himself conceded this could be called selfishness, as an attention to one’s sentient self rather than one’s rational self. This seems to fit the popular definition of the term. In addition to this concession Fairchild also makes reference in his work to a particular sin known as selfishness.

Selfishness, as a special vice, is subjection of the will to the desire of good, involving an over-estimate of one’s own importance and a disregard of the equal rights of others. When good is to be distributed, benevolence asks only its proper share. Selfishness craves more, is greedy of good, and careless of others.(24)

This is a unique paragraph whose meaning is hard to ascertain in Fairchild’s treatise. The question seems to hinge on his meaning of the term “good” as the object of desire. If he means good in the sense of happiness, he contradicts himself. We have seen that not only is it impossible for all sin to be reduced to a choice of one’s own highest good, but one does not seem able to choose one’s own good at all, because of a desire for it. The only other possible meaning is that Fairchild refers here to the choice of some individual limited good that is desired, at the expense of the requirements of benevolence. If this is so, his sin of selfishness is descriptive of all sins. In every case of gratification of impulse, what is chosen is something desired, i.e. some limited good, against the dictates of reason. Thus selfishness, if this is Fairchild’s meaning, is not a particular sin but is a name for all sin. The impossibility of choosing good in the sense of choosing one’s own happiness must mean some limited good is chosen. But this is choosing it because it is desired, on impulse.

Self Interest And Personal Desires

The confusion for moral government advocates on this point seems to stem from imprecision on Finney’s part in defining sin. We saw at the beginning of our study Finney referred to sin as commitment to self-love.

The quotation continues as follows:

It consists in choosing self-gratification as an end . . . In other words still . . . in the consecration of the heart and life to the gratification of the constitutional and artificial desires . . . Or, once more . . . in being governed by impulses of the sensibility, instead of being governed by the law of God, as it lies revealed in the reason.(25)

Finney gives us three definitions of sin, not one. He gives them all the label of selfishness. The three are 1) self-love (which he also calls self-gratification), 2) consecration to constitutional and artificial desires, and 3) being governed by impulses of the sensibility rather than reason. The last two seem equivalent to each other, the same way Finney equates self-gratification with self-love. The term self-gratification could be used to mean either self-love or living by desire. Fairchild suggests the first.

If it be said that sin is the choice of self-gratification as an end, the doctrine is not materially changed. The pursuit of self-gratification as an end must put the agent upon a careful course of inquiry as to the joys within his reach, or that he may hope to attain. Contemplated in this view, the only view in which self-gratification can be pursued as an end, it is the same as the pursuit of one’s own happiness.(26)

The label could also be used as descriptive of a commitment to live by desire, gratify it impulsively. The main point to be noted is Finney sees no reason not to equate all three definitions. Fairchild’s analysis forces us to conclude Finney is wrong here. He does agree with Fairchild’s definition of sin being commitment to desire and impulse, though his imprecision in including self-love (and self-gratification) as equivalent to this is apparent. As Ayn Rand shows us, this does not mean the term selfishness is an inappropriate label for sinful conduct. The popular definition is just this. From this standpoint it seems acceptable to use the term selfishness when referring to sin. To the extent that holiness and sin are seen as commitments to opposite methods of determining action, reason and impulse, they can also be considered opposite principles of action. Where Fairchild’s claim of the asymmetry of holiness and sin as opposites does seem correct is in the actual end being chosen by the agent. In holiness, happiness is the end chosen and all action is to promote this end. In sin, no single desire is chosen, but the changing desires determine what is chosen in any instance of sin. The only common denominator is the failure to choose the only legitimate end of action, happiness. One time it is food, another it is sex, still another intellectual stimulation, or even the satisfaction of the dictates of conscience regarding a particular external act. Sometimes one desire may become prevalent and be chosen more consistently than others. What is common to all actions, if sinful, is that these are a choice to obtain some limited good against the demands of reason to be benevolent. In a holy being all desires are gratified with reference to this end.

Selfishness Is What Sin Is

Provided we are clear in defining our terms, selfishness is a good word with which to label sin. Imprecision may lead us to give an incorrect impression of what people are called to by the gospel. It is important to appeal to a person’s desire for happiness initially, and to press him on this point until he sees clearly the impossibility of satisfying this desire without being benevolent. Through this process we can show him the inappropriateness of his commitment to live by the dictates of impulse rather than reason and moral obligation. We can show him all desire is only valuable because it produces happiness, and happiness is valuable and ought to be chosen for what it is, not for what it will give us. When a person sees this, he sees the wrongness of his commitment and changes for this reason, rather than because he desires it to make him happy. In doing so, he makes himself happy because he is living as he ought to live. This is salvation.


1. A more thorough examination of moral theory and the definition of happiness is needed to determine how the morality of individual actions is determined. The statement given here, common to moral government advocates, is extremely problematic when examined in detail. A further essay will describe this problem and suggest an alternate view which will preserve the central tenets of moral government, but require major overhaul of moral government’s ethical moorings and perceptions of obligations. It will challenge the maximization concept inherent in the term “highest happiness,” which suggests the highest degree of valuable experience is obligatory, and replace it with a moderation concept pointing to the highest kind of valuable experience as that which is obligatory, while the degree of such gratification will allow of variation and not require maximization. Although the term “highest happiness” could still be used to describe this obligation to pursue the qualitatively higher form of happiness (which is done in the present essay when this subject is broached), we will prefer the term “total happiness” or “well being” to depict that what morality calls us to is to satisfy the needs of our nature totally in the sense of not leaving out a part of what we are. The present essay was largely composed prior to this distinction being clearly perceived by the author, and so the common moral government “maximization” terminology is maintained, though the portion of the argument based on qualitative differences is not entirely consistent with it. The essence of the argument is not greatly affected by this as Fairchild’s arguments concerning the definition of sin stand even though his accepted moral theory must be modified. His statements that fulfilling our own desires when they do not contradict the good of all would be allowable, “even a duty,” indicate the maximization principle was in question even in his own moral intuitions. Clearly maximization would not allow us to decide whether we would fulfill a legitimate desire we have. We must do so if it is for the best. Yet we usually do not feel we have to do so. This general impression should make us question the inherent correctness of the “highest happiness” principle in its maximization form. Its initial plausibility will become apparent when we have examined the correct position. The present essay stands valid despite these minor difficulties.
2. 1851, pg. 243.
3. Principles Of Revival, pg. 68.
4. Ibid., pg. 69.
5. Fairchild, pg. 36-37.
6. Ibid., pg. 38.
7. Hedonism need not be perceived solely as a commitment to sensual pleasure, but would include higher forms of pleasure, including intellectual pleasure. Epicurius was more interested in the latter than the former.
8. Ibid., pg.103.
9. Rand. pg. 29-30.
10. Ibid., pg. 29.
11. Fairchild, pg. 35-35.
12. John Stuart Mill, The English Philosophers From Bacon To Mill, Edwin A. Burtt, ed., (New York, Random House, 1939), pg. 902.
13. This common example would seem to answer James Hamilton’s contention in A Comparison Of The Moral Theory Of Charles Finney And Asa Mahan that the view happiness includes moral self approval is abnormal. “Finney similarly incorporates the idea of happiness into the idea of virtue in such a manner that while they remain distinct conceptually, they are actually inseparable. In other words, it is impossible for a man who is not virtuous to be happy. For Finney, then, the knave who thinks he is happy is actually mistaken about what happiness really is. Whatever else may be said of this view, it does seem to be contrary to ordinary usage.” James Edward Hamilton, A Comparison Of The Moral Theories Of Charles Finney And Asa Mahan (Ann Arbor, University Microfilms, 1972), pg. 118-119. Charles Murray suggests a similar idea to Finney. “If someone who is a drug addict says that . . . remaining in a permanent drugged state . . . is a valid way of being happy . . . he is wrong. He is not happy, whatever he may think. He has surrendered reason. . . an indispensable element that makes him human.” Charles Murray, In Pursuit Of Happiness And Good Government (New York, Simon And Schuster, 1988), pg. 45. The reason people can talk about being happy without being holy is because there are differing degrees of happiness, sentient enjoyment. The key point is that moral obligation recognizes the highest forms of happiness as of greater value. The greatest of these includes self approval from virtuous action, as well as the lower forms of happiness. However happiness is defined, “lasting and justified satisfaction with one’s life as a whole” or “a whole life enriched by the cumulative possession of all the real goods that every human being needs and by the satisfaction of those individual wants that result in obtaining apparent goods that are innocuous,” it is always susceptible to this varying perception of value relative to capacities for enjoyment. Murray, pg. 45, Mortimer Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985), pg. 134.
14. Nathaniel W. Taylor, Essays On The Means Of Regeneration (New Haven, Baldwin And Teadway, Printers, 1829), pg. 21.
15. Fairchild, pg. 110.
16. Ibid., pg. 111.
17. Ibid., pg. 33.
18. Some higher animals may have this capacity, as their actions seem to flow from having “learned” how to obtain things like food, and so forth, rather than strict instinctual behavior. This does not seem developed to a level of rationality seen in man. Darwin must be right in saying “that any animal . . . would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well, or nearly as well, developed as in man.” Cited by Richard Swinburne in The Evolution Of The Soul (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1986), pg. 224.
19. Ibid., pg. 32.
20. Ibid., pg. 32.
21. Fairchild distinguishes between people who are conscientious, i.e. benevolent, and people who follow conscience or “right.” “It is a mistake to call one conscientious who has a strong instinct of the right, and yields to it as an impulse. It is a very plausible form of impulsive action, but does not involve benevolence, the only genuine rectitude.” Fairchild, pg. 81.
22. Fairchild, pg. 33.
23. Rand, pg. vii.
24. Fairchild, pg. 52.
25. 1851, pg. 243.
26. Fairchild, pg. 37.

Copyright 2019 Kel Good. This publication may be copied freely as long as no alteration is made to the text. For more information write: Kel Good via What I Believe This Week (

Leave a Reply