Jonathan Edwards on Private Interest vs. the Public Good

“As it is with selfishness, or when a man is governed by a regard to his own private interest, independent of regard to the public good, such a temper disposes a man to act the part of an enemy to the public; or in all those cases wherein such things are presented to his view that suit his personal appetites or private inclinations but are inconsistent with the good of the public.  On which account a selfish, contracted, narrow spirit is generally abhorred, and is esteemed base and sordid.  But if a man’s affection takes in half a dozen more, and his regards extend so far beyond his own single person as to take in his children and family; or if it reaches further still, to a larger circle, but falls infinitely short of the universal system, and is exclusive of Being in general, his private affection exposes him to the same thing, viz. to pursue the interest of its particular object in opposition to general existence.”

Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of Virtue, 399-400.

I always like it when I can find quotes from theologians which whom I strongly disagree in many ways, but who nonetheless prove to be acutely insightful into certain other issues about which we can find agreement.  Jonathan Edwards is just one such theologian.  As I tried to tried to show in a previous post, Edwards argues that a properly Christian concern and outlook on society must be one that regards the public good before any private interest — even if that interest extends to one’s own family and friends.  For support, Edwards grounds the above statement in the work and character of Christ and a doctrine of God’s goodness that commands self-sacrificial love — two theological pillars on which I too tried to rely.  To pursue private interest in opposition to the good of general existence, in other words, is thoroughly unChristian.  By saying this, however, I am certainly not suggesting that one political party or paradigm is necessarily inherently concerned with private interest to the detriment of the common or public good.  Rather, I mean to call attention to this distinction in order to identify what might be a proper litmus test when considering our political decision-making and participation.

At the same time, it can hardly be overemphasized that this distinction must transcend the purview of electoral politics.  For example, it might be cheaper for me to go to Walmart and buy whatever I need there instead of at a smaller, local establishment, or even a regionally based corporate business.  To stop the discerning process at this point though would be to settle the purchase-preference question solely on account of my private interest.  Now, someone might retort by saying that Walmart does serves everyone better by making products more affordable.  Yes, well, that would be an example of extending my private interest to a broader circle just as Edwards acknowledges — but one that is not nearly broad enough.  See, Walmart might appear to be helping lower-income families at first glance, but the more people we take into consideration across socioeconomic and national boundaries, the less defensible this argument becomes:

1.  Walmart price gouges competitors and thereby oligopolizes and monopolizes the marketplace, which works against the equilibrium and perfect competition assumptions of efficient market theory — a theory upon which so much of our public and foreign policy is mistakenly based (at the international level, the effects are much worse, but I will touch on this in another post).

2.  Walmart might not be providing fair compensation and benefits for its most dispensable, low-wage workers — precisely in order to keep its prices low.  And this would not be a big problem save for the fact that Walmart is possibly the largest private employer in the world.

3. In comparison to its concern for the cost of its wholesale goods from suppliers, Walmart probably does not take into serious consideration where its products are made, the conditions in which those products are produced, and the well-being of the workers who produced them when deciding who it should buy from.

These factors change things and reveal the extent to which economic appearances can be very deceiving.  The main reason for this example is not to criticize Walmart — though there is a need and a place for that — so much as to simply highlight how important it is for Christians to take this private vs. public distinction seriously in all areas of life if we wish to faithfully love our neighbor.

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