The Heart of Wesley’s Social Ethic: Holistic Altruism

Matthew Hill

Recent research demonstrates that there is a connection between human nature, which rests somewhere between egoism and altruism, and accountability groups, which have the potential to engender generosity and altruism. John Wesley, in particular, utilized a unique approach in communicating and transmitting his social ethic. One of the primary ways Wesley shaped this social ethic was by organizing “bands” and “classes,” where members were accountable for maintaining a high, biblical and ethical standard in their daily lives. In regard to the social context of his time, these bands and classes, through the use of accountability, served to shape a more generous social ethic.

Until recently, people thought that human genetics had predisposed humans to either egoism or altruism. Altruism, however, has been a puzzling phenomenon among biologists and other natural scientists and cannot merely be explained away on the basis of genetics. More recent studies show that the biological “make up” of human beings places us more to the center of the selfish/selfless spectrum. Intentional community, then, has the potential to push human beings who are genetically inclined toward selfish and altruistic inclinations to favor either the former or the latter. It was this kind of purposeful community that was at the heart of the early Methodist movement. Those who dwell within community learn traits and qualities that are characteristic of altruism. This was true of Wesley’s bands and classes, which together shaped a communal lifestyle of altruism towards the poor. The following essay explores how Wesley’s approach of organizing bands and classes benefited from this human condition.

Are We Naturally Selfish or Selfless?

In addressing the question of our natural inclinations, E.O. Wilson builds on a question that Darwin raised many years ago: “How can altruism, which by definition reduces personal fitness, possibly evolve by natural selection?” (cf. C. Cunningham, Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong [Eerdmans, 2010], 40). This is a powerful question. If one believes that altruism is, in fact, utterly selfless, then it does not fit within the framework of human evolution. It has not always been easy to find a firm conclusion about altruistic behavior in this conversational milieu.

Yet, even if one is a Darwinist it seems possible to preserve some semblance of an altruistic society. It is simply a straw man argument to suggest that all creatures that are altruistic are bound negatively to impact gene fitness. There are ways of creating fitness other than by means of violence, fraud, and selfishness. Despite the plausible alternatives, critics of neo-Darwinism suggest that this position advances the idea that only hypocrites and idiots are altruists and that all motivation is, instead, derived from self-interest (cf. S.R.L. Clark, Biology and Christian Ethics [Cambridge University Press, 2000], 63-64). This conclusion seems a bit simplistic, however.

In her critique of both E.O. Wilson and R. Dawkins, M. Midgley claims that the “we are born selfish” comments (cf., e.g., E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis [Harvard University Press, 1975], 3) put forth by sociobiologists are a tricky attempt at diffusing the argument through gross oversimplification (see her book, Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears [Methuen, 1985], 144). Still, Wilson splits his view of altruism into his own colloquial definitions of “hard-core” and “soft-core” altruism. The former is generous (for a sociobiologist), and implies that there might in fact be room for genuine moral altruism. This category, in which for him includes Mother Theresa, does not stem from a motivation of desire for personal reward or punishment. The latter presupposes egoistically that one might be “cheerfully subordinate” to her or his “biological imperatives” (cf. S.J. Pope, The Evolution of Altruism and the Ordering of Love [Georgetown University Press, 1994], 111). It seems, though, that when Wilson is looking at altruistic behavior even under this divided lens, he tends to meander back and forth between the possibility of genuine and selfless altruism over and against functional quasi-altruistic actions that are somehow subconsciously hedonistic.

Take, for example, a study examined in F.B.M. de Waal’s The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society [Harmony, 2009]), which connects human behavior to primate behavior and displays the connection between our innate capacities for altruism. In this study, a capuchin monkey reaches through an armhole to choose between two differently marked tokens, while another monkey, physically separated from the first, looks on. The tokens can be exchanged for food but in different ways. One token feeds both monkeys and the other token feeds only the chooser. Capuchins typically prefer the more prosocial token (194).

So, is this an altruistic action, since it involves no reciprocation and offers no benefit to the altruistic agent? If so, does that altruistic action contradict the idea of “being born selfish?” These actions are found in numerous organisms and different environments. The contrast is not between biology and environment. Sociobiology is merely evolutionary biological explanations applied to the level of not just physical traits but also behavioral traits. Sociobiologists would say that there is such a thing as Darwinian altruism (e.g., dying for the hive, etc.). Through this, they might try to explain a lot of egoism and altruism on the biological level, but are unable to do so entirely or completely due to the existence of either non-kin or non-reciprocating altruism.

Other natural phenomena pose a difficult challenge to naturalistic explanations of altruism. A study done at Taï National Park demonstrated how chimpanzees take care of those in the group with whom they purposefully live. When chimpanzees in the group were injured by a leopard, other chimpanzees licked the former’s wounds to remove dirt and waved flies away from infected areas. The latter were also mindful of the injured members by slowing down the travel speed in order to keep them part of the group. This purposeful group behavior, even when it puts the lives of the healthy in danger, makes sense when looking at the group benefit. However, merely because group members function more efficiently and safely as a whole does not mean there is not an element of self-limitation in order to remain in the group. Opportunities persist for the chimpanzees to “cut their losses,” especially when given the danger of caring for the wounded.

The idea of altruism, as well as empathy and fairness, has benefited from new research in the subject area. For example, another observation from The Age of Empathy talks about how if someone gives two monkeys vastly different rewards for the same task, the one who gets the lesser reward at some point simply refuses to perform. In our own species, too, individuals may reject some income if they feel the distribution is unfair. Yet logic sets forth that since any income should beat none at all, this means that both monkeys and people fail to follow the “profit principle” or gene fitness to the letter. By campaigning against unfairness, their behavior supports both the claim that incentives matter and that there is a “natural dislike for injustice” (5). Thus, there are numerous examples of both genetic selfishness as well as behavioral altruism.

Overall, there is a diminishing approach to kin preference and reciprocal altruism. Sociobiology frequently ignores the union of affections that show the mutuality of friendship in contrast to the mere reciprocity of two self-interested individuals (cf. Pope, Evolution of Altruism, 119). This complicated “problem” is seen in contemporary examples of those who choose not to bear offspring for philosophical reasons (such as many priests and couples who want to raise adopted children, etc.). Here, individuals might express altruism, but a positive environment for gene fitness is not the end goal either consciously or subconsciously. In short, merely because one might benefit from an altruistic action does not necessarily make it an egoistic action. Making this claim would be to oversimplify one’s explanation of altruism.

For many sociobiological scholars, “loving thy neighbor” is only a means to an end. If it is profitable to “love thy neighbor as thy self,” then altruism is worth the risk. Conscience, then, for biologists like Richard Alexander is a “still small voice that tells us how far we can go in service to our own interests without incurring intolerable risks” (The Biology of Moral Systems [Aldine Transaction, 1987], 102). Those intolerable risks may, in fact, be too high for the agent and their altruism would be truncated or nonexistent. After all, genetic fitness and fostering an environment where one can be fruitful is the end desire. Holmes Rolston reacted to comments such as these by expressing that the Good Samaritan did not think of himself as increasing the likely number of his offspring because “he did not even know he had genes 2000 years ago” (cf. P. Clayton and J. Schloss, Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspective [Eerdmans, 2004], 242).

John Wesley Capitalizes on a Natural Phenomenon

Although altruism is the product of a particular community, it calls for a limitless concern for all human beings. Christians, then, cultivate a way of life through hospitality and charity that naturally leads to helping others (cf. C.D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition [Eerdmans, 1999], 35). In Luke 6:33, Jesus claims: “If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (NRSV). Here, there is a call to rise above the simple genetic reciprocity that is engraved on our DNA. Given the human condition that rests somewhere between both extremes of selfishness and selflessness, John Wesley capitalized on a natural phenomenon. To say that Wesley knew about Darwinian evolution would be anachronistic, yet he intuitively seemed to sense the basic lot of humankind. With his intense drive to find ways both to care for the poor and to dwell in community with them, Wesley constructed a vehicle by which to help alleviate their plight as well as encourage them towards any natural inclinations of altruism. For this, he instituted his famous bands and classes.

Before his Aldersgate conversion, Wesley undoubtedly noticed his own propensity to waver back and forth in spiritual and practical disciplines. He formed a small group of close individuals to help him stay steadfast in his faith. He was quick to point out that, although the Christian faith is personal, it is not private. Christianity is rather a “social religion,” and to relegate it to a solitary faith without accountability “is indeed to destroy it” (cf. K.J. Collins, The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley’s Theology [Abingdon, 1997], 61-62). The early group Wesley belonged to with his brother, Charles, called the “Holy Club,” was focused not only on cultivating the general knowledge and inward piety of those in the Club, but looked outward as well. It was here that Wesley first recognized the social work of caring for the poor to be an inseparable part of Christian living (cf. M. Marquardt, John Wesley’s Social Ethics: Praxis and Principles [Abingdon, 1992], 23). In fact, he was one of the first to see not only the poor as recipients of alms and charity, but to help them engage in acts of charity themselves by encouraging them to visit the sick, imprisoned, and otherwise burdened people in their community (27). In this way, whether one had means or not, altruism was being fostered within these early classes and bands.

Wesley was not interested in working solely with people who already practiced altruism. Rather, he was more inclined to help those on the fringes of society move to a lifestyle of habitual altruism. In his attempt to transition his people from a position of spiritual ambiguity to not only a saving grace, but also a changing grace, Wesley took pains to demonstrate that he was not simply reorganizing those who were already Christians. Noting that he did not poach parishioners from the Anglican Church, Collins points out how Wesley remarked that those in his societies were composed of mainly “barefaced heathens” (Scripture Way of Salvation, 220 n85). It is clear that Wesley saw the potential for a person to turn from a former life to life within a new kind of society with new kinds of practices.

Up to this point, as Stephen D. Long mentions in John Wesley’s Moral Theology: The Quest for God and Goodness [Abingdon, 2005]), religious movements were not focused on fostering the natural inclinations of persons. At this point in time, they were divorcing practical ethics from theology, a mistake commonly made in the eighteenth century, with which Wesley would have been all too familiar with (203). Instead, Wesley takes the approach that chooses to tackle social issues combined with theology in his organized classes and bands in order to maintain a relationship between theology and praxis. Without neglecting other practical reasons for assembling bands and classes, Wesley had observed the lack of organization in George Whitefield’s ministry, despite his eloquent preaching, and understood that the organization of groups focused on accountability would be the lifeblood to a movement of revival (cf. Collins, Scripture Way of Salvation, 160).

As an example, Wesley encouraged them to develop selfless action as part of their lifestyle. As R. Maddox’s Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Abingdon, 1994) mentions, Wesley’s driving economic theme — both in and outside his classes and bands — was fourfold: (1) ultimately, everything belongs to God; (2) resources are placed in our care at God’s discretion; (3) God wants us to use those resources to meet our needs (food, clothing, etc.) and then to meet the needs of others; and (4) using those resources on luxuries for ourselves while those around us remain in need is robbing God. This coincides with Wesley’s maxim in his sermon, “The Use of Money,” to earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can (244).

John Wesley’s passion to see real change in the lifestyles of his people was important to him. With those who were ungenerous, he felt a strong need to encourage modifications in their behavior. One can easily track this “encouragement” in his sermons through his use of fiery language when focusing on the seriousness of shifting one’s disposition toward altruism and Christian love. And to those who seemed to be predisposed toward altruism, Wesley nurtured such predispositions through regular meetings, as accountability had proven to be necessary to maintain changed behavior.

As human nature leaves open the possibility for a person to shift along the egoism/altruism spectrum, Wesley used this to his advantage to promote the holistic altruism that was at the heart of his social ethic. When persons lived in these purposeful communities, they exhibited the distinguishing virtue of altruism. One advantage of living in the post-Darwinian era is that we can understand that the human condition is not totally depraved to egoism, and by following Wesley’s example, the human condition can take Christian generosity to even higher levels.

Posted Apr 01, 2012