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Putting Others First: A Christian Ideal?

T. Ryan Byerly


Philosopher T. Ryan Byerly examines the Christian conception of humility as putting others first in conversation with other conceptions of humility.

Professor of Philosophy, The University of Sheffield
June 13, 2019

When you are deciding what to do, should you treat your own interests as more important than others’ interests, others’ interests as more important than your own, or your own and others’ interests as equally important? Should you put self before others, others before self, or self and others on an equal playing field? I suspect that these questions get at the heart of many peoples’ moral dilemmas. Christians may have a unique approach to answering them.

The Christian Ideal of Putting Others First

Certain texts in the New Testament seem to encourage putting others first. This is perhaps most striking in the central text of moral instruction offered in the book of Philippians. There we read: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4, NIV). A straightforward reading of the text would suggest that we are to value others above ourselves by looking to others’ interests in a way that is superior to the way we look to our own interests. When it comes to how we look after our own and others’ interests, we are to put others ahead of ourselves. Putting others first in this way seems to be, to the author of Philippians, part and parcel of the Christian virtue of humility.

Contemporary biblical scholarship on Philippians largely confirms this interpretation. For example, John Reumann writes that the passage teaches that “Others, not we, have priority” (329).1 Gordon Fee concludes that the passage is concerned with how we are to consider others, by “caring for them, in our putting them and their needs ahead of our own” (189).2 Sydney Park, in a book-length study of submission in Philippians, writes that “the chief aspect in the submission… is the primacy of others over and above, and possible at risk of the self” (129).3 And perhaps most strikingly, Peter O’Brien writes that the term tapeinophrosune (translated “humility”) “denotes other person-centeredness” (182).4

Nor is Philippians 2:3-4 an isolated proof text for such humble others-centeredness. As Karl Barth once put it, this text represents “the heart of the Pauline ethic” (42).5 And indeed we find direct textual parallels to Philippians 2:3-4 in 1 Corinthians 10:24 and Romans 12:10. Other interpreters have found thematic parallels between the Philippians text and the teaching about discipleship in Mark 8:31-10:45, where Jesus stresses that his disciples should put others first and self last. Gerald Hawthorne further connects Jesus’ teaching about discipleship in Mark and the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2:5-11 to Jesus’ own way of life as dramatically illustrated in the foot-washing narrative of John 13. He writes:

The Johannine account is an acted parable to summarize the essence of Jesus’ teaching: ‘Whoever wants to be great among you must be everybody’s slave’ (Mark 10:43-44), while the Philippians text is a hymn to illustrate powerfully Paul’s teaching, which at this point is identical with that of Jesus: humble, self-sacrificing service to one another done in love is a must for a Christian disciple. (79)6

Putting Others First and Contemporary Virtue Theory

If putting others first is a must for the Christian disciple, there are many further questions we might like to have answered about this distinctive moral ideal. How exactly should the ideal be understood? How is others-centeredness of this sort related to other virtues, such as humility, generosity, or love? And, perhaps most pressingly, what reason is there to think that being others-centered in this way would be valuable in the first place?

These are precisely the kinds of questions that contemporary virtue theorists are best equipped to help answer. Virtue theory is an interdisciplinary field, drawing heavily upon philosophy and psychology, in order to address questions about the nature, function, and value of character traits. In recent years, virtue theorists have produced voluminous work on specific character traits, such as gratitude, forgivingness, honesty, and perseverance. In fact, there has been a recent surge of interest in the virtue of humility, including much work that purports to engage with humility as it is characterized in the book of Philippians. One might have expected, then, that we would find virtue theorists engaging with the Christian ideal of putting others first as if this were a characteristic expression of humility, if not humility itself. Sadly, this has not been the case.

Conceptions of humility that have dominated among virtue theorists have instead focused on how a person is oriented toward her own features, or how she is oriented toward the way others are related toward her features. For example, some accounts of humility focus on how a person is oriented toward her valuable features, proposing that the humble person will underestimate,7 not-overestimate,8 or be unimpressed with these.9 Other accounts focus on how a person is oriented toward her faults or limitations, proposing that the humble person will be aware of them and own up to them.10 Still others focus on how a person is oriented toward the way in which others are related to her features, suggesting that the humble person will be unconcerned to be well-regarded by others11 or will be disposed to give others due credit for their role in her accomplishments.12

To be sure, these conceptions of humility may be related to the general tendency to put others first in interesting ways. A person who tends to put others first may thereby tend to be more concerned to accurately estimate others’ valuable features than she is to accurately estimate her own valuable features. Or, she might be more concerned that others be regarded well than that she herself is regarded well. Still, none of the conceptions of humility identified by contemporary virtue theorists is identical to the tendency to put others first. There remains great scope, then, for virtue theorists to engage with questions about the nature, function, and value of the sort of others-centeredness that appears to be central to the ethical teaching of Philippians. Investigating these questions may yield a distinctive Christian contribution to virtue theoretic reflection about fundamental questions of the moral life.

Putting Others First and Contemporary Psychology

In contrast to contemporary virtue theorists, contemporary psychologists have shown somewhat more interest in studying features more closely resembling Pauline others-centeredness. But the results of their studies do not speak with a uniformly positive voice about putting others first. In fact, many of the relevant studies appear to reveal worrisome connections between putting others first and negative outcomes.

In one study, Helgeson and Fritz examined a construct they called “unmitigated communion” using a self-report scale with items that participants would either agree or disagree with. The scale included items such as “I always place the needs of others above my own.” A similar study by Jack and Dill focused on the related construct of “silencing the self,” using items such as “caring means putting the other person’s needs in front of my own.” In each case, high scores on the scales were predictive of depression in women.

Similarly, worrying findings have been reported by psychologists studying self-sacrificial orientations. Marks and colleagues developed the Composite Codependency Scale, which included a self-sacrifice subscale with items such as “I often put the needs of others ahead of my own” and “I always put the needs of my family before my own needs.” They found that, as a whole, their scale was able to discriminate between attendants of Codependents Anonymous and the general population, and was able to predict known factors of codependency, such as family dysfunction, stress, and emotional expressivity.

On the other hand, there are psychological studies of other constructs similar to Pauline others-centeredness with more positive results. For example, Van Lange and colleagues found that willingness to sacrifice was positively correlated with relationship endurance and satisfaction. Frimer and colleagues found that widely admired people have a tendency to treat their own interests as instrumental and others’ interests as terminal, suggesting a more general tendency to treat others’ interests as more important than their own. Likewise, in their landmark study of holocaust rescuers, the Oliners reported that “others, rather than self, were the primary focus for rescuers” (161).13

What should we make of these mixed results? Arguably, while there is overlap between others-centeredness and the constructs that have been connected to negative outcomes, there are significant differences as well. For instance, Helgeson and Fritz characterize unmitigated communion as involving “an excessive concern with others” and “a focus on others to the exclusion of the self, resulting in the neglect of one’s own needs” (173-174, emphasis added). They recognize that there may be other strongly other-oriented, communal orientations that are not excessive in the way unmitigated communion is. They write:

A high focus on others and a low focus on the self does not necessarily imply that one has an excessive concern with others…  A high focus on others and a low focus on the self also does not necessarily lead to the cognitive and behavioral manifestations of unmitigated communion. (174)

One wonders, then, whether Pauline others-centeredness might be just the sort of high focus on others and low focus on the self that doesn’t lead to worrisome consequences such as depression or codependency, but instead only to more positive consequences such as exemplary living, high-quality relationships, or even heroism. This question should be of significant interest to contemporary psychologists, especially those with an interest in Christian contributions to understanding well-being.

Answering the Questions

This article has perhaps raised more questions about the Christian ideal of putting others first than it has answered. How exactly should the ideal be understood? How is it related to other virtues? How does putting others first impact a person’s life and the lives of those around her? Answering these questions will best be achieved through interdisciplinary cooperation. For readers interested in my own take on these questions, I invite you to take a look at my book, Putting Others First: The Christian Ideal of Others-Centeredness, when it becomes available later this year from Routledge Press.

 

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