Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Iron Law of Human Self-Interest

In 1994 I was injured in a training accident in the U.S. Army. I fell out of a helicopter simulator during fast-rope training and broke my tailbone. For a little over a week I was bedridden, unable to sit and in deep pain when I walked.

One of my fellow sergeants who was a bit older and more experienced than I gave me a present… a box of musty old philosophy books. I have always been an avid reader, but before this it was of Science Fiction. That box of books changed my life, because I had nothing better to do that week but read, and I was out of SciFi. Among the titles were “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius, “The Republic” by Plato, and “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine, among many others. I like to joke that “The Age of Reason” should be sold with a warning label cautioning young people questioning their lives and faith to “read only with care and mature adult supervision”.

One of the titles in that box that has had a deep impact upon me was a small book titled “What is Man?” by Mark Twain. The book is structured as a conversation between “Old Man” and “Young Man”. You realize very quickly that this is Twain trying to have who he was at a young age speak with who he is when he is writing the book. Though I do not know if I would accept the label “Old Man” just yet, I know that I have had that same kind of conversation in my mind from time to time… if I could tell the me who was 21 a few things, what would they be?

One of the things that Twain’s Old Man tells Twain’s Young Man is that everything a human being does in his or her life, they do based upon what they perceive their self-interest to be. Twain calls this “The Iron Law of Human Self-Interest”. When I first read it as at the ripe young age of 21, I remember thinking “Gawd, what a horrible way to think of human beings!”. Young Man in the book reacted the same way.

The basic premise of Twain’s Iron Law is that in every instance, in every moment, every conscious and unconscious decision made by a human being is made based upon what that human being perceives, in that moment, to be in their self-interest. On its face, the absolute nature with which Twain forms his law would seem to belie the truth of it… there are times when humans act against their self-interest all around us, aren’t there?

The keys to Twain’s formulation of the law lies around the idea of “perceived self-interest” and realizing that each of us has not one set of values and interests, but rather a hierarchy or order of values and interests. (These are my interpretations and terms, not necessarily the words Twain uses.)

In order to see how the Iron Law of Human Self-Interest is acting in someone’s life, you have to see and understand how they perceive their values and interests in that particular moment. An action that might on the outside seem against someone’s self-interest only seems that way because we each have a different ordering of values and interests from which we operate. When we make a judgment that someone is acting against their self-interest, we are making that judgment through the lens of our order of values, not theirs. When someone perceives that they may be acting against their own self-interest, they are actually experiencing a conflict between what they would like their order of values to be and what it actually is.

This has become one of the lenses I use in both self-reflection and in pastoral counseling… what is the self-interest that I am serving with this particular choice or decision? Why does that interest or value rate higher than others? What would change the choice, and what interest or value would then be being served?

There have been two great benefits for me in looking at myself through the lens of Twain’s Iron Law. The first is that if you accept as a given the truth of the law, then in order to understand your purposes and actions you have to clarify what you believe to be in your self-interest… or to put it another way, you have to clarify the hierarchy of your order of values. This is a profound learning experience about yourself, if you can do it. What are the values that you hold, and in what order do you hold them. If you hold both Justice and Acknowledgement among your values, which do you hold higher? How do they relate to Family? How do they relate to your self-image?

I have found that discovering the order among my values is deeply personal work. It is hard to see that there are things I value more than Justice, or less than self-image… hard, but also deeply important. It has also shown me that instead of being as personally irrational as I always through I was, I was actually dealing with a distinct difference between what I wanted my order of values to be, and what they actually were. Seeing this difference has allowed me to begin to make the two come closer together.

Now, when I am faced with a time in which my actions seem against my self-interest, I am called not to berate myself for it, but rather to do some inward looking for a conflict in my understanding of my order of values. Such as been my inner work these last few weeks.

I’ve been stuck. I don’t have any other way to put it. There are things I need to get done, I know how to get done, and I even want to get done… but they are not getting done, or at least not at the pace they need to be. Most of these things revolve around my formation as a UU Minister. At this point in my seminary formation process (4 long years) this reticence to get on with what I need to get on with would seem to be against my self-interest, but if you accept Twain’s law such a thing is not possible.

So, this past few weeks I have been doing some deep reflection upon my order of values. I’m not through this yet, but some of the realizations and re-ordering I have come through has begun to get me unstuck. I am moving forward with these necessary aspects of my formation, if slowly. Part of the work of these past few weeks that I am willing to share is that I continue to work with where my fear and anxiety about becoming a military chaplain rests in my order of values… I don’t think I would be as stuck if I was looking at entering the Parish ministry after seminary. If there is anything that I need clarity on before taking on this particular ministry, it is where my fear and anxiety lies…

So, I just wanted to say this morning, Thank You Samuel Clemens.

Yours in faith,


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