Christian morals and the competitive system revisited.

Author:Clark, Charles M.A.
 
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In his essay "Christian Morals and the Competitive System," Thorstein Veblen noted that "Western Civilization was both Christian and competitive (pecuniary)" and that each was based on a contradictory code of ethics. Given the rise in interest on the relationship between Christianity and economics and politics, I think this is a good time to revisit Veblen's central argument. (1) While I think Veblen is correct in pointing out that such a conflict exists, I would suggest that much of Veblen's analysis misses the mark. Veblen attempted to explain the differences between the two ethical codes by contrasting their sociological and historical origins. According to Veblen, each code was a reaction to its respective environment as if each were an adaptation designed to meet existing material conditions. Leaving aside the question of the accuracy of his analysis of these environmental factors, I think that a stronger argument can be made that the lasting influence of the ethics of Christianity and capitalism stems from the ideas and ideals they promote, that these ideas and ideals come from their respective "visions" of a just society, and that their conflicting ethical codes come from these differing "visions." I do not think either can be explained by, or reduced to, the environments from which they sprang, even if environmental factors do play an important role in how specific societies attempt to live according to either system of ethics. It is as systems of thought, that is, perspectives with which to view the world, and as codes of ideal behavior that each gets its staying power.

I would suggest a more useful approach would be that followed by Veblen in his famous essay "On the Preconceptions of Economic Science" (1919). In this three-part essay Veblen attempted to understand the development of economic theory by examining its underlying philosophical preconceptions, with the presumption that these preconceptions played an active role in their development. I think this approach would be instructive for understanding why and how the morals of Christianity conflict with the ethics of capitalism, and of the lasting implications of this conflict. It is this approach that I will attempt to follow. Yet my purpose is not merely to correct Veblen's original article but, more importantly, to show those that are interested in a Christian understanding of the economy that they need to take a critical look the ideology of capitalism.

Competing Visions, Conflicting Values

Following Veblen's example, I will compare each code of ethics as a theoretical system in its purest and most elementary form. Each has a vast variety of permutations, partially due to the influence of other value systems, in both theory and practice. These other value systems can greatly influence the actual practice of societies where there is strong adherence to either Christian or capitalist principles. Numerous Christian communities have also been influenced by the values of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and other ideologies that run completely counter to the values of Christianity, leading to great violations of Christian ethics, (2) just as all capitalist economies are also influenced by other ethical systems that limit the reign of capital. Thus pure examples of either are impossible to find. This lack of actual pure examples does not make either a less important factor in the history of Western civilization. Ethical codes are always ideals to strive for; they are not physical laws that cannot be violated. Humans have free will, which means they must make choices. Ethical codes help to provide some of the criteria for making such choices (yet other factors also play a role). Thus, ethical codes of conduct do influence actual behavior and social institutions as they reflect the overall conception of justice and right order. They influence individuals in the formation of their preferences and values, and social institutions in the establishment of laws and customs.

The conflict between Christian morals and the ethics of capitalism comes from their being based on conflicting "visions" of a just society. The role of "vision" in the development and history of economics is well known. (3) Specifically, it influences what questions are asked or not asked and what is or is not accepted as a satisfactory answer (what Veblen labeled the "final term"). It is within the "vision" that most of the important value judgments are made and thus are hidden from most adherents of any particular theory. Originally interest in the role of the "vision" was based on the hope of making economics a positive science. This effort to eliminate all normative elements (value judgments) in the twentieth century was ultimately unsuccessful because theories require a "vision" and the "vision" is necessarily based on values. Gunnar Myrdal's life work is an interesting case study on this issue. Myrdal wrote the classical work on the role of ideology in economics and the need to eliminate all value judgments from economics in order to make it a science--The Political Element in the Development of Economic Theory (1954)--yet he discovered that this position was untenable and subsequently became the leading spokesman for the necessity of value judgments in theoretical and applied economics. Myrdal's approach was to make value judgments explicit so that they can be openly discussed and debated.

Although a particular vision is comprehensive and typically accepted as a whole (and therefore is, in many ways, greater than the sum of its parts), it is useful for our purposes to look at the three essential elements of the "vision," which are, What is human nature? What is society? And what are the ultimate goals or values which individuals and society strive for? We should note that all three essential elements are interrelated and that one cannot fully view them in isolation.

The "Vision" Underlying Christian Social Thought

All social thought starts with the question of what is human nature? Fundamental to the Christian view of human nature (4) is the distinction between the individual and the person. These two words are often used as if they were interchangeable, yet philosophically they are quite different. The word individual brings up connotations of separateness and autonomy, both essential ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment, Modernism, and Post Modernism. The term person goes back to the older tradition of persona, that is, a unique personality who is also a member of a larger group. As animals we are concerned with the "self," that is, with meeting the material needs required as animals. But as "rational animals" we have the ability to reason and make choices, which are necessarily moral choices based on more than just our physical needs. From a Christian perspective, these attributes come from being made in the image and likeness of God. (5) As Jacques Maritian has stated:

[T]he human being is caught between two poles; a material pole, which, in reality, does not concern the true person but rather the shadow of personality or what, in the strict sense, is called individuality, and a spiritual pole, which does concern true personality. (1966, 33) As an Individual, each of us is a fragment of a species, a part of the universe, a unique point in the immense web of cosmic, ethnical, historical forces and influences--and bound by their laws. Each of us is subject to the determinism of the physical world. Nonetheless, each of us is also a person and, as such, is not controlled by the stars. Our whole being subsists in what is in us a principle of creative unity, independence and liberty. (38) It is important to point out here that the moral Worth or standing of each and every person comes from man being made in the image and likeness of God; creation is the basis of the assertion that all persons have rights and responsibilities.

The second key aspect of the Christian view of human nature is that humans need to live in community. As Maritian noted, the "person requires membership in a society in virtue both of its dignity and its needs" (1966, 47). This includes the basic physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) but also social needs (the companionship of others). But of equal importance is the role that life in community provides for character development and the other characteristics necessary to promote moral development. As John Paul II noted, the development of the human person, and especially the self-actualization of the person and his or her moral development, requires life in community. Participation is fundamental to the development of the self and requires working with others. Original sin prevents our solo moral development. We achieve our development as mature and moral persons only through participation in community, and we achieve happiness only through participation in community. It is also just as true that our economic actions are only possible in community, and it is to the success of the community that we owe our own individual success. Our individual well-being is a function of the community's well-being.

Christian anthropology gives us the foundation for its view of what is society. As I noted above, Christian social thought notes that humans are naturally social; thus society is a real and active force. It highlights the important role social institutions play in the development of the human person; in fact, it differentiates between social structures which promote good behavior and structures that promote bad behavior (structures of sin). Both the individual and society (and social institutions) are necessary (and neither easily reduced to the other). It is worth noting that this "social" view of the person is based on the view of human nature found in the Bible. As...

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