For much of the history of the ‘western’ world capitalism has played a serious role in shaping societies and thought. At the same time, especially in Europe, Christianity has been a dominant force in influencing the development of moral thinking. Although these two factors have shaped and moulded our modern culture and morals, they are fundamentally opposed in their teachings, to the extent that the supremacy of one acts to degrade the other in society. Even from the most basic of Christian morals it is difficult to find any aspect that is reflected in the ideals of modern capitalism. In fact such is the extent of capitalism’s amorality that it is difficult to find any naturalistic moral basis that can be practically applied to it. In order to help revive logical moral ideals in society, we would need to completely discard much of the common teachings of capitalism that have pervaded our everyday thought.
It is important to begin with some of the issues within the question presented. Christian morality is a particularly difficult issue, as Christianity is by no means a unified doctrine due to its often conflicting moral ideals. There are also varying sources of authority that are accepted by different Christian groups. These can include scripture, tradition, magisterium and reason and the use of these authorities can dramatically affect what is seen as moral by a religious group. For example, although polygamy is commonly rejected by the Catholic Church, many of the more orthodox groups of the Latter Day Saints movement still see polygamy as acceptable. In the case of this essay I would like to use the term Christian Morality to refer to morality as taught in the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus especially. These provide a more straight forward and relevant depiction of Christian morals, which can easily be analysed and applied to a capitalist society. To help define capitalism in the sense it shall be used, capitalism will be examined not only in the sense of economics, but also in a wider, more social and moral context. The concept of capitalism that shall be used, not only describes, as some Neo-Marxian economists have written, a society in which capitalist methods of wage labour and class structure are dominant, but also refers more widely to the ideology of capital gain and the paradigm of class and personal success that is somewhat predominant in our modern society. It is particularly the implications and outworking of the capitalist paradigm (for example its effect on the way we see ourselves and our duties within society) that I shall explore in relation to Christianity, as I believe these not only have the most impact upon our lives, but are also philosophically relevant to much of today’s moral thought.
Although there are arguments which can be made in support of a potential compatibility between modern capitalism and Christian moral teaching, this link is tenuous at best and any arguments presented often result from a twisting of the Biblical message. Any pseudo-capitalist ideas taken from the Bible itself are flawed in their allegorical and parable nature. References that seem to support wealth and capital gain cannot be merely taken as such. As well as this, the argument that capitalism is somehow supported by the message of diligence in the Bible is an obvious corruption of the very selfless nature of the Bible’s teaching. You cannot simply reduce the Biblical message to self-centred reasoning and ignore the fact that the very purpose of such teachings often focus on working for others and for God, as opposed to the capitalist teachings of personal gain. The main flaw of these arguments is the assumption that human nature always works for self-benefit, as is often encouraged by our capitalist society. Although capitalism has altered the way we see work and effort in our community and centralised it more around the self, this is not the only way we, as people, can act. This is the fundamental difference between Christian morals and capitalism, while Christianity works to benefit others and to glorify God, capitalism seems to encourage personal advancement at the potential detriment to others. For this reason all arguments for any compatibility between the two cannot be considered valid, as they focus on the same concepts (for example money and hard work) in very conflicting ways.
|Liberation theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez|
Overall Liberation Theology accurately presents a compelling picture of modern society. Capitalism has caused inhuman suffering for many people around the world and logically we cannot say that it is acceptable to allow this suffering to continue. As well as this, throughout the Bible God is shown to provide similar care for the poor and Jesus’ teachings often emphasise a level of support that ought to be given to the needy, as Jesus himself often spent time with those most marginalised in society. An example of this is found in the Gospel of Luke, ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.’This and similar quotations are often used to show Jesus’ (as Gutierrez put it) ‘preferential option for the poor’, which we in turn should also have in order to achieve social justice and salvation for ourselves. Liberation Theology has, however, received a great deal of criticism for its seemingly Marxist ideals and, although this is not inherently a problem, it was initially rejected by the Vatican as the then Cardinal Ratzinger claimed that certain Marxist aspects of Liberation Theology were ‘damaging to the faith and to Christian living’. The Vatican also spoke out against Liberation Theology as many of the main theologians identified the corruption of the Church as a contributing factor to the vast extent of the problem. Although few can disagree that Liberation Theology’s emphasis on justice through non-violent, Christian means is a definite strength, the Vatican found the elevation of orthopraxy (correct action) to the status of orthodoxy (correct belief) to be too Marxist to be considered Christian. Although the very orthoprax nature of Liberation Theology does seem to stray from common Christian teaching, the fight for social justice ought to be a key ethical concern within modern Christianity. Social justice and equality need to be seen as ethical necessities, not only to be more in line with the Bible’s teaching, but also to act against the very unfair and elitist nature of capitalism in society that impacts so negatively upon people’s lives.
|The Occupy movement outside St Paul's, 2011|
Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, considers business ethics from a Christian position. Aquinas builds his ethical theory firstly from the Bible: ‘Do to others what you would have them do to you’. Christian business ethics has since often emphasised fairness in trade dealings along with a focus on trust and a societal outlook, as opposed to self-centred ways of conducting business, where the focus is merely to maximise profit.
Christian business ethics has many clear benefits in a capitalist society. The social benefits have been shown in more modern times by the action of many Churches against unfair business, for example the actions of the Anglican Church under the current Archbishop of Canterbury to try put payday lenders out of business due to their extortionate interest rates. A similar message of equality in business has been provided by the Catholic Church in several encyclicals. The Rerum Novarum, issued by Pope Leo XIII, emphasised fair conditions of labour and claimed that it was the duty of the State to promote social justice. Although it is clear that Christianity can and does play a large role in capitalism by providing a firm ethical standpoint, this form of business ethics is, unfortunately, often ignored or rejected in much modern-day trade. It can easily be argued that a Biblical approach to modern-day life is somewhat outdated, especially in an ever more secular world. As well as this, some have claimed that it is a business’ duty to make profit for its shareholders and employees and that any ethical thinking is irrelevant. Despite this more customers today are considering the ethical processes by which certain products are produced and so many of the ‘moral’ companies (for example Fair Trade food) are now very profitable. A focus on ethical business, however, simply to gain more profit cannot be considered ethically viable or anything more than an extended form of egoism. Ethical egoism in business is the argument that an action or trade is ethically valid as long as it makes you (or your shareholders) the maximum profits. This is completely against any Christian teaching, however egoism is still today a dominant ethical thinking in Western society. Another example is the actions of the banking company Goldman Sachs who were heavily fined for ‘dishonest and unethical’ practice that put selected clients at an advantage over others when dealing in stocks.
Although Christian moral teaching can easily be applied to capitalist business, so much of modern trading is conducted with practices that conflict with Christian teaching that, in our current world, Christianity has become too different and contrasting to be considered compatible with capitalist business. The unbridled egoism of many modern businesses has fed an ever more self-centered perspective of trade that cannot logically be tenable when considering Christian ethics. The roots of capitalism are so deep within our society that it has become near impossible for any legitimate ethical revival of Christianity to fully take place within business. While it could be argued that the actions of many Christian groups in the world to support fairer trading can be seen as support for a potential compatibility between modern capitalism and Christian business ethics, these actions do not solve the problem of egoism and the growing amorality of many companies. The outreach of Christian business movements is too limited and overall modern Capitalism has strayed too far from any ethical basis, for a respectable Christian revival to take place within it.
|Amish have communitarian values|
The moral importance placed on equality and sharing that is evident along with a disengagement from capitalism and profit, show a clear link between Christian ethics and Communism. Both systems provide a more ethically aware lifestyle and the focus on equality and community over somewhat narcissistic capitalist gain, could easily be seen as a benefit to modern society. A key counter argument against Christian Communism is the very secular and anti-theist nature of traditional Communism. Indeed Communism was described by Martin Luther King Jr. as ‘the only serious rival of Christianity’, however in reality Christian Communism provides the moral focus that is needed to stabilise Communism and give people a reason to work (for the glory of God), while also providing an ideal and practical society that is in line with Christian teachings of equality and fairness. As well as this, the use of current Christian communities (such as the Latter Day Saints) could be seen as irrelevant as they are not always based solely in common Biblical teaching. Mormonism is based in the revelations of Joseph Smith Jr. a ‘prophet’ from the 1800’s and so perhaps this cannot apply to Christianity and the Bible as a whole. However the ideas presented by the ‘Communist’ aspects of the Latter Day Saints movement can be aligned with and beneficial to Christian social teaching as a whole, as systems like the Law of Consecration are logical extensions of Biblical teaching. Christian Communism is overall a mutually beneficial alignment of concepts of similar bases that, in practice, is far more reliable than the rather conflicting ideals presented by Christianity and capitalism.
There are clearly arguments that can be made both in favour and in opposition to the compatibility of Christian moral teaching and capitalism. An argument against compatibility, however, provides both a more realistic overview of the heavy ethical conflicts between the very egoistic and self-centred aspects of modern capitalism and the social, loving nature of Christian morality whilst also providing a practical social response to serious modern-day inequalities. Modern ‘western’ society provides a stark example of the dominance of the capitalist outworking that has caused an individualistic and egoistic approach to both business and everyday life. It is clear that Christian morality has suffered under capitalism and it has been degraded to the point of being ignored by much of society. Movements like Liberation Theology and Christian Communism are becoming ever more critical in order to better relate our amoral society to a more ethically concerned and communitarian perspective, not only to help business and trade, but to help better every person individually.
This essay was shortlisted for the Ithaka Prize 2015
Rowland, C. (1999). The Cambridge companion to liberation theology. 5th ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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