Christian Morals and the Competitive System Revisited

By Clark, Charles M. A. | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2006 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Christian Morals and the Competitive System Revisited


Clark, Charles M. A., Journal of Economic Issues


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 rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Christian Morals and the Competitive System Revisited
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?