Humanism and Capitalism: A Survey of Thought on Morality

Humanism and Capitalism: A Survey of Thought on Morality

Humanism and Capitalism: A Survey of Thought on Morality

Humanism and Capitalism: A Survey of Thought on Morality


In 1922, Harold E. Stearns edited a volume entitled Civilization in the United States. The entry on business was written by Garet Garrett, a financial writer for several New York newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal.

Garrett began his essay by asserting that modern business derives from three passions: the passion for things, the passion for personal grandeur, and the passion for power. Addressing the question of "morality" in business, he stated bluntly that it is a term without meaning. Business, he said, "is neither moral nor immoral. It represents man's acquisitive instinct acting outside of humanistic motives."

When I read Garrett's essay some ten years ago I thought his judgment of business somewhat extreme but essentially sound, for I too was a humanist to whom all things commercial were foreign. By the time I finished research for this study I realized that Garrett's position was not extreme but typical. And I concluded that it was not sound but fundamentally fallacious. Modern humanists have not on the whole been open to the full range of experience. They have tended to be narrow, elitist, and abstract, and they are virtually unanimous in their rejection of commercial culture.

Why is this?

We are accustomed to attacks on capitalism from socialists. Indeed, we sometimes have the impression that their sole function is to attack capitalism. But the humanist critics of capitalism were mostly conservatives, even arch-conservatives. So we are confronted with the phenomenon of commercial culture being attacked from both the left and the right. Often the criticisms are remarkably similar.

This is not so strange when we stop to think about it. Conservative humanists and socialists feed on a common stock of premodern values. To that extent, both are reactionary. For example, the conservative doctrine of the divine right of kings (going back to Plato) is not so different from the collectivist bent of the socialists. This may explain why socialism today appeals primarily to feudal societies.

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