Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Is Entrepreneurial Activity Necessarily Pleasing to God?

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

Is Entrepreneurial Activity Necessarily Pleasing to God?

Article excerpt

The more dominant freedom becomes for our self-understanding, the hazier the notion of freedom seems to become and the more ambiguous are the uses of the rhetoric of freedom. (1)

--Christoph Schwobel

I appreciate and am very much in sympathy with many of the observations that Michael Novak has made in his paper. I, too, think that we ought to be suspicious of the suggestion that political and economic power must somehow be entirely consolidated for the sake of social justice. I agree with his assertion that our understanding of economic action ought to be fit within the discipline of political/moral philosophy and ought to consider "personal initiative," "the habit of enterprise," "the ability to inspire trust in others," and the other things that he has included under the heading of "human capital."

Of course, I suppose that if I were an economist, all of this would make me nervous, for I cannot imagine--Gary Becker notwithstanding--how such things could ever be "operationalized" for the sake of rational analysis and forecasting. But, speaking as someone who is less interested in predicting the future than in simply understanding the present contours of economic culture, I certainly resonate with the suggestion that human capital is where the heart of the matter lies. So I agree with Novak's insistence that the decisive question is anthropological: Who is man? Though, of course, anthropological questions always eventually beg theological ones.

Yet, it seems to me that the answer Novak has given to the decisive anthropological question is not yet adequate. He writes that economics is now arriving at the point of affirming that "[e]very human being on earth is an acting subject, capable of reflection and choice, a spirited animal capable of activities and a range of consciousness no other animal matches, aware of universal community and irrepeatable personal meaning, faced with scarcity and sensing the impulsion to acquire, create, trade and barter, discover, and better our condition." But this list is not complete, and the reason that it is not complete is that it excludes responsibility and, specifically, the crucial human responsibility to live before the face of God.

Now, it may be inferred from Novak's concern for human dignity, personal liberty, and morality that he does intend to place a high value upon individual responsibility with respect to human persons, but it is simply not clear to me--at least, not from this paper--that the notion of responsibility before God plays anything more than a subordinate role within his social vision. Indeed, a certain ambiguity with respect to the God question seems to pervade the argument. This is particularly evident in the suggestion that "even without theism" many Western classical liberals have arrived at essentially the same kind of social vision that Novak wishes now to endorse; that is, of "human being as free and self-determining at his core, with every human individual living out a story of weighty moral significance, of great importance both to his or her personal destiny and to the dynamic elan of the culture as a whole."

But can we really have all of this without theism? I do not think that we can. For, as Nietzsche saw so clearly, and as the advocates of postmodernism have reiterated of late (and not simply because they have read Nietzsche but because they are close observers of contemporary culture), without theism we must place phrases such as "weighty moral significance," "personal destiny," and even "living out a story"--all of which are at least implicitly theological--in inverted commas. Indeed, without theism, all that remains of the classical liberal social vision is simply something like the following: that every human individual is of great importance both to himself or herself and to the dynamic elan of the culture as a whole. But this is a truism, just another way of saying that each one values himself or herself, and that the way that each of us lives has an effect upon others. …

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