Christian Morals and the Competitive System Revisited

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

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. …

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