Economics 101 & Public Square

Markets & Morality from a Biblical Perspective

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In a recent Washington Post article Steven Pearlstein, a professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University, asked the question “Is Capitalism Moral?” His answer, although interesting, seemed incomplete. To answer the question, you have to ask “what is moral?” Pearlstein fails to ask and answer this question.

Admittedly, trying to answer the question “what is moral?” given the moral relativism of our age is not an easy task. We live in a culture where ethics and morals have become obsolete. The idea of right and wrong seems to be up for grabs, or at least up for a vote.

Defining Morality

This poem by Abraham Edel expresses the vagueness that exists concerning moral values today:

It all depends on where you are; It all depends on who you are;

It all depends on how you feel; It all depends on what you feel;

It all depends on how you’re raised; It all depends on what is praised;

What’s right today is wrong tomorrow; Joy in France, in England sorrow;

It all depends on points of view; Australia, or Timbuctoo [sic];

In Rome do as the Romans do;

If tastes just happen to agree, then you have morality;

But where there are conflicting trends, it all depends, it all depends…

Over fifty years ago the United Nations issued its Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities. One strong paragraph reads:

No person, no group, no organization, no state, no army or police stands above good and evil; all are subject to ethical standards. Everyone has a responsibility to promote good and to avoid evil in all things.

But who decides what is good and what is not? Where does a society believing we are the chance product of an evolutionary process go to find some basis for “moral” standards?

Finding A Basis for Morality

Some people look to the evolutionary process itself for their moral foundation. Philip Yancey, in an article written in 1998 for Christianity Today describes evolutionary psychologists as society’s new prophets. And they are still here, arguing that morality is an adaptation, crafted by the invisible hand of natural selection and written on our DNA.

Evolutionary psychology relies on a single principle called the selfish gene that leads to behaviors that pass our genes onto the next generation. Yet the strange logic that ties the survival of the fittest to the development of a “genetic” morality obscures a simple truth: the truth of God. Romans 1:25 says,

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie. 

However, as Christians we believe that God does exist. He has created us for some purpose, and he is ultimately going to judge us by some criteria of his choosing. God has given us special revelation in his scripture, so that we will know what he specifically requires from us as his followers.

While we fully realize that we are saved by grace, not our works, once we have been redeemed by the work of Christ we are expected to live our lives in service to God. The Bible gives us a clear picture of what that looks like.

Expressing Moral Law

The moral law described in both the Old Testament (summarized in the Ten Commandments) and the New Testament (summarized in the Sermon on the Mount) gives us a clear set of absolute principles around which we are to organize our behavior. This stands in stark contrast to most people in our society, who find themselves adrift in a sea of moral ambiguity without a compass.

One summary of the moral law, which may prove useful as we explore questions about markets and morality, is spoken by Jesus in Mark 12:30-31:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

To rightly use the term “moral,” then, it is important to decide what our behavior should be and to whom we are ultimately held accountable. For the Christian who believes God’s Word, neither of these should be an issue.

Our faith and our firm foundation in God and his moral law put us in a unique position to answer these questions about markets and morality with moral authority. More on this in my next post.

Can we answer the question “Is Capitalism Moral?” without a shared definition and basis for morality? Leave your comments here.

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