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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  • Nathanael Snow

    Some thoughts:
    The pursuit of a “bright line” morality that breeds legalism may have descended from Benthamite Utilitarianism. David Levy and Sandra Peart have written in economics about looking for a precise measure, or a robust measure. Legalism, and Utilitarianism, make the mistake of choosing precise rules. Seeing morality as a relationship and truth as a person provides a more robust morality. It better suits application in all situations. A precise rule in a different context can cause disaster.
    The evolutionary motive of Darwin was a precision based application of Adam Smith’s explanation of spontaneously emerging order. Smith’s approach incorporated robustness, but later political economists and ethicists missed the need for robustness and focused on precision. This in turn bred the eugenics problem, which many progressive Christians fell into along with the economists. It made sense within that context to go further and advocate central planning.
    Hayek taught us that that approach would not work due to the lack of sufficient knowledge of time and place to the decision maker. Buchanan taught us that it would not work due to the incentives and motives of the decision maker.
    When trying to describe a public morality we need to make sure that it is robust. Jesus led the way in providing a model to imitate. Morality is personal, relational, and sacrificial. The ultimate end of morality then is restoration, preservation, and deepening of relationship. How to apply these principles as Christians becomes our task.

  • Good post Hugh. Looking forward to the rest of the series. I believe you meant Mark 12 and not Matthew 12 in your quoted verses. Have a great week.

  • RogerMcKinney

    Excellent! Because “morality” is subjective today, if any person thinks capitalism is moral it is. What the author really asks is can the two sides arrive at some kind of consensus? But even if they did, why would they have the right to impose their definition of morality on others?

    Also, modern discussions of morality spotlight the dishonesty of modern thinkers. Through most of human history morality meant objective, universal right and wrong, that which is right/wrong regardless of opinions. Philosophers of morality understood that morality had to have a source outside of human preferences in order to be objective and universal. Opinions on right and wrong were called ethics or mores (there should be an accent sign above the letter e).

    Honest philosophers, such as Nietzsche, the existentialists and post-modernists, admitted that they couldn’t come up with objective, universal morality without a god, so they welcomed the death of morality. Other philosophers were not so honest: they redefined morality to mean what ethics and mores used to mean, nothing more than opinions.

  • Jim Price

    Interesting approach to markets; as a Christian, I have always assumed that I should take the market system that I grew up in and try in every way possible make it comply with the teachings of Jesus and what I understand to be Christian ethics.
    Still the capitalist and free market system is very large and diverse. I still haven’t been able to reconcile how large segments of the market can be considered moral. Here I am thinking about the large liquor segment, large parts of the film industry, even parts of the gun and arms trade, maybe parts of the advertising field.
    What shall we say about the almost unfathomable size of trade between the U.S. and China? Two diverse systems merging ; do we look for the ” the greater good”? In some ways this trade has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty, faster and in greater numbers than 150 years of missionary work has done.
    Just raising some personal questions as I follow your blogs.

  • hrh40

    Is the followup going to be:

    Is State-Run Socialism Moral?

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