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Q&A on the Ethics of Christianity v. Capitalism
[November 3, 2002]

By John Bragg

Editor's note: We received this inquiry from a high school student and thought our reply would be of general interest to our readers.

Question: I have elected to write a term paper on the whether or not capitalism is a moral system. My understanding is that capitalism is rooted in greed and self-interest, which we are taught are the root of all evils. I never expected my Jesuit education to come into conflict with the economic system in which I live, yet I am starting to see the two diverge and might even consider them to be at odds.

I want to know if you think capitalism is in line with the teachings of the Church or contradictory to it. After reading Marx's Communist Manifesto I became familiar with the criticism that the capitalist's quest for profit comes into conflict with his ability to create an abundance and satisfy everyone's basic needs. The system is based on scarcity, and there is constant fear of overproduction, yet a great many people's needs are not being met. I am very much a novice with this topic, and speak to a great extent from ignorance, but I was wondering if you could enlighten me.

—Bob

Answer: First, we would like to thank you for your honesty and your integrity in addressing this question, and would like to compliment your perceptiveness in discerning a conflict between the teachings of the Catholic Church and capitalism. There are two separate critiques of capitalism which you seem to have encountered. Karl Marx’s analysis addresses different issues than the Christian critique. The critique by the Church is the more fundamental and will be addressed first.

Before addressing the question of whether capitalism is a moral system, one must define what a moral system is. Capitalism and Catholic doctrine are based on two radically different moralities. The moral basis of capitalism is not widely known, as many prospective defenders of capitalism are embarrassed by the conflict between capitalism and their religion. Capitalism is based on the righteous pursuit of self-interest, of achieving a better life in this world through productive effort, on the dignity of both manual and intellectual labor and on the rights of creators to profit from their creations. Catholic social teaching is based on denying self-interest in the name of God and in the name of others.

The first questions that must be addressed are what is the purpose of morality, and what is the proper criteria by which morality is evaluated. Is the purpose of morality successful life on this earth, or to serve the will of an otherworldly God? Capitalist morality is based on achieving a successful life on this earth, the Church’s morality on achieving a successful afterlife. We regard this life as an end in itself, the Church regards it as a means to a greater end. Is the standard of evaluating a system of morality its intentions, or its results? Since the Church holds the purpose of morality as obedience to God, the Church holds intentions as the standard. Since we hold the purpose of morality to be man’s life on this earth, we hold the standard of evaluating morality to be the promotion of man’s life on earth.

The Church’s morality is not concerned with your life on this earth. Jesus taught, “Therefore I say unto you, be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” (Matthew 6:25, American Standard Version). The Church’s morality is based on serving the will of God. “But she [the Church] insists that the law has its ultimate obligation in the will of the Creator by whom capitalism nature was fashioned, and who imposes on us its right ordering as a duty; and that its ultimate sanction is the loss of God which its violation must entail.” (www.newadvent.org search Morality) Morality, for the Church, is not directed at achieving any goal but consists in obeying the will of God. Further, intention is the fundamental criteria in evaluating the morality of an action or a system. “It is a commonplace among moralists that the intention is the chief among the determinants of the concrete morality of a human act. Hence when one's motive is grievously bad, or even only slightly so, if it be the exclusive reason for doing something, then an act which is otherwise good is vitiated and reputed to be evil.” (www.newadvent.org search Intentions). Thus, a system which is based on motives other than serving God is inherently suspect, despite its actual results. The inventor of refrigeration who enables billions to be fed gets little or no moral credit from the Church because he acted for profit. The banker who gives away his bank’s money to the indigent acted from worthy motives, even if his actions destroy the economic system, causing more poverty and misery.

Our morality is based on achieving a successful life on this earth. The first fact that must be faced is that survival is not guaranteed. Jesus said “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin…” (Matthew 6:28, American Standard Version) This has usually been read as discouraging Christians from focusing on material gain, that God will provide. However, to survive, an entity must act in accordance with its nature. If the lilies did not photosynthesize, if the lilies did not draw nutrition into their roots, they would wither and die. To survive, man must act according to his nature. Man’s nature is that of a thinking being who must act to secure the requirements of survival. Man’s morality is a tool for his survival. Philosopher Leonard Peikoff calls morality “the science of human self-preservation.” (Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Page 214.) Similarly, capitalist virtues are those which promote human survival. Therefore, capitalism celebrates pride. Pride is moral ambitiousness—the desire to achieve goals in life and the righteous pleasure produced by that achievement. Capitalism celebrates productiveness. Productiveness is the virtue of creating the requirements of human survival through effort.

Less fundamental are the Marxist economic critiques from the Manifesto. Far from the capitalist’s quest for profit coming into conflict with his ability to create an abundance, his profit derives from creating an abundance. Every company seeks to increase its sales, because more sales mean more profits. Far from profit making it difficult to satisfy basic needs, it is the profit motive that leads people to create the products that satisfy human needs. Scarcity is not an aspect of the capitalist system, but the condition that exists before capitalism comes into operation, and the condition that still exists in parts of the world where production for profit is not the organizing principle of society.

 

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