The uncomfortable ethics of Christianity and the rise and fall of capitalism

One of the biggest newspapers in Norway picked out three of my blogposts in 2012. They don’t do it anymore, but they used to promote a couple of blogposts everyday on their own website. One of these three posts was especially popular, and many were somewhat critical to my assertion that Norway had benefited from a long tradition as a Christian culture. One man who commented claimed that non of the known ethical systems had any connection with religion, and he mentioned virtue ethics, deontological ethics, utilitarianism and consequensialism. He probably mentioned these specifically because they are normative ethics that provide an alternative to a religion-based ethics. This is not a post where I aim to defend the choices I’ve made concerning what I believe in, but as the mentioned reader expressed an opinion that is getting growing support among Norwegians, I want to comment on it briefly.

It’s not that there are no secular forms of ethics, but the question is whether or not they work. Many virtue ethicists believe for instance that it’s impossible to formulate a generally valid rule that can take all moral arguments in a particular situation into account. According to this view morality is something that must be learned through experience. Merriam Webster lists decency, goodness and integrity as some of the synonyms for virtue. A deed is good if the motive or the virtue behind the deed is good. The other types of ethics this reader mentioned are basically just variations of the same ambigious concept. Some would still say that it’s better with a normative ethics if there’s no religion deciding what the norm is, but this ethics really is a conglomeration of a lot of strange ideas.

Among the contributors to normative ethics we find Thomas Hobbes, who was a supporter of a state with unlimited power and a belief that it was our duty to obey this power. David Hume believed we could construct an ethics based on how good people behaved. Immanuel Kant is known for a duty-based ethics and he formulated the categorical imperative. This isn’t just something imposed on us, but our actions are also expected to be governed by selfless motives. Jeremy Bentham was one of the early philosophers within utilitarianism. He considered a deed based on the consequences it had. That means, for example, that a criminal isn’t sentenced for the crime he did, but for the impact it had. I suppose this means that a terrorist who fails, such as the “shoe bomber” in 2001, more or less walks free because he didn’t kill anyone. It can also justify torture if it outweighs the unhappiness the tortured individual experiences. Bentham formulated a priniciple he sometimes called “the principle of utility” and sometimes “the greatest happiness principle”, which states that what gives the highest number of people happiness is good.

These are just some of the many philosophers that have shown us the way to a secular ethics, but I don’t think any have had a more positive impact on our society than the protestant work ethics. I sometimes wonder if these philosophers ever met any people because this doesn’t seem like useful rules to steer by. If we use the ship metaphor, as Plato did in his ship of state-metaphor, there would be many shipwrecks if we command the ships using these recommendations. That might be excactly what we are seeing today too.

There are many today for example that steer by the principle that if they buy inexpensive, imported goods that were produced under conditions that would have been illegal in Norway, they have a good, ethical life. We can’t see the workers in Asia. We just assume that as long as they work for “our” companies their lives are good enough. We don’t think about the faces we can’t see. There are options, but they cost (or not). We don’t have to encourage companies to produce our goods in Asia, but we also have the option of consuming less. Unfortunately I am partly guilty myself. I also buy the cheapest alternative, as I have a very low income, but I guess it helps that I consume less than people with higher income. Maybe I wouldn’t be much better if I was rich.

The German sociologist Max Weber wrote about the protestant work ethics and capitalism.  If we go far enough back (pre-industrial revolution) the nobility had money while everybody else worked. The idea that hard work was a good thing gradually developed, and Christians saw this as a just as vital part of their faith as prayer. This had the side effect of spreading the wealth and many managed to save enough money to start their own businesses. The notion of equality started to get support around this time, but what we are seeing today is the opposite.

Fewer and fewer people own most of the wealth, and the people owning the money are less and less loyal to the country they were born in. They live where they pay the least tax. This might explain why Europe is becoming increasingly secular. Christianity is in fact very specific on this point, and it tells us that those of us that are more priviledged, also have a bigger responsibility than others. We have to sacrifice more. We are the ones that should be on the front line doing the heavy sacrifices. Giving up advantages has never been popular, and I think this is some of the thinking behind the great resentment against the ethics that shaped our civilization. It might be this resentment that destabilizes it as well.

American Gothic by Grant Wood is one of the world's most parodied and perhaps misunderstood paintings. Wood intepreted it as a tribute to the pioneer-spirit and not a criticism.
American Gothic by Grant Wood is one of the world’s most parodied and perhaps misunderstood paintings. Wood interpreted it as a tribute to the pioneer-spirit and not a criticism.
Wikimedia Commons

In the film The Wrath of Khan Leonard Nimoy’s character Spock says: Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. (this appears in several Star Trek-films and Spock and Captain Kirk usually share this line).

In the Star Trek-films Spock sometimes jeopardised the whole crew to save one individual, but in The Wrath of Khan he entered a radiation-filled room to repair the ship’s warp drive. If no one did this, everybody would die. So he decided to die and give the rest a fighting chance. This is an extreme and fictional example of course, but we seem to be living in a society where this is highly illogical. We are presently living in a society where the individual is the most important thing, and it’s hard to offer help if we lose something. Today’s society is mostly about consuming and doing what makes us happy. This is called liberalism, and it has worked for us for a while, but this ideology doesn’t give us anything to believe in.

There is a reason most civilizations have had strong ties to a religion (not necessarily a state religion). We are the first to run solo, but I think we have chosen to ignore history. We haven’t learned a thing. There are many afraid people in Europe today, and we are constantly seeing signs that voters across Europe are open to the kind of mindset and promises that brought Adolf Hitler to power after World War 1. They hope that “a strong man” will rise and make everything right. It’s not because they have gone crazy. It’s because they are desperate. So the question isn’t how could they be so stupid? We should rather ask ourselves what it takes to become so desperate. I think that’s why the Greeks gave an unreformed communist party power, and the Nazi party Golden Dawn 17 seats in Parliament. This shows how serious it is losing hope, losing something to believe in when society is instable.

The extreme focus we have on individual happiness and freedom is not a way of thinking that helps more than the people closest to us, and it makes me wonder how beneficial this mindset is on a national or international level. Protestant ethics is what made Europe and the United States powerful. That’s because, as Max Weber said, protestants have had the view that God likes hard work and that work is a way of serving God.

This has probably been taken too far in some denominations and eras. In earlier times there was a focus on guilt. We were basically guilty sinners that couldn’t get enough pain and misery. We deserved hardship, to put it bluntly. Nevertheles, there’s no doubt that this was an important precondition for the emergence of capitalism. It was the protestant work ethics, or guilt and anxiety, that made prosperity possible. This isn’t very surprising because it’s only reasonable to assume that people believing they serve God every morning they go to work, have a strong internal motivation. This kind of thinking will benefit far more than the individual or its family. It’s good for the whole society, especially as many have lost the strong guilt Christians struggled with in the past. There is a more positive focus today.

God didn’t make it easy for us. He gave us a free will and we constantly see that we use this freedom to commit evil acts. It’s never easy doing the right thing, but I believe it’ll help thinking that our future depends on how we act. Some will surely say that the protestant ethics that shaped our civilization, also enslaved us, but there is an interesting before and after-image that has evolved in the West. One wonders if a strong protestant culture did more good for a greater number of people than we are seeing today. At some point people defending the secular system must ask themselves, what happened to the positive hope for a future? Is that even possible if you don’t believe in anything?

Max Weber
Normative ethics


3 thoughts on “The uncomfortable ethics of Christianity and the rise and fall of capitalism

  1. I tend to agree. If the only remaining virtue a people hold sacred is freedom they will self destruct . But I personally believe that our loss of focus on Christ and our emphasis on religion devoid of a relationship with Christ is the heart of our undoing.
    Thus the guilt emphasis devoid of reciprocal love.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I agree that people would do better with their focus on Christ. It’s pretty ironic that people think they are getting more freedom without religion, but it appears that many of our freedoms are shrinking.

  2. I can’t remember the book, chapter, or verse, but there is a verse in the Bible that says something like……”Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.” Liberty without God becomes license. In the U.S. it seems like the only “liberties” we have left are the “liberties” that defy Biblical teachings.

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