Thursday, April 21, 2011

Greed, Sex and Public Morality

Republicans, according to stereotype, are overly concerned with what other people do with their bodies, while Democrats are overly concerned with what other people do with their money. So it was interesting, and unexpected, to read an article encouraging a renewed aversion to greed in the latest issue of First Things magazine, which decidedly falls on the conservative side of the spectrum. It forced me to reconsider some basic assumptions I have made about wealth, capitalism, and morality.

The author of the piece, Edward Skidelsky, argues that our elites have lost the traditional, still-popular view that there is something wrong with being greedy, that it is an essentially disordered, wicked activity. This notion, which your average modern economist might dismiss as juvenile, has a rich heritage. As Skidelsky puts it:
Explanation of this point requires a brief excursus into Aquinas’ theory of acts and ends. An act, for Aquinas, has two ends: one “proximate,” which is what makes it the kind of act it is, the other “ultimate,” which is what the agent aims at in acting. If either end is bad, the act as a whole is bad. A good ultimate end cannot redeem a bad proximate end; thieving to help the poor is still thieving.
He goes on to say that most thinkers in western history, up until the Enlightenment, took it as a given that trying to accumulate more money or things than you needed is wrong, no matter if it leads to good things happening. But one of the views of the Enlightenment was the economic view of man, the belief that our wealth-building activities enhance human progress as a whole. Skidelsky notes:
This transformation of attitudes to wealth creation cleared the ground for the new science of political economy. Having been demoralized, so to speak, economic acts became open to analysis and assessment in terms of their effects, intended or otherwise. They could enter into a calculus. It now made sense to ask, for instance, whether it might not be more beneficial in the long run to let corn prices fluctuate freely, even in a famine, than to regulate them—a question that could not have been decently posed when the duty to feed the poor was regarded as absolute. Without this prior demoralization of economic activity, [Adam] Smith’s enterprise would have been unthinkable. Aquinas, for instance, would have regarded it as akin to an earnest discussion of the benefits of cutting up a hospital patient and distributing his organs among others.
Now, I have accepted uncritically that the best way to improve the well-being of all is to allow individuals to pursue their own self-interest. And I don't see how you can renounce that principle without setting some group (whether the command-and-control planners of the Soviet Union or the divine-rights kings of old Europe or some body of clerics) as the arbiters of what is allowed and what is forbidden. But do we need to promote the idea of material success as a complete good? is there room for guilt about greed in a capitalistic society?

I struggled with these thoughts for a little while, but then was absorbed in another First Things article, I began another, this time "Religion, Reason and Same-Sex Marriage" by Matthew J Franck. In this piece, Franck expands on an earlier article where he argued that anti-gay marriage arguments are not based solely on irrational bias and have a place in the public debate. I have outlined my position on gay marriage on the blog in the past: namely, that we have gone so far away from the traditional sense of marriage already, and it makes so little sense for the state to license romantic companionship, that we ought to eliminate civil marriage entirely. Franck, as you might imagine, takes a different view:
Yet another danger may await us in the event that traditional views of sexual morality are overthrown and same-sex marriage is established. We see a sign of it in the driving of Catholic Charities out of adoption services in Massachusetts. The freedom to participate fully in civic life, to offer oneself to others in civil society, conscientiously on one’s own terms as a religious person professing one’s beliefs, may be jeopardized by this new dispensation.
Franck, along with many other observers, thinks the adoption of gay marriage and the host of cultural assumptions that go along with it will push Christians out of public life. This may be possible in the long term, though it is unlikely to happen any time soon in a majority-Christian nation.

So, to recap: we have two articles. One is about the ubiquity of greed in our society and of the need to curtail it, and one is a reaction to the legal advance of gay marriage. What do they have in common? In my view, both authors commit the fallacy of equating laws and government action with public morality as a whole. Look at this quote from Skidelsky:
Democratic states use economic incentives all the time to encourage motives and ways of life considered to be civilized. They limit hours of work, restrict or forbid Sunday trading, regulate where and how advertisers may operate. In a utilitarian political culture, such legislation is usually justified on grounds of economic efficiency or “health and safety,” but its unacknowledged motive is ethical. These states wish to erect safeguards against the powerful human tendency to rapacity.

If we acknowledged the legitimacy of such motives, we might think of many further ways in which the power of the state could be harnessed to discourage avarice. Of course, such proposals will encounter the objection of “paternalism,” but there is nothing inherently paternalistic about a citizen body collectively deciding to encourage certain forms of life and discourage others.
It's true that society's laws are an important benchmark of what is acceptable and what isn't, but they are far from the only ones. The culture of a society can be an equally powerful force in shaping behavior, and yet both Skidelsky and Franck are primarily concerned with whether the law advances or challenges their beliefs about the well-ordered life.

It is probably easier to change the laws to reflect the kind of society you want than to change the culture, but I would argue that a truly Christian response to the problems of materialistic greed and sexual amorality are to build up a virtuous alternative in Christian communities, prove the superiority of that way of life and then share it with others. This may be a libertarian point of view that borders on the naive, but the law that supports our beliefs on Monday may change to oppose them by Friday. (This is, in fact, what is happening with marriage laws.) If we can encourage a truly neutral state in matters of morality and culture (which I admit is a high challenge itself) than Christians should be confident that living out their beliefs will show others a better way. Public morality should be built (and renewed) from the ground up by moral individuals, not imposed from the top down by the state.

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