A Christian Conception of Markets: Economics and Shadow Virtue (Part 11 of 12)

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What Transforms?

Some time ago I attended a workshop at a faith-based institution related to peace and conflict transformation.  To provide clarity, they defined peace at the onset: “Not the absence of conflict, but the presence of goodwill toward another” (which I believe is an outstanding definition).  Shortly after, however, they described the conditions necessary for this peace to occur: education, commerce, democracy, diversified labor force, investment, infrastructure, etc.

Now, there is little doubt these features make for a peaceful social arrangement.  However, it is questionable whether they can bring about the peace the presenters so eloquently defined?  Can democratic governance make me love my neighbor?  Can economic prosperity force me to evaluate the violence in my own heart?  Does education inevitably lead to shalom?  Will outside investment make me selfless?

I am skeptical.

While these features may help to minimize conflict—they cannot create goodwill.  In other words, achieving peace—as they define it—will require something more.  At best, then, they may achieve what I call “shadow peace”—it looks like the real thing, but upon closer inspection, it is found wanting.

With this in mind, I want to turn markets and virtue.  Can markets alone make me virtuous, or is it merely a shadow virtue?

Markets = Moral?

I once exchanged a series of emails with an important North American figure in Evangelical Christianity.  We were discussing capitalism and faith, and how the church should understand the relationship between the two.  While this person described capitalism as an amoral tool, they went on to write that it is the economic arrangement that “best encourages virtuous behavior by rewarding honesty, prudence, and thrift.”  For this and other reasons, they concluded that capitalism was not simply a potentially beneficial system, but a distinct moral imperative.

This idea is hardly new, and many advocate for capitalism and markets based upon similar rationale.  To provide an example, consider a recent article  which argues for capitalism because it fosters good manners, politeness, and other desirable virtues.  The author writes:

“The reason why the shoe salesman is motivated to act with courtesy and deference toward us when we are in his store is precisely because he cannot force on us to buy a pair of the shoes he wants to sell. We can walk down the mall corridor and buy those shoes from another seller interested in winning our business, or we can just go home without buying anything that day.”

To sell the shoe, so goes the logic, the salesman is encouraged to adopt a polite demeanor and treat the customer with respect.  In this sense, “winning the business”—and ultimately making a profit—requires the salesman to adopt socially desirable behaviors.

Even more recently, I attended an event where the speaker, a wealthy businessman, extolled the exercise of Christian values in the workplace because they create the best atmosphere by which to do business.  According to this line of thinking, virtues of the faith complement business practice.  As one New York Times article put it, “For some, the Bible is a kind of business manual you’d buy in an airport bookstore, offering timeless precepts that happen to maximize profits.”  For example, says the author, the virtue of trust—taught by Jesus himself—is “a precondition for an efficient marketplace.”

Acting Good and Being Good

What are we to make of these assertions?  I certainly agree that capitalism and the market system have inherent moral features.  Furthermore, I agree that markets are an effective tool to alleviate a host of social ills such as poverty.  I would even agree with the statement that capitalism can, and does, reward certain virtuous behaviors.

So, from a moral standpoint, there are good reasons to welcome capitalism and markets.  However, to suggest that we should embrace markets because they reward virtue is a dangerous proposition.  Here’s why:

First, notice that these arguments are made on inherently utilitarian terms.  What does that mean?  It means that the rightness of an action is bound up in the consequence it produces.  So, if being honest, prudent, and thrifty produces a good outcome (e.g., higher profits)—then I am encouraged to adopt these attributes.

But what if it was the other way around?

What if conniving, cut-throat selfishness produced greater output?  What if sabotaging another employee actually led to a promotion?  What if deceit and corruption increased the bottom line?  What if the propagation of fear incited greater productivity among workers?  We build our argument on “sinking sand” when we link our moral behavior solely to the outcomes it is said to produce (particularly when those outcomes are expressed in rigid economic terms).

Second, markets structures may incentivize virtuous behaviors, but this does not necessarily make me virtuous.  Like the aforementioned expression of peace (without the presence of goodwill)—I may act good, but that does not mean I am good.  Virtue that is expressed as a function of some other value is hollow; it is shadow virtue.  At best, it is incentivized; at worst, coerced.  It is a veneer—a kind of short-term posture; not a disposition.  We do well to remember that Christ is less concerned with what we do, and more concerned with what we do as a function of who we are—our character.

Holiness as the “Fully Human Life”

There are many forces that ultimately determine our behavior.  Whether peace, virtue, or any other character trait—we can imagine certain circumstances that call for us to act in a certain way.

Yet it is important to recognize that being changed from the inside out is a function of spiritual transformation—not the right incentive scheme.  Furthermore, we know that God desires truth “from the inside out” (Psalm 51:6; The Message).  This is different from a system that rewards ethical action with little to no consideration of moral agency.

So, can markets do good?  Yes.  Can markets incentivize me to act good?  Yes.  Can markets make me good?  No.

That occurs, as N.T. Wright puts it, under the vocation to holiness: “[T]he fully human life, reflecting the image of God, that is made possible by Jesus’ victory on the cross and that is energized by the Spirit of the risen Jesus present within communities and persons.”

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Dr. Kevin Brown is an Assistant Professor with the Howard Dayton School of Business at Asbury University. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, he spent the past four years teaching Business at Anderson University in Central Indiana. Prior to that, he worked for nearly a decade at Wells Fargo Bank, spending the last four years there as a branch president.

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