Posts tagged with: moral theology

This week’s Acton Commentary:

Our economic life is concerned with more than just the objective exchange of goods and services. Far from being morally neutral, it is an expression of how we understand our dependence on God and neighbor and is the means by which we fulfill, or not, our obligations toward them. Both for reasons of morality as well as long term economic efficiency, we cannot overlook or minimize the centrality of personal virtue, and of a culture of virtue, to the success of the free market. It is not enough for me to be good; we must be good together. Or at minimum, and whatever our personal moral shortcomings, culturally we must value and reward moral excellence.

Jack Cashill understands this and in his new book, Popes & Bankers: A Cultural History of Credit & Debt, From Aristotle to AIG, he traces the changing moral attitudes towards lending and borrowing in Western culture. From the beginning the author is clear that we cannot separate a conversation about debt and credit, and so the economics of the free market, from a conversation about our personal and cultural moral lives.

Quickly the author takes us through some 25 centuries of social history. Along the way we hear from Dante and Shakespeare. To my delight, The Merchant of Venice has a recurring role in Cashill’s analysis and he uses effectively the changing portrayals of Shylock to illustrate shifting cultural attitudes toward debt.

Aristotle and Aquinas also make an appearance and join a cast that includes Medieval popes, Renaissance Jewish lenders, Protestant Reformers, 19th Century American robber barons and financiers. And of course our favorite villains, the bankers, lenders and borrowers who figure so prominently in the recent economic collapse make an appearance. Though the tone is at time a bit too flippant for my tastes (especially when discussing the Medieval Catholic Church), the text offers a good historical overview of the cultural and moral debate about debt. Throughout the author highlights intimate connection between moral character and economic life.

Cashill locates our current distress in the gradual cultural changes in the “fifty or so years since interest rates” were last at 1 percent. This cultural shift has “had less to do with the behavior” of lenders and more to do with our unwillingness to censure “the behavior of consumers, especially the prodigal” among us. While not minimizing the “downside” of “major investment houses” shifting “from partnerships to corporations” (which both “democratized Wall Street” even as “it diminished long-term loyalty and distanced executives from the consequences of failure”) he locates our moral failure in our growing evermore “dependent on credit.”

Through governmental and private institutions, Western culture is now eager “to oblige its prodigals” and extend to them the credit that allows them to live, for a short time at least, above their means. In addition where once we thought of “prodigals as sinners” today we “think of them as they think of themselves–as victims.” Cashill points out that “the real divide in America today is not between left and right but between those who would sympathize” with the prodigals among us “and those who would not.” While we condemn “predatory lenders” we never even discuss, much less censure, the”predatory borrower” who also played a central role in the collapse of the housing market.

Ideally our willingness to go into debt reflects our confidence in the future and rather than a desire to fulfill momentary desires. For this reason, we should think of debt, as Cashill does (and as Western cultural has historically) as a profoundly moral and is not simply economic question. Because we have lost sight of the necessary connection between virtue and an efficient free market, we now face a widespread lack of confidence in the economy.

Our lack of confidence reflects a more fundamental a lack of trust in the future. To borrow from moral theology, the economic crisis is a crisis of despair; we have lost faith in the goodness of tomorrow.

So how do we reclaim hope in the economic sphere? As Aristotle has it, we must be “liberal.”

Needless to say Aristotelian liberality is markedly different than our contemporary understanding. For Aristotle to be liberal means that we not spend more than we have and then spend only “on the right objects.”

But true liberality can only exist within a living tradition of moral virtue. In our current circumstances we are sorely tempted to settle for merely technical solutions. Yes, these are important but what is needed most is repentance and the cultivation of the cardinal, and dare I say, theological, virtues. Whether this will happen or not depends on how we exercise our personal freedom and the decisions we make as a culture.

In any case Cashill’s work offers us a sound foundation from which to argue in the public square that our economic pursuits must take place within a “culture of life” and this is necessary not only morally but also for the efficient working of the free market.

Camarin M. Porter of the Department of History at University of Wisconsin-Madison reviews a text edited by Stephen J. Grabill, Sourcebook in Late-Scholastic Monetary Theory: The Contributions of Martin de Azpilcueta, Luis de Molina, and Juan de Mariana (Lexington, 2007). The review appears courtesy of H-Net, a unique and indispensable set of list-servs hosted by Michigan State University.

The Sourcebook includes translations into English of selected texts from the significant figures listed in the book’s subtitle, as well as a general introduction by Grabill and specialized introductions for each text: Azpilcueta’s Commentary on the Resolution of Money (1556), Molina’s Treatise on Money (1597), and Mariana’s Treatise on the Alteration of Money (1609).

In this extensive review, Porter writes, “For each of the three texts, the Sourcebook efficiently accomplishes its goal of setting each authors’ specific concerns in areas of moral theology and economics within full social and intellectual contexts.”

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, August 7, 2008
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Dr. Luckey

We welcome Acton adjunct scholar Dr. William R. Luckey, Professor of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College, to the PowerBlog. Dr. Luckey has expertise in Political Philosophy, Business and Economics, and Theology, and posts from his excellent Catholic Truths on Economics will be shared here. His tagline explains why he is a perfect fit for the PowerBlog: Guidance on Economics, its importance for Catholics, its importance to civilizations, and what are its objective truths. It might sound boring…but boy, we are all affected by it.

This is from his latest post, Are there economic laws?

In the latest edition of an otherwise scholarly theological journal, a writer, who only ever writes about one subject, attacked the free market as usual. He wrote: “Neither can economics be satisfied with leaving human beings to the mercy of markets with their supposed ‘laws.’. . .” While there is certainly no space to take on his whole article, this part might just be the most serious error in it.

This particular writer, and those trained in his school, which he denies is the German Historical School, but it is, operate from a nominalistic approach. Nominalism, a school of thought begun in the Middle Ages by the Franciscan, William of Ockham, denies that there is any human nature. Therefore, human beings have no necessary consistency in them. In ethics, each person makes up his own code, and the codes can be very much at odds. To a nominalist, everything is will alone, not reason. This is why the writer in question asserts that people are at the “mercy of markets.” To those who think like this, everything is power. Even in moral theology, the reason one obeys the Ten Commandments is that it’s God’s will only, and there is no connection with those commandments and the nature of things. God could have commanded ten other things we were to avoid, and we would be required to obey them, because they are His will, even if they were the opposite of those actually listed. (I am sure many people would not have any trouble with the commandments were that the case) Thus, to those who think in this manner, markets are power, and that’s why there are no laws of economics. That’s why corporations are evil; because money gives them power, which they use to take advantage of others.

Read more. Dr. Luckey takes on questions such as Does John Courtney Murray’s Defense of Freedom Extend to Economics? An Austrian Perspective. He also weighs in on The Calumny Against “Speculators” and Catholics, Calumny and Oil Prices. Great stuff.

Welcome, Bill!

Blog author: kschmiesing
Thursday, September 21, 2006
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The debate has not been confined to Catholic circles, but it has been concentrated there. Many (most?) American Catholic moral theologians of the post-Vatican II era have been enamored with one form or another of “proportionalism,” a theory of morality that eschews the traditional Catholic focus on the “intrinsic” goodness or badness of human acts. (Bad acts must be avoided always.)

Proportionalism’s critics have accused its adherents of being simply consequentialists by another name. Consequentialism, which permits using evil means to achieve a good end, is more clearly antithetical to Catholic orthodox theology and, therefore, proportionalists were concerned to deny the connection.

Though criticism—including magisterial criticism—of proportionalism has not been wanting, it might be argued that sustained scholarly criticism from within Catholic academia has. But that seems to be changing as notable young theologians and moral philosophers take up the question anew. First, there was Christopher Kaczor’s Proportionalism and the Natural Law Tradition. Now, there is Patrick Andrew Tully’s Refined Consequentialism, in which the author examines closely the work of the best known American Catholic proportionalist, Richard McCormick, and concludes that it cannot escape the charge of consequentialism.