Economists, Theologians Discuss Morality of Capitalism

Kathryn Tanner, professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, delivers her presentation titled "Is Capitalism a Belief System?" during the afternoon session of Trinity Institute's "Building an Ethical Economy" conference, Jan. 28, 2010. (Photo: The Ecumenical Press)

The moral potential of capitalism was the topic of discussion Thursday afternoon during the second session of the "Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Marketplace" conference in New York City.

Delivering a presentation entitled "Is Capitalism a Belief System?" University of Chicago Divinity School Professor Kathryn Tanner gave "moral support" for the free market system, outlining how its inherent characteristics could potentially work in tandem with Christian ideals.

"All that free markets absolutely require is individuals in pursuit of their own goals; those goals do not have to be selfish or greedy ones. Self-interested action becomes equivalent to selfishness only if the only thing one cares about is oneself; but human beings typically pursue, often in part for moral reasons, goals that include the wellbeing of others--the wellbeing at least of the family and friends they love-and the market in that case becomes a way of achieving those ends," Tanner said.

"For similar reasons, the market need not be predicated on materialism; it simply presumes that people are motivated to better their condition, to improve themselves; and that the accumulation of material wealth, under market conditions in particular, is generally conducive to that betterment."

"This hardly implies, however, that people engage in market transactions only to meet their material needs. Nor does it imply that people want above all else to maximize their monetary wealth or income; they may well have ultimate life goals of a non-materialist-that is, of a spiritual or moral--sort.

Continuing on, Tanner explained that markets foster a culture of co-dependence and cooperation, and that this inherent social element makes the market subject to moral scrutiny.

"This social character of the market makes it a moral matter. The market is not just a means to goals that are subject to moral evaluation, of special interest because of its purported efficiency in allocating means to ends. The market is a particular system of social cooperation, and as such naturally raises questions about our duties and responsibilities to one another," she said.

The nature of such responsibilities was explored in the panel discussion following Tanner's presentation, where questions about the role of the U.S. as a "benevolent giant" in the global economy and the inclusion of the environment in economic debate were brought up.

In commenting on Tanner's presentation, Dr. Dasiy Machado, professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, pointed out that the "ideologies of nationhood" can "color how markets are understood," saying that ideas tied to the U.S.' historical role as a "city on a hill" have directed the country's understanding not only about markets but about race, citizenship and immigration as well.

"Exceptionalism…continues to fuel a very clear fear of immigrants, especially those from the southern borders," she said.

Machado also noted that Christianity does little to shape proper ideals for the marketplace when it itself is being shaped by "non-Gospel ideals" such as the "American Dream," and hinted that the "prosperity gospel" movement could possibly impede Christianity's "ability to provide and critique the realities of capitalist markets."
In addressing how to include ecology into the practices of an ethical economy, Partha Dasgupta, economics professor at the University of Cambridge said that such an effort will require "collective action from the ground up."

"One thing's for sure, markets won't solve everything," Dasgupta said, noting that nature needs to be "brought into account…into economic reasoning" to be properly considered.

"As Christians we're called to consider nature in a way that it hasn't been considered," Tanner said at the close of the discussion

"It's a very crucial point."

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