Digest of terms

capitalism

social and economic order based on the belief that human good is best served by free enterprise and competitive striving on the part of individuals and the organisations for whom they work. Three major areas of contention commonly arise in respect of the moral worth of capitalism. One concerns the determining power of beliefs in shaping societies, a second the differential effects of particular beliefs, and a third their comparative moral consequences.

The contrast often made with communism is that it starts with the social and economic infrastructure and endeavours to re-order that, whereas capitalism concentrates on freeing up the individual to 'do their own thing'. In practice, however, in a capitalist system the individual's room for manoeuvre may be hugely constrained by the given context and exponential deterioration relative to those who are better endowed. At the same time, communist attempts to reorder the infrastructure can become so oppressive that they too crush the individual. Scrutiny of the respective social implications, intended or not, of dominant worldviews, both religious and non-religious, is a vital and proper part of moral education.

(In regard to the power of beliefs in relation to material circumstances, their respective roles can be described as 'chicken and egg' - there cannot be one without the other. But the beliefs and ideas perspective stresses that the initiative lies there, whereas the perspective from social and economic needs and resources insists that it is these that make any real difference. Access to gold, oil or plutonium determine what happens. Both these views are classically explored by Max Weber. In distinction from a Marxist view which emphasises the role of social and economic needs and resources in shaping ideas and behaviour, Weber claims that the comparative history of human civilisations reveals beliefs as major determinants - Chinese, European and Indian.

Specifically Christian inspiration for this is found in the gospel Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), which can be interpreted to mean that trade, investment and risk-taking were commended by Jesus. According to Max Weber, it was the energy of the Protestant Ethic, with its conviction that work and wealth generation are appropriate ways of worshipping God, which fuelled the spirit of capitalism, reinforcing its emergence as a world force in 16th century Europe. In spite of well- documented abuses of commercial interest, and evidence of a widening gap between rich and poor, this argument has been restated by modern theologian Michael Novak. He has extended the theological rationale to include Roman Catholicism, whilst insisting that the desirable order is democratic capitalism. This, he argues, holds out a better prospect for addressing the needs of the poor globally than any centrally controlled approach, with its dulling of individual initiative.)

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