Is Capitalism Immoral? An Interview with Father Robert Sirico
A moral case for a "free economy" has been approached in various ways, historically speaking. How do you approach your "case" and why does that matter?
I suppose you could say that my approach begins and ends in the anthropological: a consideration of who man is in his corporality and his transcendence, and likewise in his freedom and relatedness. Humans act to fulfill a need, but they don't act like any other animal because every animal, except man, acts on instinct. Man, however, can transcend instinct and use his reason to create, sustain, and build. He normally does this via the use of property, which happens when he draws from nature and refashions or employs it in a way that it was not used before, offering to others who in turn value the exchange.
There is something deeply autobiographical about your own "moral case for a free economy," isn't there? How has your own journey shaped your voice on this topic?
Coming from a rather vivid place (Brooklyn, New York, circa 1950's) I have led a rather vivid life (and, in some periods, a deeply regretted life). I suppose that many of those encounters and memories formed the way I looked at the world (especially my encounter with a Holocaust survivor which I recount at the outset of the book). Add to that the fact that I have been a public speaker for most of my life, and you have the parabolic nature of the narrative.
Economics is not called the "dismal science" for nothing. I wanted my book to be accessible, but not simplistic; so I resorted to the use of stories. Of course, Jesus does such a masterful job in his parables, and in my homilies I have found that I can relate serious matters to a diverse congregation if I can devise the right story. There is no higher compliment to a preacher than when a child and a college professor tell you that they got something out of your homily.
That's some helpful context to the book. Regarding, "capitalism" many view its anthropology—homo economicus -- as fairly complete. A lot of social, economic and political theory assumes it. Why is that a problem?
The economic man of capitalism has no culture. That is the problem with homo economicus. But real human beings do. I cite a friend of mine who wrote about these matters years ago, Rev. Edmund Opitz, now deceased. He put it so well when he observed that the free market reflects everything that human beings in their free and peaceful actions represent, because it is nothing other than that.
I want to underscore that the free economy in a free society is conducive to human flourishing, but human flourishing certainly needs more than freedom: it needs objective standards of right and wrong, that is, virtue—the virtues revealed to us through reason and which receive confirmation through Revelation.
Speaking of culture and capitalism, what do you make of the late Daniel Bell's thesis regarding the "cultural contradictions of capitalism"? How does a culture as an ecology shape economic processes, systems, powers, etc.?
As I recall Professor Bell's thesis, it seems to be good in identifying many of these "cultural contradictions" but weak in clearly establishing the cause-and-effect relationship between a decaying culture and the market. I certainly agree with many of his observations, including the emphasis he places on religion as the remedy for the temptations we all experience in the free society. This is precisely why I am attempting to ground the free economy upon adequate and coherent moral—and ultimately theological—foundations.
Joseph E. Gorra is the Managing Editor of Philosophia Christi, the peer-reviewed journal of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He has also interviewed other philosophers, theologians and other theorists on virtue, economics and the free society for EPSOCIETY.org. At Patheos.com, he recently interviewed Stanford anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, about her research regarding evangelical religious experiences. Twitter: @GorraResearch.
You can learn more about Fr. Sirico and the work of the Acton Institute, including their various publishing efforts, educational programs and online resources, by visiting www.acton.org.