The Protestant work ethic

Our post in honor of Vocation Day, which used to be called Labor Day. . . .

Max Weber, one of the founders of modern sociology, credited the doctrine of vocation for the rise of  the modern economy in his 1920 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Now, there are  problems with Weber’s thesis and his approach, as scholars have been noting.  Theologically, he emphasizes Calvin’s doctrine of vocation, which stresses your job, rather than Luther’s, which includes how you make your living but also covers marriage, parenthood, and citizenship.  Weber also says that success at your work was seen as a way to convince yourself of your election (which I’m not sure Calvinists actually believed), while Luther sees the purpose of all vocations as love and service to one’s neighbor.  Luther sees vocation in light of the Gospel, so that such love is a fruit of faith.  Vocation isn’t about the value of your own works, since God is working through you in your calling.

Anyway, Weber popularized the notion of the “Protestant work ethic.”

I’m not sure that a strong moral emphasis on working hard is always healthy, especially if there is an insufficient emphasis on the Gospel, that the only work that saves you is Christ’s rather than your own.  Still, Weber could be right that a certain misreading of the doctrine of vocation has had a broad cultural and economic effect.

One perhaps unfortunate side effect of this alleged Protestant work ethic is that Protestants apparently feel worse about being unemployed than people of other religions.  Joshua Keating reports research to that effect in an article he wrote for Slate, Is the Protestant work ethic real? A new study claims it can be measured., in Slate:

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published in 1904 and today considered one of the foundational texts of modern sociology, Max Weber argued that European industrial capitalism had its origins in the Protestant Reformation. More specifically, he made the case that Protestant theology developed the idea of work and economic activity as a God-given “calling,” which caused people in Protestant societies to develop a strong work ethic, leading to the development of European capitalism.

The thesis remains controversial, and several studies looking at the relationship between Protestantism and economic growth have suggested there’s little empirical basis for it. But a recent paper (via HBR) by economists Andre van Hoorn and Robbert Maseland of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands takes a different approach, looking not at the outcome of work ethic but at the actual value people placed on work.

Using data from the European and World Values Surveys—global studies in which people are asked to describe their economic circumstances and subjectively assess their own well-being—they examined a sample of 150,000 individuals from 82 societies to see how people felt about unemployment. They found that while unemployment reduces well-being regardless of religious denomination, “it has an additional negative effect for Protestants of about 40 percent the size of the original effect.” In other words, “the individual level unemployment hurts Protestants much more than it does non-Protestants.”

The effect also applies for people living in predominantly Protestant societies, even if they are not Protestant themselves. When they examined self-reported happiness ratings, as opposed to well-being as a whole, they found the “negative effect of unemployment … to be twice as strong for Protestants compared to non-Protestants.”

via Is the Protestant work ethic real? A new study claims it can be measured..

So what would a proper work ethic, in light of vocation, look like?

 

UPDATE:  By the way, Weber’s most important insight was not about vocation and the work ethic but about the way wealth accumulated under Protestantism.  He said that Puritan merchants often became very wealthy, but they hated ostentatious displays.  So instead of building themselves expensive palaces to display their wealth and status to the world, as was common among Catholic merchants (think Florence, Italy), Puritans saved their money, giving rise to modern banking, and invested it, either in plowing the profits back into their own businesses or investing in new businesses started by other people.  Hence, a particular Protestant sensibility led to the accumulation of capital and thus to the rise of capitalism.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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