Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jonathan Haidt on Dynamism With Decency

Over at EthicalSystems.org, social psychologist and the current Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at NYU-Stern Jonathan Haidt has an great post discussing capitalism and the role business plays and can play in creating an ethical environment. He writes,

Credit: Economic Growth: Unleashing the Potential of Human FlourishingWhen I tell people I teach business ethics, they often ask: “isn’t that an oxymoron?” Their response is not unwarranted. Much of my course is about the clever ways businesses have found to exploit their workers, sidestep regulations, and foist external costs onto others. Businesspeople are brilliant at finding opportunities and some of those opportunities are exploitative. Yet the great majority of businesses (in developed nations with low corruption) run quite ethically and survive only because they provide a good or service that makes other people’s lives better. When you take the big picture and see those hockey-stick graphs of rising prosperity in the West since 1800, and in Asia since 1980, I think you’ve got to start with the proposition that business is fundamentally good. Creating value for other people (and keeping some for yourself) is virtuous. When people are free to create value, it unleashes the tidal wave of human dynamism. Poverty plummets. When people are not free, you get torpor, North Korea, and Cuba.

In the cultural struggle between the exploitation and liberation view of capitalism, Haidt sides more so with the liberation outlook (as do I). However, he recognizes that the innovations brought about by capitalism also unleashes innovative ways to exploit. He hopes to encourage "non-governmental actors [to] find ways to raise the cost of bad behavior" and "help businesses maximize both dynamism and decency." 

Though I have some major reservations about it,[1] many of the concepts in liberation theology resonate with me.[2] Haidt's talk of liberation and ethics is an excellent example of the kind of framework I'm attempting with a Mormon theology of work.


1. For example, take the liberation interpretation of the Exodus: "One particularly important contemporary misapplication of the Exodus story is liberation theology...The basic thrust behind liberation theology is to see in the Exodus an essentially sociopolitical event that can then be transposed to any situation where one people is oppressed by another...This is not an atypical sentiment in liberation circles, but it is...a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of Israel's deliverance from Egypt. Israel's liberation from Egypt was a religious statement. God was claiming his right over Israel, to take his people out from under Pharaoh's rule and put them under his own rule. Exodus is not the story of Israel's release from Egypt, as if they now can go their merry way and build a Marxist-like utopia. Rather, they have left one form of slavery in order that they may be free to enter another form of slavery to Yahweh. It is a journey that does not merely take them out of Egypt, but to Mount Sinai and the law. Liberation theologians' use of the Exodus to support a wholly unshackled political freedom runs contrary to the story they are attempting to appropriate. The Exodus is not a story of liberation in the sense in which many use it today, but a story of salvation...It is...the foundational event in Israel's existence as a people before God" (Peter Enns, Exodus: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000, 291-292).

2. My main exposure is The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

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