return to Lectures

University of Southern California, Los Angeles 
August 23, 1983

Is Capitalism Compatible with "Traditional Morality"?


Robert N. Bellah


The question whether capitalism is compatible with "traditional morality" is clearly on the agenda because of our current political situation. On the best evidence we have, Ronald Reagan was elected president by a coalition of people, some of whom wanted to "unleash free enterprise" to see if business would do what government seemed unable to do-that is, get us moving economically again, others of whom wanted to return to traditional morality, and of course some who wanted both. "Traditional Morality" is itself a tricky concept with more than one meaning. For some it is a narrow legalistic idea involving punitive measures against teenage sex, gays, unwed mothers and any other deviants from a stereotypical patriarchal family pattern. For others, traditional morality means an ability to transcend immediate self-interest and gratification and sustain loyalties and commitments to family, friends and fellow workers. It means a generally positive evaluation by family, neighborhood and work as against unrestrained hedonism.

Ronald Reagan and sophisticated defenders of his program such as Michael Novak believe capitalism and traditional morality in either the narrow or the broad sense of the term are compatible, indeed mutually reinforcing. I believe they are not and will try to show the ways in which capitalism undermines traditional morality. Since we live in a capitalist society in which traditional morality is not doing very well those who argue for compatibility must show some other cause for the decline of morality. Since Reagan offers little by way of explanation I will turn instead to Novak's ideas, representative as they are of much neo-conservative thinking.

Novak blames our moral decline on certain values and attitudes carried by what he and others call "the new class," composed of government bureaucrats, certain professionals, academics and mass media people. These people have been influenced by "modernist literature" which has held up to scorn traditional moral and spiritual beliefs. This new class influences the rest of us through education and the mass media, particularly television, through such programs as the Donahue show that say in effect, anything goes.

This argument is not new. It goes right back to the beginnings of capitalism. From early on some acute observers worried about the tendency of capitalism to destroy the moral fabric of society. The problem arises from something close to the central nature of capitalism itself, something on which Adam Smith and Karl Marx agreed: namely, as stated by Robert Heilbroner recently, "the life of capitalism is its incessant and insatiable drive to accumulate wealth." Now two defenses of capitalism have been erected against the charge that this drive to accumulate wealth is destructive of morality.

One is to say that private selfishness leads to public benefit. If each of us busily pursues our self-interest, the invisible hand of the market will assure that overall productivity will increase and in a more affluent society morals will actually improve. This optimistic theory was not even entirely convincing to Adam Smith. It is clear that greed, a primordial human motive, can and often has gotten out of hand. Unrestrained greed can undermine even the conditions of a market economy, lead to lack of trust, and destroy economic vitality.

So it was seen by Smith and others, no one more clearly than Alexis de Tocqueville, that capitalism needed a moral context to be rational and efficient-not naked self-interest but, as Tocqueville put it, self-interest rightly understood, enlightened self-interest, that combined one's own ambition with concern for others.

Tocqueville warned that the "excessive and exclusive taste for material well being" among Americans was a great danger. It could lead to our isolation, our withdrawal into the purely private sphere, where we care only about family and friends and are unconcerned about others, so that finally we may be "shut up in the solitude of our own hearts." That is the prelude to despotism. Only an authoritarian state can control a society of utterly selfish competing individuals.

Tocqueville and Weber after him argued that the moral ecology that limited the extreme egoism of capitalism was supplied by our religious institutions and our habits of civic participation, particularly in local government and voluntary associations.

One can see in the history of the last couple of centuries the vicissitudes of capitalist greed-the extent to which greed at moments gets out of control and becomes morally and socially destructive-and then the moral ecology is reasserted and strengthened-usually not only with social but with economic benefits. One such period of the outbreak of unrestrained greed was the end of the 19th century when the triumph of the robber barons led to widespread corruption in politics and private life and a faltering of public morale. The rise of the social gospel, social legislation and labor unions mitigated the worst excesses of that earlier period.

Today some people are arguing that the danger is cropping up anew. Irving Howe says that not since the 1890s have we seen so naked a display of vulgarity and greed among America's economic elite. There is more than a little evidence to indicate that he is right. A full-page advertisement for Fortune magazine in the New York Times of February 1, 1983, said, "Society's decided that now it's O.K. to be up-front about the drive for success. Isn't that what the fast track is all about?" David Stockman in the famous Atlantic interview concerning the tax cut early in the Reagan administration said, "The hogs were really feeding. The greed level just got out of control." The National Republican Party Handbook for the 1982 congressional campaign stated: "Greed is the only consistent human motive," until withdrawn and revised. And Justin Dart, one of Ronald Reagan's close friends, in a Los Angeles Times interview in 1982, said, "I have never looked for a business that's going to render a service to mankind. I figure that if it employs a lot of people and makes a lot of money, it is in fact rendering a service to mankind. Greed is involved in everything we do. I find no fault with that."

Let us turn to the test case of television. Is television the product of the new class seeking to undermine both capitalism and traditional morality? Or is television, itself a major instrument of capitalism, leading, not through intent but through the logic of the bottom line, to the impoverishment of our moral life?

Todd Gitlin, in his forthcoming book Vertical Hold, has undertaken an intensive study of television to discover how prime time programs are created, selected and survive. Television portrays, Gitlin argues, not some ideological critique of capitalism, even though businessmen are often depicted as selfish and dishonest, but rather an idealized and glorified picture of it:

[W]ith few exceptions, prime time gives us people immersed in personal ambition. If they are not consumed by ambition, and the fear of ending up a loser, they take both the ambition and the fear for granted. If they are not surrounded by middle-class arrays of consumer goods, they are themselves glamorous incarnations of desire. The happiness they long for is private, not public; they make few demands on society as a whole, and even when troubled they seem content with the existing order of institutions. Personal ambition and consumerism are the driving force of their lives. The sumptuous and brightly lit settings of most series amount to advertisements for a consumption-centered version of the good life. And this is not to mention the incessant commercials, which convey the idea that human aspiration for liberty, pleasure, accomplishment, and status can be achieved in the realm of consumption. The relentless background hum of prime time is the packaged good life.

Gitlin's analysis seems to corroborate the trend we have been discerning. The dominant message of television, he says, is personal ambition and consumerism-the Fortune magazine ad dramatized and serialized and flooding our consciousness-and with very little moral ecology to put the relentless pursuit of self-interest-or more bluntly, greed-in any ameliorative perspective.

As I have indicated, when the profit motive becomes all consuming and short-term, when it approximates what the classic moralists call "greed," it is not only socially and morally irrational, it is also economically irrational. The same thing is evident in American business management for the past 10 or 15 years. Robert H. Hayes of the Harvard Business School in a series of essays in the Harvard Business Review sums it up in the title of one of his articles: "Managing Our Way to Economic Decline." The preoccupation with financial management that looks only tot the quarterly profit statement has edged out the concern with hands-on production and the primary obligation to create the best possible product. Sometimes the evidence is massive. U.S. Steel-already in a bad competitive position with foreign steel producers-spends eight billion dollars to buy Marathon Oil, eight billion that could well have gone into modernizing steel production-and with falling oil prices, that eight billion may well prove ill-spent even in terms of the short-sighted motives that impelled it.

But what about those who respond to the siren song of the Fortune ad and try to get on the "fast track" that society now says is O.K. What is the price that we pay for a form of life that is so narrowly self-regarding?

Daniel J. Levinson in The Season of A Man's Life writes,

[T]he executive . advances during his thirties toward a marker event of special significance-a key promotion, a better job in a new company or some other change indicating that he has "made it." To the extent that this culminating event works out favorably, the executive completes his Settling Down and is launched into a new occupational and social world.

For a few executives this event had a highly favorable outcome, but for most it was a failure or a flawed success. For every executive at about 40 who gains the prize and the affirmation he has been seeking, there are perhaps twenty who get little or nothing. (The failure results partly from individual incompetence, partly from organizational power struggles and mainly from the pyramidal structure of management.)

If a man succeeds, he must deal with the bittersweet consequences of success; the world he enters is likely to differ enormously from anything he had anticipated and to raise fundamental questions about himself and his life. If he fails in certain crucial respects, he must come to terms with the implication of the failure. A man who is stopped or slowed down at this point has little hope for further advancement. Nagging questions present themselves: To what extent have I failed? What does the failure mean-what does it say about me as a person and about the occupational-social world I have been so involved in? What alternative options interest me and how feasible are they?

Finally, what about the vast majority who never make it onto the fast track at all except vicariously in watching television? Michael Novak, some ten years ago, described the plight of the blue collar worker in a society that prizes not the product but only the bottom line:

Cynicism marks the laborer's life. That is the radical defect of our technology, constructed as it is upon the ideology of power, objectivity, efficiency, and production.. . what our experts (and ideologies) have done is to deprive the workingman of art. To confine him to crowded and noisy homes, to polluted sections of the cities, to poor and dispirited educational systems, to a horizonless income peak, to a constant stream of silent contempt-all this was bad enough. But to take from him, as well, pride in the arts of his own hands was to strip his spirit raw. When work becomes "a job," violence accumulates beneath the surface of the skin.

What seems clear to me is that the unrestrained greed that capitalism at the moment seems to be propagating is the chief threat to our morality, traditional or otherwise, as well as being socially and even economically destructive. The structure of moral ecology in our society is badly torn. It cannot be recreated only by government though government has a part to play. Our economic institutions themselves must be reformed, must be oriented to a richer variety of purposes than the quarterly profit statement. We know from European examples that businesses under far more social obligation than American business can be more economically effective than American business. This is not the place to spell out the needed reforms, but the need is clear.

Herman Melville over a hundred years ago saw in Captain Ahab the quintessential American when Ahab said, "All my means are sane, my ends alone are mad. The Episcopal chaplain at Berkeley describes the present student mood in saying that they feel they are competing for first class staterooms on the Titanic.

Jesus told us that if we are consumed with maniacal self-love we will lose our own souls even though we gain the whole world. Today our self-love threatens not only to destroy our souls but to destroy the world as well in a nuclear catastrophe. It is not too late to change our ways but time is running out.

return to Lectures