Max Weber: The Protestant Ethic

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a book written by Max Weber, a German sociologist, economist, and politician. In his book, Weber argues that the theological ideas of protestant sects such as the Calvinists played a role in creating the morality of capitalism. Calvinists believe in predestination–that God has already determined who is saved and damned. As Calvinism developed, a deep psychological need for clues about whether one was actually saved arose, and Calvinists looked to their success in worldly activity for those clues. Thus, they came to equate material success and financial gain as signs of God’s favor.

Weber asserts that the modern spirit of capitalism sees profit as an end in itself, and the pursuit of profit as a virtuous endeavor. As a consequence, capitalism promotes the notion that socioeconomic differences are the measure of one’s virtue — or lack thereof. Theologically this has resulted in the emergence of what has been termed The Prosperity Gospel — socioeconomic differences are divinely ordained, therefore, material prosperity is the sign of God’s blessing upon the faithful while those who lack means have been deemed unworthy.

The ethical problem with such a simplistic political and religious model is that it not only provides credence for the vilification of the poor, but it also supplies a moral justification for failing to seek a more egalitarian social arrangement. Things are the way they should be, any lack of equality is due to a lack of virtue, effort or God’s favor. This relieves adherents of any duty to acknowledge that social injustices such as corruption, patronage or exploitation occur, let alone that they have any moral responsibility in  effectuating change.

Video supplied by the BBC Radio 4 series about life’s big questions – A History of Ideas.

This project is from the BBC in partnership with The Open University, the animations were created by Cognitive.

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