Morality or Religion in Economic Life for Winthrop Smith Thoreau and Marx Term Paper

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American History, And Political Theory

The role of morals and religious values in a nation's economic activity.

In our nation, the current politically correct cry is to separate moral issues from the public arena. The affairs of church and state should be forever separated. The associated corollary, one which is likely not spoken but clearly assumed by those who propagate the separation doctrine is that religious thoughts, morals, and ethics should also not be present in the market place. The assumption is that moral reasoning is only a bigoted and discriminatory belief system which seeks separate people, and is therefore harmful to the harmonious development of a nation.

However, this atheistic belief system was neither supported nor taught by those who built the context of our national heritage. Those who came to this country were devoted sojourners from many different faiths. Most of those who settled in the original colonies each understood that morals are the governing forces within mankind's affairs. The framers of our constitution went so far as to insist that men's rights, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were rights given to us by an inalienable Creator, and because these rights came into our lives by a higher authority, men should also recognize the rights, honor them, and thereby align their own decisions to the wished of the creator who had blessed this new nation.

AWe hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Never before has such a bold assumption been pushed forward as for the reason for a peoples= existence. This assumption guided and gauged each area of the new republic. Thomas Jefferson's declaration, which has guided the path of our nation through two hundred years of unique existence is that we hold the truth to be self-evident, that all men, (and women) are created equal, and endowed by there Creator with certain undeniable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. AT the heart of our national identity is religious ethic, and those who wrote about national life, until only recently, echoed the recognition that religious thought belong in, and regulate national life, including economic behaviors.

Winthrop, in his writing regarding a model for Christian life did not disagree with Jefferson's statement. He did not express the need to support it. Nor did he have to justify, or defend belief in the way which religious morals affect all of life. Winthrop used Christian thought as the basis for understanding the economic dealings with one another. Winthrop used concepts from a Christian bible to explain how a social order can be built in a society which obviously had members which were wealthy and others who were poor. The different levels of abundance which members enjoyed were factors which a society could use to draw itself together in Christian charity, or love. For Winthrop, religious values were the motivation behind the power to earn wealth, and the guidelines on how to use it.

Winthrop wrote that differing levels of economic achievement would be forever present in society. Rather than try to change the economic realities which were on display all around him (as did Marx) he believed that the different levels of success were present because God has given men different levels of talents. No one can deny that some men have a talent for one type of work, while others are suited for another. The results of the different gifts were that men would rise to different levels of economic status within the community. Winthrop understood this as a fact of life and as a positive experience for the community. Winthrop wrote, and this was accepted by society which was largely religious at the time, that different levels of economic achievement were a moderating influence on society. Men should use their talent to benefit others out of Christian love. Winthrop wrote that men have need of others, and that we would forever be brought together to find fulfillment of that need by responding to the economic disparity that existed between us.

Smith also accepted the reality of religious ethic as a moderating force within society. For Smith, his concern was also how members of the society would allow religious ethics to govern their behavior. Smith recognized that different peoples would attain to different levels of economic stature. He did not argue with the accepted experience of all of mankind, that some earn more money than others. He was also concerned for how men treated each other in that he wanted men to look at their own moral character in relationship to the wealth which they accumulated. At the heart of Book I, Chapter 3 is the belief that riches were a corrupting influence, and those who were able to earn more in their economic efforts needed to watch their own actions, and moderate their actions with Christian principles.

Smith wrote that we all admire those who are wealthy, because we want to be wealthy. We also tend to shy away from those who are poor, because we also do not want others to know when we suffer, and are poor. He goes on to write:

In the middling and inferior stations of life, the road to virtue and that to fortune, to such fortune, at least, as men in such stations can reasonably expect to acquire, are, happily in most cases, very nearly the same. In all the middling and inferior professions, real and solid professional abilities, joined to prudent, just, firm, and temperate conduct, can very seldom fail of success. Abilities will even sometimes prevail where the conduct is by no means correct. Either habitual imprudence, however, or injustice, or weakness, or profligacy, will always cloud, and sometimes depress altogether, the most splendid professional abilities. Men in the inferior and middling stations of life, besides, can never be great enough to be above the law, which must generally overawe them into some sort of respect for, at least, the more important rules of justice."

In other words, both ethics and economy guided the affairs of men. Both were consequences of his choices, and exercised affective influence over his affairs.

Thoreau, writing a century later, has oven been quoted as the support and precursor to Marx, but this is an incorrect reading of his thoughts. In his essay Civil Disobedience, Thoreau begins with the famous quote of those who want to eliminate rules from the affairs which govern men.

HEARTILY ACCEPT the motto, -- "That government is best which governs least" and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe, -- "That government is best which governs not at all"; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient." shallow, 20th century reading of his dissertation would suggest that Thoreau wanted to throw of the fetters of government and let men determine their own course. This was Marx's approach to religious thought - that religious ethics only created discord between individuals, and therefore should be forsaken. However, those who read Thoreau need to carefully understand his statement "When men are prepared for it..."

What makes man ready to govern himself? Will the selfish pursuit of profit for one's own benefit without concern for others prove that a man is able to govern himself? Modern and ancient examples of this hedonist politic have demonstrated that such a pursuit is destructive to the economy, and personal well-being of all but a few. No, Thoreau knew that men need to be governed by an inner commitment to the mutual well-being of others as well as themselves in order to govern themselves and the affairs of a nation. He knew that mutually accepted belief in religious principles, such as those ascribed by Winthrop, were the necessary ethics to guide the affairs of men. Thoreau insisted that when men were ready to govern themselves by this high standard of religious ethic, then they would be ready to do away with government regulation.

Marx, however, was on the outside looking in when it came to understanding how the affairs of man needed to be governed by adherence to a higher principle than one which they could construct for themselves. For Marx, religion was the main source of dispute between rival people groups, and religious ethic only separated individuals into warring social classes.

Marx tried to draw out the practical consequences of his experience of social orders. He wanted to prove that creation of value through investment of human labor was a motivating force for individual to bond together into cohesive and effective groups. To the very extent that the process was not allowed to be…[continue]

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