Protestant ethic

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Protestant ethic

A code of conduct derived from the redirection of Christian ASCETICISM by Puritan elements within Protestantism. Asceticism arose in CHRISTIANITY because zealous believers realized that methodical life-planning, self-control and self-denial were the best defences against the ethical inconsistency which offended God and so jeopardized the achievement of their ultimate end – salvation. In Catholicism, however, asceticism, was confined to the monasteries; it did not penetrate the lives of ordinary believers who remained trapped in the ethically inconsistent cycle of sin, repentance and renewed sin made possible by confession and indulgences. The Protestant ethic rested on a rejection of this dual morality and on an interpretation of monasticism as a selfish evasion of worldly responsibilities. Accordingly it demanded:
  1. that all believers maintain ethical consistency by means of ascetic regulation;
  2. that they do so, not in the monasteries, but in the faithful discharge of their worldly duties.

Principal among these duties were those associated with the believers’ occupations (callings, vocations). It was this emphasis that provided WEBER with the grounds for the conclusion reached in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930): namely, that, insofar as it influenced human conduct, the Protestant ethic had a major impact on post-Reformation capitalism. According to Weber, capitalistic conduct was based on individualistic profit-seeking. More analysis, however, disclosed that individual capitalists were animated by a feeling of moral responsibility towards their resources, to increase them without limit by hard work, moderate consumption and saving for investment. All the elements of asceticism were present in the resultant conduct; it was methodically planned, self-controlled, self-denying – with reference to consumption and leisure – and single-mindedly directed towards the achievement of an ultimate end – economic acquisition and expansion.

Conduct like this seemed to Weber to be the result of a fundamental transformation in human character and values. Human beings were not by nature ascetic; they were easy-going and inconsistent, preferred leisure to disciplined work and regarded the single-minded devotion to economic acquisition as antisocial and immoral. Since the profit motive and capitalist institutions existed outside the post-Reformation West, without giving rise to ethically legitimated ascetic acquisitiveness, Weber did not think that economic interests provided sufficient incentive for human beings to break the mould of nature and impose ascetic regulation on themselves. So what did?

Weber thought that religion did, and he cited the example of Catholic monasticism to prove it. Once Puritanism redirected this asceticism the achievement of the zealous believers’ ultimate end – the assurance of salvation – became linked to the discharge of their vocational obligations. God called Christians to serve Him by vocational activity. For this He gave them gifts of time, talent and resources and called them to work and save those resources so that His glory might be manifest in their use and increase. Idleness and thriftlessness, therefore, became the deadliest of sins, while the fruits of ascetically regulated diligence and thrift – growing profits and economic expansion – became valued as signs of God's blessing and thus provided believers with an assurance of salvation.

It was this need for assurance that forced people to undertake ascetic regulation. It arose because Puritan teachings about salvation caused anxiety. Puritans held that God granted salvation as a gift, either through predestination of a minority – as in Calvinism – or in an offer made directly to individuals – as in other traditions. Either way believers became anxious to assure themselves that they were amongst the saved. Since God dealt directly with individuals, proof could not be established through the mediation or sacramental ministry of the churches. It had to come through individual conviction developed by faith and a demonstration that God's grace had transformed an individual from the state of nature, indicated by ethical inconsistency, to the state of grace, proved through ascetic vocational conduct. Human character was thus changed; fear broke the mould of nature and forced people to become ruthless ascetics dedicated to work, saving and expansion.

Puritanism, therefore, provided capitalism with some signal services:

  1. it moulded a type of character ideally suited to expanding the system;
  2. it legitimated individualistic profit-seeking by making it a duty willed by God;
  3. it legitimated the division of labour by making specialist occupational activity a duty;
  4. it legitimated capitalist exploitation and work discipline by making conscientious labour a duty;
  5. it created a cultural climate in which poverty could be seen as a result of individual moral failings, i.e. idleness and thriftlessness, and so freed the successful, and the society, of responsibility of poverty. Capitalism, nevertheless, soon outgrew the religious origins of its spirit. In its developed form it rests on its own foundations; those who refuse to engage in capitalistically appropriate conduct will perish in the struggle for survival.

Weber's thesis generated a great unresolved conflict in which economic historians, church historians, theologians and other non-sociologists have taken part. Among other things, he has been accused of:

  1. failing to see that ethically uninhibited acquisitiveness and economic individualism were older than the Reformation (Robertson, 1933; Tawney, 1926);
  2. ignoring Protestant ethical reservations about acquisition (George and George, 1958; Hudson, 1949);
  3. ignoring Catholic and lay vocational teachings which were similar in purpose and content to those of the Puritans (Robertson, 1933; Samuelson, 1961). Much of this criticism is, however, based on misunderstandings. Weber was not trying to explain ethically uninhibited acquisitiveness or economic individualism, only the ascetic spirit which developed in capitalism after the Reformation. Nor did he ignore Puritan ethical reservations about acquisition; he admitted them but claimed that they were not directed against wealth as such, only its misuse in idleness and consumption. Weber was also aware of the non-Puritan teachings about vocational diligence. However he doubted their effectiveness because they were not supported by psychological sanctions of the sort which derived from the Puritan anxiety about salvation. For all this, Weber's thesis remains open to attack; some writers, for example, doubt that Puritanism generated psychological sanctions derived from anxiety (Keating, 1985; McKinnon, 1988); Puritan writings on economic acquisition are ambiguous enough to sustain both pro- and anti-Weberian interpretations. When it is, finally, remembered that it is hard to establish unambiguously the direction of influence holding between religion and economic life – Marxists, for example, would argue for ‘causation’ in the opposite direction – it is easy to see why Weber's thesis retains an aura of plausibility, while at the same time attracting doubt. It is likely, therefore, to remain controversial so long as social scientists retain an interest in the problem to which it speaks.
References in periodicals archive ?
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I leave my read of the book convinced that Weber got it wrong, and that capitalism was born elsewhere, though Calvinism may have enlivened it at the time and place discussed in The Protestant Ethic.
reminds us that many of the problems with understanding the Protestant Ethic can be traced back to Talcott Parson's 1930 translation of it.
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He could have cited Max Weber, the great German scholar who first made this claim 100 years ago in his book "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism," which argued that Protestant values were the most important fuel for economic progress.
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The Protestant ethic has shaped the mental models of America's emerging middle classes.

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