Religion, capitalism and compassion

Cite this Article
Larry Ribstein, Religion, capitalism and compassion, Truth on the Market (December 28, 2010),

My most avid fans may have noticed I’ve been away from blogging for a few days.  In fact, I’ve been traveling for a lot of that time in Israel (among other things, giving a talk at Hebrew University in Jerusalem).

Given my recent travels to the Holy Land I thought it might be appropriate for my first post on returning be about religion. 

Eric Felten, reviewing Karen Armstrong’s book “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life” in the WSJ, describes the book as a discussion of how “at their best, all religious, philosophical, and ethical traditions are based on the principle of compassion.” Felten notes “that would have been news” to those who have suffered from some non-compassionate religious outbursts.  Nevertheless, religion is the hero of this book. 

The villain, in Felten’s summary (I haven’t read the book) is capitalism.

According to Armstrong, capitalism drives people to greed and self-seeking from which they need to be rescued by religion.

Felten notes that Milton Friedman sees capitalism as embodying something like Christianity’s golden rule that we should allow others to do what we want to do. Felten concludes that

those nasty old capitalists, with their vigor, risk-taking, animal spirits and reptilian brains, have created so much wealth for so many societies over so many centuries—and have raised the standard of living for so many people who would otherwise live in grinding poverty—that their efforts, easily considered merely selfish, begin to look downright compassionate.

I would add that compassion is not only a product of capitalism but at its core. As I pointed out in a recent paper:

business is about helping others to express themselves by buying things.  A successful businessperson must understand the buyer’s wants and needs and be willing to cater to them, even at the cost of obscuring her own personality.  Businesspeople sacrifice their souls to make our lives happier by making products or providing jobs that enrich our leisure or give us more of it. 

While religions preach brotherly love, they seem to create a lot of enmity with their claims of exclusive paths to God.  Meanwhile, capitalists’ pursuit of gains from trade makes friends out of would-be enemies.  

Felten quotes Armstrong as recognizing that “[w]e are not going to develop an impartial, universal love overnight.” Apparently her plan is to distribute enough copies of her manifesto to eventually change humanity. 

Maybe she’d be better off, instead of rejecting capitalism, using it to sell compassion to people as they exist today.