Can Commerce Inspire?
By Tibor Machan - October 31, 2014

Money, which represents the prose of life, and which is hardly spoken of in parlors without an apology, is, in its effects and laws, as beautiful as roses. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Aristippus championed only the body, as though we had no soul, Zeno championed only the soul, as though we had no body. Both were flawed. ~ Michael de Montaigne

Commerce and Its Dubious Reputation

Given its reputation in many of the popular renditions of world religions and philosophies, commerce wouldn't be expected to inspire. Most of those who comment on such matters do not consider engaging in commerce to contain any measure of nobility or moral worth, but merely some practical or instrumental value.1 For example, the actual transaction in a purchase is taken to be of instrumental importance; however, most people hold that commerce fails to lend our life any dimension of worth.

Many go a lot further and declare commerce outright vicious. Charles Baudelaire, for example, states that, "Commerce is satanic, because it is the basest and vilest form of egoism. The spirit of every businessman is completely depraved." And then he adds, very revealingly, that, "Commerce is natural, therefore shameful."1 And Arthur Miller remarks, a century later and in America where commerce is relatively hospitably treated, that "His was a salesman's profession, if one may describe such dignified slavery as a profession…"3

Indeed, one problem with commerce in most cultures is that it is thought to be mundane to the core. There is unease about commerce throughout the religious community in light of what most take to be religion's main concern, namely, striving for everlasting salvation. This is often interpreted to mean, for example, that the rich cannot gain entrance to heaven, that money lenders are the worst lot abusing the temple, that it would not profit one to gain the world but lose one's soul, etc.

Such ideas are not necessarily the best way to understand the relationship between religion and commerce. In especially those faiths that regard the earthly life of human beings vital to care foror to use an Aristotelian locution, ones that implore us to flourish here on Earthcommerce could well occupy a very respectable, honorable role. After all, it is through commerce that we most effectively exercise the moral virtue of prudence vis-à-vis the requirements of our temporal lives. In this respect, as I point out in this discussion, commerce is no less significant for a good human life than medicine or engineering.

Yet, as will be seen, my position is different from the positions of those, such as George Gilder, who hold that commerce lends our lives a measure of worth because it involves a variety of (at least consequentialist) altruism by requiring the commercial agent to pay close attention to what benefits his or her trading partner or customer.4 This idea, championed among religious defenders of commerce and capitalism, maintains that when we engage in commerce or the profession of business, we are benefiting other people, as well as ourselves, and it is the former that is morally ennobling, with the latter remaining morally suspect but sufficiently moderated so as not to amount to rank greed.5

Aristotelian-Thomistic Ethics and Commerce

I argue, instead, that the mainstream position about commerce requires serious reconsideration in light of human nature and the morality of self-perfection or eudemonia.6 If it is true, as Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, and some others have held, that a central normative element of our humanitythat is to say, a fundamental ethical responsibility we all haveis to achieve flourishing in our lives, and our lives substantially involve creative, productive connectedness to the natural world that surrounds us, and if commerce facilitates this connectedness, then commerce qua self-development and the pursuit of prosperity occupies a far more elevated role in our lives than is testified to by many prominent world views.

Of course, the value of commerce as a means for enriching our lives and enhancing culture can be appreciated even apart from showing that it contains moral worth in and of itself, as a form of human activity. One need but peruse the windows of most stores at a contemporary mall in a thriving commercial society to recognize that they contain creations and products that are awe-inspiring for their combined beauty and usefulness. One might even regard the contemporary mall as a surrogate museum of contemporary culture. It is possible to just wander around, as one does in a museum, and admire the thousands of different items offered up not just for consumption or use, but also for apprehension, appreciation, and admiration. Inasmuch as this is the routine result of commerce, one should join George Mason University Professor Tyler Cowan who argues that free trade is not only efficient and moral but often also quite beautiful, even as it is also destructive of old and outmoded attachments people have formed in their lives.7

Why Commerce Is Ethical

But let me now turn to the issue of whether commerce may be constitutive of an ethical, flourishing life, just as moral virtue is constitutive of happiness in Aristotle's and Thomas Aquinas' ethical thought. Within this ethical framework the moral virtues, when practiced conscientiously, help to guide us toward happiness in life, but they are themselves an aspect of the happiness they produce. Choosing to be prudent, honest, temperate, generous, and just amounts to choosing ways of living and the combined result of such choices is likely to be happiness.

Choosing prudently to enhance our lives here on Earth, including by means of thoughtful trade, provides us with a source of confidence, efficaciousness, which itself constitutes the flourishing that improves a human life so much.

Of course, there are many adjacent features of commerce that show its beneficial elements: it often is a first step toward friendship, at least a friendship of pleasure or even utility, but sometimes even a friendship of virtue (one often comes to know another person in the course of trading with him or her); romance, too, can commence from a trade relationship; learning, too, is often facilitated by trade, as is aesthetic enjoyment; on the international front, the absence of war between societies the citizens of which are actively trading with each other is a very serious, even inspiring benefit of trade. Such results, of course, can be found quite apart from trade. But that is true of many other ways in which good things come about in human intercoursefor example, athletics, science, education and politics.

But perhaps the most inspiring aspect of commerce is the realization upon reflection that it is such a widespread contributor to human well being here on Earth. It is no accident that every newspaper reports on business in each of its issues, no less so than it does on entertainment, education, athletics and other positive aspects of human living. More directly, commerce inspires by contributing to one's, one's family's and associates' well being. Contrary to the view sometimes associated with Aristotle, namely, that retail trade has only instrumental value, there is actually an Aristotelian understanding of commerce that sees it as engendering human self-confidence, pride. When one embarks upon successful dealings, one is demonstrating competence in earning a living within a complicated social framework.

Money as "The Prose of Life"

Martha Nussbaum has argued that, "The Aristotelian holds that money is merely a tool of human functioning and has value in human life only insofar as it subserves these functionings. More is not always better, and in general, the right amount is what makes functioning best." Actually, if this were true, then all human virtues could be demeaned as well, since their worth consists, at least in Aristotle, in their contribution to human happiness. Nussbaum's account clearly suggests that business professionals can only earn moral credit through deeds other than what their profession calls for. These would be pro bono contributions such as philanthropic and charitable deeds, funding of libraries, museums, athletic events or art centers, and not contributions as they function in the capacity of business professionals.

This is a mistake. Before I explain, let me turn, however, to the point Nussbaum attributes to Aristotle about money. Here it is Aristotle who was making a mistake, probably because of his general disdain for physical labor and whatever came close to it, such as earning money, as well as his view that only those crafts involving strict determinacythat is to say, a beginning, middle and endare worthwhile. In the case of money-making, there is no determinate conclusion to the task, thus it isn't possible to evaluate it as one can evaluate the work of a tailor, miller, architect or playwright.

Yet Aristotle fails to note that there are many tasks that resemble money-making, such as farming, exploration, scientific research, and philosophy, none of which involve determinate tasks, but instead, indeterminate, endless activities.

It is also worth noting that being a contributor to human well being, money (or the making of it) is not necessarily "merely a tool of human functioning." By Aristotle's own account of the relationship between means and endsfor example in how the moral virtues are means to human happinessthe earning of money can be constitutive of human functioning. To wit, someone who is skilled at making money is an effective contributor to his or her economic well being which, in turn, can contribute to his or her overall flourishing.

Money may be a means of exchange but it is more than that, as well. It is an easily and widely recognized representative of productivity. Money is also a fungible good, like a movie, theater, concert or any other kind of ticket with which one is able to obtain what one needs and wants. (Professor Walter Williams has called it "a certificate of performance" on a recent radio program. ) Obtaining such a ticket enables one to gain the value of seeing a movie, going to a play, concert or museum, all of them valuable experiences. If money makes this possible, then the activity that gains it cannot be without merit and can, indeed, be constitutive of a measure of success in human living.

Furthermore, an enormous benefit of money is its already mentioned fungibility. Most of us are good at doing this or that, can flourish at our professions, and yet because of earning money rather than engaging in barter, we are able to contribute to the advancement of innumerable other tasks we would not be capable of promoting directly. So, we send money to support the local theater group or orchestra, help some research effort to find a cure for some disease, further our children's and sometimes others' education, promote some idea by giving to a think tank, etc. Money can be earned in tasks at which we are good and then contributed to advance numerous other purposes. (Of course, money can also be spent on frivolity and degradation, yet corruption of any activity is a risk for free moral agents.) Those, therefore, who can help us improve our money earning capacitiesthat is, our wealthnamely, professionals in business, certainly are justified in taking pride in what they are doing, no less so than are those who can help us improve our health, so that we can then devote ourselves to various other worthy tasks.

Prudence Grounds the Worth of Commerce

Accordingly, I am proposing here that commercial skill or savvy is best understood as an activity that is guided by prudence, which is a moral virtue and is, thus, constitutive of human happiness.10 Too many thinkers have discounted commerce as a source of inspiration, as a source of ennoblement, evenwhile electing to credit other endeavors such as art, science, education, and the rest with the capacity to inspireof possessing the worthy attributes I claim commerce possesses as well. Professional practitioners are worthy persons in these other activities not only because of what they produce. An educator, for example, is honored because of the merits of what he or she does, of his or her calling or vocation, not only because of the valuable results that stem from it. Perhaps this is, in part, because professions such as education, medicine, law, farming and the like can all be cast as services to others and one can, thus, discount the fact that many pursue them for the rewards they bring to the agentthe educator, scientist, artist, attorney, and so forth. But it is no accident that when one considers a profession, one seeks some activity that is self-fulfilling, that realizes one's talents and the vision one has of one's future life, even apart from how others may benefit from it. Some may indeed seek work by asking where one's efforts may be most urgently needed by others but many ask, also, how their own life will be enhanced by this work. Many enter a profession because of early affinity for the kind of skill it requires or because some early experience has shown it to be important and personally appealing.

Commerce and the Spirited Life

Accordingly, just as any other worthy craft, skill and profession can inspire, that is to say, result in a spiritually enhanced lifevia pride and self-esteem from the knowledge one is doing well at something worthwhileso has commerce and its professional arm, business, the capacity to produce inspiration.11 Of course, this may well be thwarted by widespread disdain for the craft or skill, just as the reputation of, say, the performing arts at one time tended to dampen such enhancement for the actors who were the targets of snobbery and derision.

To these considerations someone is very likely to respond along the following lines: "Well, yes, commerce helps one to get what one needs and desires and this is certainly important, but is it really a moral or ethical matter? After all, each of us wants the best for himselfthis is only natural. What you've shown is that commerce helps us do this and we shouldn't put it down. OK, but why is it so admirable, indeed moral, to help oneself? After all, even if prudence is a virtue, it is but one of them, and most of the others, when exercised, seem more admirable: courage in saving others seems more admirable than courage in saving oneself, and generosity seems almost totally other-directed …"

This is of course very much a mainstream approach to commerce, not at all in line with the Aristotelian-Thomistic approach I have been urging in this discussion. Actually, prudence is rarely seen as a moral virtue in our neo-Kantian framework on matters of morality,12 yet in Aristotle prudence is a central virtueone reason it is often called the first of the cardinal virtuesand Thomas Aquinas continued to treat it as such. "They are called cardinal (Latin: cardo, hinge) virtues because they are hinges on which all moral virtues depend. These are also called moral (Latin: mores, fixed values) because they govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to faith and reason."13 Another understanding of prudence is "right reason," and that indicates just how fundamental is the moral virtue we are discussing herethe very basis of moral or ethical thinking, given that in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition such thinking concerns how one achieves excellence in one's life as a rational animal.14

It is because of the neo-Hobbesian materialist ontology that prudence became demoted to a mere inclination, which is how Kant and subsequent moral philosophy tended to treat it.15

Some may have reservation about my treatment of Kant who was, in fact, a proponent of commercial society. Kant and Hegel both see the commercial transformation of the world as the act of sprit in its expression of freedom. Arguably both Aristotelians and Kantians see the nobility of this life.

Christian asceticism, by the way, may be a virtue in a world of extreme scarcity, but it becomes a vice in a world where we can overcome poverty; perhaps some members of the religious community failed to note the context within which asceticism made sense; perhaps they are confusing wealth with "spiritual" poverty when we all know that "spiritual" poverty is a psychological condition and not an economic condition. In short, they are confusing a time-sensitive economic condition with religious dogma. They tell us that the pursuit of wealth is bad but then they want us to distribute more of it to the poor. For instance, one could become a saint in the Middle Ages by giving one's wealth to the poor, not, however, by destroying one's wealth. Creating wealth for oneself and others is the modern counterpart.16

Religion and Commerce Revisited

Where does this leave us with respect to the issue of the relationship between religion and commerce? As suggested before, it depends on the conception of the good human life that a given faith embraces. If, for example, a faith views the type of earthly life that is proper to us as ascetic and demeans the human body as an obstacle to focusing on what is important, then commerce will naturally occupy a lowly place in that faith. That this is how many understand the relationship is indisputable. Church leaders of many faiths preach the doctrine of unselfishness, self-denial, even self-abnegation from which they derive a view of commerce as representing no more than rank greed in human life.

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economic science and a moral philosopher in his own right made the following poignant observations related to this issue:

Ancient moral philosophy proposed to investigate wherein consisted the happiness and perfection of a man, considered not only as an individual, but as the member of a family, of a state, and of the great society of mankind. In that philosophy the duties of human life were treated of as subservient to the happiness and perfection of human life. But when moral, as well as natural philosophy, came to be taught only as subservient to theology, the duties of human life were treated of as chiefly subservient to the happiness of a life to come. In the ancient philosophy the perfec-tion of virtue was represented as necessarily productive to the person who possessed it, of the most perfect happiness in this life. In the modern philosophy it was frequently represented as almost always inconsistent with any degree of happiness in this life, and heaven was to be earned by penance and mortification, not by the liberal, generous, and spirited conduct of a man. By far the most important of all the different branches of phi-losophy became in this manner by far the most corrupted.17

On the Wrong Path with Kant

As hinted above, the major philosopher with religious orientation who could well exemplify Smith's point is Kant, even though his work followed Smith's. In Kant the phenomenalmundane, earthlylife seemed to lack moral significance because it followed the laws of classical physics. In this sphere there is no free will and so there is no genuine choice, which is a prerequisite of morality. (It is Kant, after all, who stressed the importance of the philosophical motto, "'ought' implies 'can'," meaning that only if one is free to choose, it is meaningful to ascribe moral responsibilities to that individual.)

Accordingly, the Kantian approach to ethics stresses the good will, a kind of ineffable spiritual faculty that is free because it is of the noumenal (nonmaterial) dimension of reality. The only reason some room for prudence exists in Kantian ethics is that it represents a needed concern, albeit virtually instinctive, with the well being of the agent.

In this framework commercial savvy is a matter of natural inclination or instinct, not of good will and judgment. The result is that commerce lacks moral significance.

As noted already, an Aristotelian-Thomistic understanding of morality could well cast commerce in a very different light. In Christianity there is room for serious, conscientious attention to flourishing on Earth. Jesus became man in part to make this evident to the faithful, or so some have interpreted the faith.

Secular But Not Materialist

Apart, however, from the murky disputes surrounding religious faiths, all hampered, I think, because of the epistemic problem of infirm grounds18faith is more of a commitment to a belief as distinct from belief arising from consideration of evidence and reasoningthe commercial aspect of human social life certainly isn't negligible. Such a practical sphereno less than medicine, engineering, farming, and other crafts and trades that ought to be done welldeserves respect and so do those who are its conscientious practitioners. With this made possible by rethinking the nature of commerce, self-respect and moral pride shouldn't be far behind.

One hazard, though, of taking such a secular approach to commerce is that it could collapse into sheer reductive materialism, as exhibited in the foundational philosophical work of Thomas Hobbes and the subsequent writings of scientific economists.20 Indeed, one impetus for Kant's taking morality away from the phenomenal world is that he thought if this was where morality would have to be found, there would be no place for it at all. There is no freedom of choice in classical mechanics, only efficient causation, which leaves no room for making better or worse decisions, despite torturous efforts by some so called "compatibilist" philosophers to reconcile determinism with moral responsibility.

Reconsidering Aristotelian Causation

Instead of accepting the reductive materialist ontology that leaves no room for morality in the realm of nature, a revitalized Aristotelian approach recommends itself. This approach understands that reality is all one system but not all one substance. There are emergent qualities in reality, and human life has developed attributes and capacities that make ample room for significant choices, many of which become subject to moral assessment.

Moreover, this approach understands causality so that not all causes must be of the same type. It is only natural that under the reductive materialist position all causes must be efficient ones, since only one kind of entity exists, namely, matter-in-motion, and thus only one kind of productivity can be found in nature. But if there exists a plurality of beings, some very simplecall them sub-atomistic—and others very complexcall them humanthen room may be found for what Aristotelian morality requires, namely, agent causation.

This is the kind of causation ordinarily accepted, one that makes sense of people achieving things: Mozart composing music, Rembrandt creating paintings, Frank Lloyd Wright designing buildings, and Wittgenstein producing puzzling philosophy. Of course, it also makes room for terrorists wreaking havoc, murderers destroying human lives, arsonists making destructive fires and so on.21

Among what such an ontological outlook (that is, one bearing on the type of being something is) embraces is, then, humanity's creative capacity. And part of that capacity is to engage in responsible commerce and business. Insofar as it is morally proper for human beings to secure for themselves a prosperous life, their creative capacities may be exercised in service of this objective. How the creative capacities are exercised will, of course, be subject to moral evaluation. Just as in medicine it is generally morally praiseworthy to pursue health, those who do this professionally should also do it ethicallyergo the field of medical ethics. The same is true of other professions that are morally unobjectionable.

So there is a twofold moral issue afoot here: first, the moral standing of the profession and, second, whether the conduct of those who practice it is ethical. This is the same with the profession of business. The main challenge in the theological treatment of this matter is epistemichow can we know that the tenets of a faith affirming, for example, the significance of one's earthly life are true. The main challenge in the secular treatment is ontologicalcould there exist a being such that it can choose freely and be morally responsible.

The Secular Spiritual Case Outlined

Since I have made the attempt to demonstrate that the secular treatment can yield a positive answer to the ontological question, I will merely summarize the results. Reality is not all the same but there are fundamentally different types of entities of which it is comprised. Depending on the type of being something is, it will contain different causal powers. In the case of human beings, those causal powers are best understood as creative, so that the human agent can be the cause of some of its own behavior, the cause of its actions. The most evident sphere of such causation is evidently mentalhuman beings can initiate the process of conceptual thinking. And this is what grounds the quality of their actions and institutions.

The case for this position isn't one that yields deductively certain conclusions but, instead, theses that best explain the phenomena we are aware of, including in association with all varieties of human life. Just as in the case of criminal trials, it is the theory that best explains the evidence at hand that should carry the day; therefore, in such areas of substantive philosophy what explains the phenomena most parsimoniously should carry conviction.22

In the absence of an epistemically compelling theological case for a moral perspective on human life and on the field of commerce and the profession of business, and with a secular one available that does reasonable justice to the undeniable moral dimension of human life (which reductive materialists views cannot do), it seems to me that the case pertaining to the spiritcharacter, values, and highest aspirationsof the individuals embarking upon commerce makes the best sense. It is true, it seems to me, without a reasonable doubt.

Given, then, this conception of spirituality or, rather, spiritedness, there is little doubt that commerce and its professional arm, business, can be viewed as every bit as much imbued with spirituality as are medicine, education, science, art and politics.

This essay from Tibor Machan was originally published in Nicholas Capaldi, ed., Business & Religion: A Clash of Civilizations (M&M Scrivener Press, 2005).


1 See, for more on this, Tibor R. Machan and James E. Chesher, The Business of Commerce, Examining an Honorable Profession (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1999).

2 Charles Baudelaire, The Intimate Journals, trns. Christophere Isherwood (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957, p. 51). The connection between one's basic philosophical view and what the person thinks of business is clear from the second observation—deeming what is natural to be, for that very reason, shameful.

3 Arthur Miller, "In Memoriam," The New Yorker, December 25, 1995 & January 1, 1996.

4 George Gilder, Wealth and Poverty (New York : Basic Books, 1981).

5 See, for example, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, "Judaism, Commerce, and Business," a paper given at "The Ethics of Commerce Conference," June 10-12, 2004, Loyola University, New Orleans, Louisiana.

6 The most astute modern development of this Aristotelian ethical position is found in David L. Norton, Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976).

7 Tyler Cowan, Creative Destruction (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

8 Martha Nussbaum, "Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism," Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 2 (May 1992), p. 231.

9 The Rush Limbaugh Program, Friday, November 19, 2004.

10 See, Tibor R. Machan, "Aristotle & the Moral Status of Business," Journal of Value Inquiry (forthcoming).

11 Needless to say, all crafts, skills and professions can be corrupted by misuse and malpractice. Business is by no means unique in this. See, op cit., Machan and Chesher, The Business of Commerce. See, also, Tibor R. Machan and James E. Chesher, A Primer on Business Ethics (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), for the professional ethical implications this approach to business yields.

12 Actually Kant liked commerce but as far as gaining moral credit for prudence, his austere conception of deontological morality, wherein anything one is inclined to do would not be morally meritorious, led to the moral evisceration of prudence.

13 http://www.secondexodus.com/html/catholicdefinitions/cardinalvirtues.htm

14 Op. cit. Norton, Personal Destinies. See, also, Tibor R. Machan, Classical Individualism, The Supreme Importance of Each Human Being (London: Routledge, 1998).

15 Douglas J. Den Uyl, The Virtue of Prudence (New York: Peter Lang, 1991).

16 I thank Nicholas Capaldi for pointing some of this out to me.

17 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (New York: Modern Library Edition, 1936), p. 726.

18 Gary Wills notes, in a related context, that "Natural reason must use natural tools to deal with this question—philosophy, neurobiology, psychology, medicine." See "The Bishops vs. the Bible," The New York Times, June 27, 2004, WK, p. 13.

19 See, for more along these lines, Tibor R. Machan, Capitalism and Individualism, Reframing the Argument for the Free Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990).

20 See, for example, Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room, Varieties of Free Will Worth Having (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984). For why this approach is hopeless, see Tibor R. Machan, Initiative—Human Agency and Society (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2000) and The Pseudo-Science of B. F. Skinner (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishing Co. Inc., 1074).

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