The Fruits of Civilization (16) Ethical Qualms

Ethical Qualms

Material exchange for personal benefit predates hominids by billions of years. Bacteria have profitably swapped gene packages for eons. Yet commerce has long been morally suspect. The predatory character of ancient empires and the natural inclination to profit from trade cast a pall for any who cared to view commerce through a moral lens.

The ancient Greeks tolerated commerce as a necessity but feared that the specialization it engendered would lead to a differentiation of interests that would destroy any sense of common purpose, and thereby rent the social fabric. There were merchants and moneylenders in ancient Athens, but they were seen as outsiders, and denied citizenship status.

Money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. And this term interest, which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Wherefore of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural. ~ 4th-century-bce Greek philosopher Aristotle

Aristotle’s anathema to usury was widespread among classical writers attuned to societal interests. Its condemnation came to occupy a locus in the writings of Christian theologians and lawyers up to early modern times, until the ascent of commercial interests so overwhelmed political leaders that the morality of money withered to an ethical arcanum.

Trade, insofar as it aims at making profits, is most reprehensible, since the desire for gain knows no bounds but reaches into the infinite. ~ 13th-century Italian Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas

Even as the Christian church hypocritically condemned the profits of commerce as a mortal sin, the pulse of Europe’s economy depended upon it. The Church resolved this dilemma following ancient Athens tradition: relegate it to outsiders.