Capitalist ethics and myths


By Jon Kofas.


The Question:

Does the value system and Western-centered ethics that exists under the political economy of free enterprise best serve all of humanity, or merely a very tiny percentage of it? If indeed all of humanity is best served under the system, why do we have the following deteriorating conditions throughout the world?

1. Why do so many believe that there is a great moral decline under the market system and why does mass cruelty at the institutional (public and private) level persist and grow as we become more advanced in science and technology?
2. Why do we have high structural unemployment and underemployment, especially among the youth, regardless of educational training both in the Western and non-Western societies?
3. Why a gradual drop in incomes among labor and middle class in the last three decades, without prospects of upward socioeconomic mobility?
4. Why pervasive public-sector and private sector corruption that undermines all institutions from political to educational?
5. Why increased sociopolitical protests/demonstrations against a system that claims to be ‘democratic’, but in essence serves a small percentage of wealthy people whose interests the political economy serves?
6. Why growing gap between poor and rich not just in underdeveloped nations, but in the developed as well, without any prospects for improvement? a similar growing gap also exists geographically between urban and rural populations as well as between the top 20 richest nations and the bottom 180.

The Existing Ethical System

With the decline and fall of Communism, apologists of the free market argued that:

a) capitalism is the only system that respects producers and consumers;
b) a capitalist society represents the only hope for the individual to optimize his/her creative potential through the profit motive;
c) capitalism offers the opportunity to all for prosperity and the greatest chance for economic growth and
d) that the poor-rich gap will close between classes and geographic regions owing to the growing economy;
e) that the lives of people would improve because no other system engenders the values of product/services quality geared to customer satisfaction. Therefore, ‘happiness’ is inevitable for people only under a system that encourages freedom of opportunity to producers (capitalists).

If all five points as cornerstones of capitalist goals are true, then why do we have the six major problems on a global scale that I have delineated above? Perhaps it is too soon, given that the system has existed for about five hundred years, so we must wait another five years for capitalism to mature before it achieves those goals? Meanwhile, human suffering persists under a system that claims to be the only one under which humanity’s condition can exist and make progress.

If by ‘progress’ we mean more and better technical gadgets, more and better medical equipment, but fewer people having access to health care and basic consumer products, then we need to rethink the concept of progress as based on social classes. But can society move forward toward in the absence of the profit motive, given that human beings are atomistic and irrational, unconcerned about the whole of society and only about themselves? Adam Smith argued that God is concerned about all humans and universal happiness, while the individual is concerned about his own happiness. If this so, then it stands to reason that capitalist ethics reflects human nature. Therefore, let us just accept it and forget about widespread global poverty and countless others domains of injustice, ranging from human rights to socioeconomic, ethnic, race, and gender inequality.

GREED, rooted in atomism at the expense of the community, is at the core of capitalist ethics. By contrast, SOCIAL JUSTICE does not appear anywhere in the value system and body of ethics under the capitalist system that places the individual (those individual that own capital) at the core rather than the community as a whole.  Of course, there are elements pointing to aspects of social justice, such as human rights, volunteerism, and civil rights. However, in every instance and upon closer examination, those are subject to political considerations and only selectively are they applied.

Ethics in the age of globalization

The age of globalization means that capital that transcends national borders has created an international ruling class made up of financial and political elites that have mutual interests in preserving the existing system. Lesser elites, from academics to journalists are essentially in the business of disseminating information and analysis based on the ethical system of capitalism, while castigating anything that is critical of it. For example, when the issue of massive banking and corporate scandals arises, the answer is that it is the fault of individual and not the system that produced them and under which they operated. Moreover, there is no alternative to the existing system that is ‘the best of all possible worlds’. If there are problems, they can only be fixed within the existing system that created them.

The issue of “rulers and hierarchies manage to subjugate the masses by imposing ‘false ethical systems’ is an interesting one, just as is the reality that people believe in myths. For those arguing that there are ‘false’ vs. ‘true’ ethical systems, let are consider that there are no absolutes, even in ethics where there is relativism and ambiguity.  In Ethics of Ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir argues that ambiguity is that each of us is both subject and object, freedom and facticity.”

Exactly what constitutes ‘false’ vs. true ethical systems may be a subject of considerable philosophical debate. Let us make it clear that the domain of meta-ethics, the question of what ought we do as ethical people, is different from the domain of normative ethics that asks what is the difference between good and bad. Both meta-ethics and normative ethics raise the question of ethical relativism, that  brings into the picture the field of applied ethics – professional, business, organizational, clinical, and social ethics.

While ethical systems are invariably superimposed by elites and always have been in all societies, regardless of the nuances in ethical systems, it is also true that in the domain of normative ethics the individual exercises free will, to the degree that institutional constraints permit. As an advocate of existentialist ethics, as the most sound analytical system to explain the field, I believe that free will must be given some weight, and we must not surrender entirely to fatalism, assuming that ‘superimposed ethical systems’ is an absolute.


French philosopher Georges Sorel (1847-1922) argued that myth has inordinate power of influence in the lives of people. Long before Sorel, the power of myth in determining people’s lives was evident in societies from the beginning of civilization when organized religion emerged as an integral part of the social, economic and political power structure that had a stake in maintaining the status quo and passing it onto posterity. From ancient times to the present, myth has a very powerful place in the consciousness of the masses and plays a catalytic role in preserving the status quo under the existing social contract.

Human beings live by myths because they are an integral part of a belief system that helps them cope with life, while also providing a cohesive worldview. It is also the case, that human beings need myths, good and bad not only in an existential sense because they are so fulfilling, but also because the intellectual and spiritual life of a person is shrouded by myth that contributes to shaping the individual’s identity.

Myths too are superimposed by the elites of any society, but become universally accepted if people recognize in certain myths, which includes religion, a sense of purpose and utility, such as serving psychological (spiritual) needs. There are dangerous myths – destroy the enemy that the state or group has identified for now – and there are commercial myths – buy our products to make you look young – and there are innocuous ‘feel-good’ myths linked to commerce and political goals.


If we accept the relativist argument of ethics, then we cannot argue, as some have, that there is no such thing as ‘ethical capitalism’ because by nature the system entails exploitation of the many for the private gain of the few. Of course, one could rely on John Calvin’s version of Christianity and Capitalism, as developed by Max Weber in the Protestant Ethic. Therefore, there can be a theoretical correlation between religion and the market system, given that prosperity of the individual is a manifestation of that person’s faith, thus reward from God. The assumption here is that the capitalist is doing something ‘good’ for himself thus for society of which the individual is a part.

How humane is the ethical system which
1. argues that ‘property is sacred’, but does not extend the same privilege to human beings’ right to social justice?
2. places the individual’s welfare above that of the community?
3. has greed as a core value?
4. is rooted in uneven distribution of wealth and perpetuates poverty?

5. legislates private morality – sexual orientation, same-sex marriage, abortion, etc. – but refuses to legislate how financial institutions appropriate capital and sink the world economy into recessions that destroy the lives of billions of people?

What Next?

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