Mormonism and the Commercial Virtues

November 11, 2004 | 16 comments

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for what I think of as the virtues of commercialism. What I mean by this is the rhetoric that one finds surrounding what might be thought of as excellence in commerce. Generally speaking, the chattering segment of our culture tends to characterize commercial excellence in terms of the ruthless pursuit of profit. It is an activity that requires discipline and intelligence, but is of doubtful virtuousness.

There are, however, another set of ethical tropes around commerce. I recently attended the orientation for new associates in my law firm. It was mainly a set of droning presentations on internal procedures and a refresher course in legal ethics – i.e. avoid conflicts of interest, don’t reveal privileged information, etc. There was also a fair share of vacuous “motivational� speaking. However, there was also a discussion of the “traditions of the firm.�

I am skeptical enough that I generally dismiss this sort of talk as window dressing, but I found it oddly touching this time. They talked about how the firm began in 1866 and grew by dint of hard work, frugality, and conservative management, gradually outlasting all of its competitors. They spoke with pride of the fact that the firm did not lay off a single employee during the Great Depression. (This seems to be a point of pride for many older law firms. Ropes & Gray in Boston still tells the story how several of its partners did not draw a salary at the bottom of the Depression because they refused to lay off young lawyers with families.) They gloried in their reputation for quality, diligence, and probity. Who knows how much of this is true, but even if there is some hypocrisy to the stories, it is a compliment paid to an identifiable set of virtues.

If the virtues of warriors are courage and bravery; prophets: righteousness and repentance; and, saints: charity and hope, then the more pedestrian virtues of merchants are honesty, diligence, skill, and collegiality. They are less dramatic than the warrior virtues, and I am not quite sure how they fit into the religious virtues of the prophets and the saints, but there is a stolid dependability behind mercantile virtues that I stand a in awe of. These are unglamorous virtues, to be sure, but there is a power in them that is not to be easily dismissed.

Mormons have inherited something of Weber’s protestant work ethic, although perhaps it has declined a bit of late. It is not an ethic that fares well in “serious� theological discussions. It gets associated with the discredited shibboleths of Calvinism and the crass materialism of the Philistine middle classes. Hence, many Mormon intellectuals of my acquaintance found the paeans to commercial virtues in the Heber J. Grant manual vaguely shameful, evidence that Mormonism has yet to connect truly with the ethical core of Christianity. For myself, I took some silent satisfaction that such virtues have their place, whatever it is, in my religion.

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16 Responses to Mormonism and the Commercial Virtues

  1. Times and Seasons » Mormons and the professions on January 14, 2005 at 8:28 pm

    [...] ers have posted several times on Mormons in the professions. For example, see Nate Oman on Mormonism and the Commercial Virtues, Thoughts From A Professional Sabbath Breaker, and A Morm [...]

  2. Joel D. on November 11, 2004 at 2:17 pm

    Among the “mercantile” virtues, don’t forget integrity. This is a virtue with some significant intersection with the “religious” virtues, particularly for Latter-day Saints. Integrity in business situations is often a sign of integrity in keeping covenants.

    A few examples. One of my favorite anecdotes shared in General Conference recently was the story that Elder Wirthlin shared about a pharmacist who had borrowed a significant sum to open his own pharmacy, which subsequently failed. Rather than file bankruptcy, he and his family scrimped and saved for many years to pay back the business loan, even though there was no more business. As an associate attorney with a huge law school debt (NYU ain’t cheap!), that story admittedly touches several nerves. But Elder Wirthlin also recounted the effect of this experience on this man’s posterity, who took it as a powerful lesson of integrity.

    The Lord apparently values integrity highly. He praised Hyrum Smith for the “integrity of his heart.” (D&C 124:15). Oath-keeping–one of the hallmarks of intergrity–is accorded high importance in the scriptures.

    One last thought: I don’t think that there is any real division of virtues into “religious” and other types of non-religious categories. All virtues are in the end gospel virtues. Think of the 13th Article of Faith. The Holy Spirit leads us to be virtuous. So what if Heber J. Grant was known for “persistance”–he also was a man of great charity, who on numerous occasions made great financial sacrifices to save the Church from financial embarassment or to help others in distress. His “mercantile” virtues did not impinge on his “religious” virtues–in fact, they came from the same source.

  3. J. Stapley on November 11, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    I had an evening not too long ago with some gentlemen who would in any circumstances be considered successful. As we spent the night on the boat and later at home talking, eating, and in their case drinking liberally, the conversation trended more and more toward the virtues of exchange. Several of them announced their lifelong ethos as “always do the right thing�. One gentleman told the story of how he lost a two million dollar check after a years work, because he did not want to do something he considered contrary to his motto. After a while, I stopped the conversation to state my observation: that they were righteous. With puzzled looks, they inquired as to what I meant. I explained that the appropriate adjective for their “doing what is right� was indeed, righteousness. They then raised their glasses and toasted to it.

    I would not separate the virtue of the warrior, merchant, and saint. I don’t know if there is a set of prime virtues that lie at the heart of the archetype, but if there is, I would think that they apply to every role. Is it possible that government controls over a liberal economy and the commandments of God over individual agents are designed to promote the same virtues?

  4. Nate Oman on November 11, 2004 at 3:05 pm

    I am not so sure. When I read the Iliad’s account of Achilles and Hector, for example, it seems to me that it is describing a certain set of warrior virtues — bravery, fortitude, ruthlessness, even cruelty — that seem inconsistent with say The Sermon on the Mount, but nevertheless have a kind of moral integrity to them.

  5. J. Stapley on November 11, 2004 at 3:32 pm

    I believe that when you take a culture icon such as those of classical Greece or you look at warrior classes throughout history (e.g., Spartans, Janissaries, or Samurai) there are thick layers of culture that are inherent not only to their success, but to their survival. The values and virtues inculcated (in the cases of warrior classes) or imbued (in the case of epic literature) are not necessarily the prime virtues for a successful warrior, but are instead the virtues that are at the time, most culturally appealing.

    I believe that if we strip the ultimate warrior of his time and place and look at the successful warrior objectively, we might find virtues that are not dissimilar from other classes of successful individuals.

    Cruelty…I admit that this has been successfully employed throughout history (the Romans and Carthage, the Mongols and Baghdad, and the Jews and Caanan). Maybe this is where my perspective falls apart. Maybe if we measure the success of the warrior, not by the subjugation of his enemy, but by another measure (though I know not what). Is it not true that the merchant has been portrayed as successful through cruelty?

  6. Joel D. on November 11, 2004 at 3:38 pm

    Maybe we’re getting into semantics, but it seems that what you are calling warrior “virtues” are really simply “attributes” or perhaps “values”. Achilles’ overdeveloped temper is not really depicted as “virtuous”, although it is shown to be awesome–his unwillingness to yield is part of his tragic flaw not a warrior “virtue.”

  7. quinn on November 11, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    let’s not forget where the word virtue comes from, since semantics and whatnot have already been mentioned, virtus, which meant manliness and other attributes relating to men. so where does that leave women, and really where does that leave virtue. so perhaps “Achilles’ overdeveloped temper” is a virtue. but either way.

  8. ed on November 11, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    “The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob
    them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”

    - attributed to Genghis Kahn

  9. Adam Greenwood on November 11, 2004 at 4:57 pm

    Hear, hear, Nate Oman.
    I dislike anti-capitalist screeds because they seem to devalue the quality and value of ordinary work in the marketplace. To say nothing of the vigor and courage that entrepeneurs must show.

    My least favorite workplaces have always been the one’s where the employees were the most critical of their own status. In a self-fulfilling way all the joy got sucked out the environment.

  10. Joel D. on November 11, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    Nice–real men have bad tempers.

    It doesn’t seem to me that the semantic origin of “virtue” supports ruthlessness or cruelty as being real “virtues.”

  11. Nate Oman on November 11, 2004 at 6:22 pm

    I don’t know a great deal about the linguistic origin of the word “virtue,” although I do know that it is Latin. However, I am using virtue in my post in a fairly specific way. A greek word might clarify: arete. (as in aretaic or aristocracy) means simply excellence. When I say that there are warrior virtues what I mean is that there are certain attributes that are associated with an excellent warrior. (The same for saints, prophets and merchants.) The statement is not merely descriptive, but teleological, it implies that the perfection of being a warrior (or merchant or what have you) necessarily requires the cultivation of certain attributes.

    Now I am being intentionally vague about the meta-ethics. It may be that we think that all ethics ought to be thought of in terms of virtues. (I actually think that this is Ben Huff’s particular academic schtick and provided that I am not utterly mangling the philosophical concepts, I would be interested in what he has to say.) On this view, to be ethical is to cultivate the attributes associated with human excellence and perfection. I don’t know what role the perfection of something other than humanity operates as a good meta-ethical point of departure. However, I do think that something like Warrior Virtues hang together in a coherent normative way that is more than simply descriptive. They form an ethos. The same is true of merchants, I would suggest. My invocation of the language of virtue was meant to convey two important points: (1) I admire and value the mercantile ethos; and, (2) I recognize it as a seperate ethos whose connection to the the Gospel (or the ethos of the Gospel, or perhaps ethoi of the Gospel) is unclear to me.

    There, doesn’t that make everything easier?

  12. Joel D. on November 11, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    But doesn’t the merchant “ethos” carry a lot more with it than simply certain “virtues” (used here as “intrinsically good attribute”)? Doesn’t the merchant “ethos” also include things like fast-talking, flattery, and a focus on the bottom line? Do you value the merchant “ethos”, with all its baggage, or the “virtues” that are part of the “ethos”? If only the latter, then it seems the connection to the Gospel ethos are the very virtues themselves.

  13. J. Stapley on November 11, 2004 at 8:27 pm

    This kind of reminds me of danithew’s post on the ambivalence of Christ (at once both terrible and tender). Nate, if the merchant ethos is good and admirable, why is it not part of the great gospel ethos?

  14. c cobb on November 11, 2004 at 9:36 pm

    Hmm. The “pedestrian virtues of merchants are honesty, diligence, skill, and collegiality” and “don’t forget integrity.”

    But why limit the discussion of these virtues to merchants amd commercialism? It seems to me these pedestrian virtues apply to almost any endeavor (warriors included) and do not signify some moral superiority to mercantilism per se. A vow of poverty can exhibit the same virtues, as can driving a race car or dancing on Broadway.

  15. Jack on November 12, 2004 at 12:58 am

    “But why limit the discussion of these virtues to merchants amd commercialism?”

    I think Nate may be suggesting that all too often the merchant is exluded from the “virtues” club. It goes without saying that the above mentioned virtues may be found in all worthy endeavors.

  16. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 14, 2004 at 8:37 pm

    And not about money. Damn money. I can make all the money we will need; certainly there seems to be no limit to what I can invent on the theme of female sex troubles. I don’t mean that, nor Utah either. I mean us. Love, if you will. Because it can’t last. There is no place for it in the world today, not even in Utah. We have eliminated it. It took us a long time, but man is resourceful and limitless in inventing too, and so we have got rid of love as last just as we have got rid of Christ.

    “There is no place for it in the world today, not even in Utah.” — interesting comment on non-commercial values.


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