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 â€“ i.e. avoid conflicts of interest, donâ€™t reveal privileged information, etc. There was also a fair share of vacuous â€œmotivationalâ€? speaking. However, there was also a discussion of the â€œtraditions of the firm.â€?
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 Weberâ€™s protestant work ethic, although perhaps it has declined a bit of late. It is not an ethic that fares well in â€œseriousâ€? 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.