Bryan Caplan  

"Catholic" versus "Protestant" Ethics

Model Forecasting Performance... Libertarian Schisms...
I've often heard people distinguish between two distinct ethical outlooks.  They usually call them the "Catholic" approach and the "Protestant" approach, but the distinction has little to do with theology.  Instead:

The "Catholic" approach has extremely high moral standards (e.g. Be celibate; give everything you have to the poor; love everyone), but enforces them loosely.

The "Protestant" approach has moderate moral standards (e.g. Don't commit adultery; prudently give to the deserving poor; don't hate people who've never done you wrong), but enforces them strictly.

John Derbyshire's apology for Mel Gibson is a nice illustration:
The notion that we are not fully human until we have washed ourselves pure all the way through, pure and white as the Lamb, is, to my mind, highly obnoxious. I don't know where it came from, or why it has taken such a grip on us in this age. I think it is a Protestant doctrine -- Roman Catholics have always been much more sensible about human weakness (so I'm guessing that Mel finds it as obnoxious as I do, whatever his lawyers are telling him to say to the press). It certainly has some deep roots in American culture, from the Puritans and the old Philadelphia Quaker sects.
There's also a "Victorian" variant, with extremely high moral standards and selective enforcement: Loose for elites, stricter for the masses.

As a moral realist, I think the most important question is "Which ethical view is correct?"  And as a moral intuitionist, I judge the Protestant approach plainly superior.  The moral case against adultery is easy to grasp; the moral case for celibacy (!), not so much.  The moral case against hating people who have done you no wrong is easy to grasp; the moral case for loving (!?) total strangers, not so much.  And if an action is wrong, it merits condemnation, not pity for the "human weakness" that many humans habitually overcome.

When people distinguish the Catholic and Protestant approaches to ethics, though, they strangely avoid ethical arguments.  They're more likely to appeal to the behavioral effects of the two approaches.  Or to be more precise: (a) Proponents of the Catholic approach coyly allude to the good effects of their approach on behavior, without clearly identifying these alleged effects; and (b) Proponents of the Protestant approach keep their thoughts to themselves - at least around me.

Economics can't resolve the underlying ethical dispute.  But economics can shed plenty of light on the behavioral effects of the two approaches.  We'll see how in my next post.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
ThomasL writes:

Bryan, one thing that might help is that the Catholic virtue is chastity, not celibacy. Chastity is "appropriate" sexual activity, where celibacy is abstinence. There are celibate vocations within the church, but that is a separate thing.

Neither chastity nor celibacy are uniquely Catholic either, as both the argument for a moral virtue of chastity and for celibate vocations are much older than Catholicism. Caeser Augustus himself apparently had strong views on chastity, and adjusted Rome's laws of marriage and divorce to encourage the traditional Roman views on chastity, which he feared were not as in practice as they had once been. The Vestal Virgins are probably the most famous classical celibate vocation, but they were not the only ones.

The Catholics are not even particularly strict when compared to Greco-Roman moralist philosophers like Seneca--who probably didn't always practice what he preached--or Musonius Rufus--who probably did. Rufus approved of sexual activity solely for the purpose of procreation, which is much stricter than the Catholic position. Marcus Aurelius was not quite as strict as Rufus, but also argued for chastity as a moral virtue in itself, apart from any allusion to "good effects" on behavior in other spheres. (The idea of requiring good secondary effects is a bit strange in moral argument. It would be curious to argue that one shouldn't steal because thieves are more likely to be inconsiderate than non-thieves, even if it were demonstrably true...)

If you want to look into the philosophical basis for the Catholic view on chastity, you should consider Love and Responsibility by Karol Wojtyla (later Pope JohnPaul II). It would be a stretch to describe him as coy anyway, but his primary argument proceeds from the dignity of the human person and the nature of love rather than "good effects" on behavior.

Curt Doolittle writes:

IMHO: Protestant ethics are concerned with the actions and results needed to produce good works, catholic ethics are concerned with symbols and beliefs in order to create internal purity. Thats why all the entrepreneurs are protestant, and so many philosophers are catholic.

Small things in large numbers have vast consequences.

Too bad the germans failed at dropping the church entirely. The movement to restore paganism and rationalism just never could get critical mass.

Pandaemoni writes:

At least in modern times, celibacy in the Catholic church is the abstention from marriage, principally by certain members within the Church hierarchy, and since chastity outside of wedlock is also a virtue, by extension it also includes abstaining from sexual conduct. (Though historically when celibacy was new there was a sense in certain cases of separating clergy from their existing wives and forbidding procreation after one joined the church.)

Both Catholics and Protestants value chastity outside of marriage, largely in equal measure, at least among those with equal devotion to their religious principles. What has happened is that both groups have seen that devotion to principle (particularly in the first world nations) wane in the past 40-50 years (along with many other trends that seem to cut against the grain of traditional religion and religious values).

Despite the availability of birth control, I don't think any of the Abrahamic religions have completely given up on the ideal of virginity until marriage (maybe the Unitarians have).

Protestants gave up on celibacy, but they have not yet conceded on the issue of chastity outside of marriage. Neither has Judaism, officially, for that matter, as the Torah still has laws leaning in favor of women abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage (like Deuteronomy 22: 28-29 which says that if you have sex with a virgin, you pay her father money and marry her "because he has humbled her").

Other than enforcing celibacy on clergy, I do't see that much daylight between devout Catholics and devout Protestants on that issue.

stuhlmann writes:

I went to a Catholic grade school, K-8, and afterwards made no further study of Catholic philosophy. So basically my understanding of Catholic morals and ethics comes primarily from what is (or was) taught to children. This was back in the old days when we had nuns with rulers to instruct us. From my arguably limited and warped understanding, Catholic morality places a higher value on doing good works - feeding the poor, caring for the sick, etc, than it does on purity and believing all the right things. (I could go on about how this results in many highly charitable agnostics and atheists, but I'll save that for another day.) I think that this emphasis on good works is the real philosophical difference between Catholics and Protestants. Catholics are taught that you have to earn a place in heaven.

RPLong writes:

IMHO, the correct way to view this is to note that "Catholic ethics" are based on Virtue Ethics in the Roman tradition, whereas "Protestant ethics" are clearly Deontology.

I think Virtue Ethics makes much more logical sense as an ethical philosophy than Deontology. There is no reason or rationale behind Deontology, it simply is what it is. That's why it can only be enforced strictly - because there is no discussion about it.

Virtue Ethics are rooted in the notion that we can discuss and agree upon a well-reasoned view of the correct ethical decisions in any situation, based on universally accepted standards. That's why it is enforced less strictly: because like any complex situation, different people will come to different conclusions based on different underlying rationale.

Pat writes:

The Catholic Church doesn't teach that married people should be celibate. Silly.

ajb writes:

Bryan is wrong to assume protestants necessarily have more moderate standards. Some groups abjure smoking, dancing, or gambling but the Catholics tolerate all these. The difference is Bryan likes clear rules and has faith that His group (intolerant libertarian atheists) will always come up with sound criteria for morality.

Steve Sailer writes:

The great thing about sending your kid to a Catholic elementary school was that you could usually get a drink at a school social event. When I moved, I ended up sending my kids to a Lutheran school, which was great, except that I was expected to socialize with other parents while stone cold sober, which is asking a lot.

GU writes:

One way to conceptualize the difference: the "protestant" ethics uses Jeopardy-like scoring; you gain for good deeds but lose for bad ones. The "catholic" ethics only scores good deeds, and ignores the bad ones.

NZ writes:

Steve Sailer, that's exactly why I aspire to be the dad with a twinkle in his eye and a flask in his sport jacket.

ajb writes:

Even the scoring notion is odd. What about the Calvinists who believe in predestination and good deeds don't really "count?"

ThomasL writes:


Reading over your post again, I think you may have confused some of the Catholic requirements to be a priest of a monk with Catholic moral teaching.

All Catholics are supposed to love their neighbors. They are not all supposed to be celibate and poor.

The reason a monk or a priest is required to be celibate and have few possessions--the latter is particularly strict for monks--is that they are supposed to be absolutely dedicated to God. Having legitimate moral responsibilities to children, a wife, management of property, etc. would make that absolute dedication impossible. They would either do God or their wife and children a disservice.

It is not unusual that absolute dedication would require sacrifice. Epictetus argued something similar for the man that wished to become a true philosopher. And of course choosing to give up your possessions goes back farther even than Epictetus with Socrates, Diogenes, etc.

But not everyone is meant to be a priest or a monk.

Switching focus slightly, I want to grant you that even chastity is not necessarily and always intuitive. However you cannot be both a moral realist and moral intuitionist without give some primacy to either the judgment of reality or the judgment of intuition--or arguing that everyone makes identical intuitive judgments. If you are a strict moral intuitionist, then what I intuit to be right is right, and what you intuit to be right is right, even if we intuit different things. That violates moral realism. If you are a moral realist, then it is possible that while many moral values are recognized intuitively, it is equally possible that some (or all) are not. There reality is not necessarily connected to my intuition. Moral realism would require that any individual's moral intuition could be critiqued against the reality of moral law.

What would you think of the claim to be an economic realist and an economic intuitionist? I on the one hand affirm the reality of economic law, but form my judgments on what it is based solely on whether any particular portion of economics resonants well with my intuition. Once my intuition has made its gut decision, I don't need to reassess it with my reason, because my intuition does an infallible job. Does that sound like a reasonable economic school of thought? If it does not sound like a good way to economic truth, why does it sound like a good way to moral truth?

Again, if you want a real argument for things like chastity, I would recommend getting a philosophical text on it, like Wojtyla's Love and Responsibility. You may not agree with it, but I think you'll see it isn't unreasonable even if it happened to strike you at first as counter-intuitive.

Pat writes:

It just occured to me that you failed your ideological turing test.

Hume writes:


Do you believe that values conflict (value pluralism), or are you more Dworkinian in your outlook?

Pandaemoni writes:

It is a good point that in certain ways Catholics are more tolerant than Protestants (alcohol and dancing, for example), but that varies widely by Protestant denomination. Very few frown on dancing (and those that do do so because it leads to sex), and having grown up Lutheran, I can say I never saw a Lutheran social event where beer was unwelcome.

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