Bryan Caplan  

The Behavioral Effects of "Catholic" versus "Protestant" Ethics

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To repeat:
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.
Of course, a Catholic (or Buddhist, or atheist) could take a "Protestant" approach to ethics, and a Protestant (or Buddhist, or atheist) could take a "Catholic" approach.  "Catholic" and "Protestant," as I'm using them, are sociological, not theological.  The question at hand is: what are the behavioral effects of the two approaches - assuming, of course, that people care about morality in the first place?

The Demandingness of the Standards

1. Moderate Protestant standards give an incentive to do the bare minimum - to go up to the edge of what's acceptable, then stop.  Extreme Catholic standards, in contrast, give an incentive to strive for more; since it's nearly impossible to live up to the precepts, there's always room to narrow the gap between your behavior and your ideals.

2. Moderate Protestant standards offer a realistic prospect of achieving virtue - creating an incentive to consistently try to do right.  Extreme Catholic standards, in contrast, deny a realistic prospect of achieving virtue - creating an incentive to simply give up, to joke "Well, I'm not a saint!," etc.  In terms of tax theory, the Protestant approach stays well to the left of the peak of the Laffer curve, while the Catholic approach almost deliberately goes far to the right of the peak.

3. Some claim that the Catholic approach is less vulnerable to the slippery slope of moral decay.  The opposite is true.  The slippery slope is easiest to avoid when there is a clear standard of virtue, and anyone who falls short suffers stern rebuke.  The slippery slope is hardest to avoid when no one lives up to your standards, and forgiveness is just an "I'm only human" away.

The Enforcement of the Standards

4. The Protestant approach gives a stronger incentive to fulfill your basic duties, by both (a) clearly identifying your duties, and (b) sternly condemning your shortcomings.  Corollary: In exceptional cases where fulfilling your basic duties is bad, the Protestant approach imposes higher counter-productive guilt.

5. The Catholic approach, in contrast, imposes moderate counter-productive guilt on virtually everyone.  After all, it frowns on even eminently defensible activities like working hard to get ahead, having sex with your spouse, or failing to love people you've never met.

Overall, we can imagine scenarios where Catholic standards give better incentives than Protestant standards.  But they're pretty fanciful.  In the real world, only a tiny minority surpasses the standards of bourgeois respectability, no matter how many times they hear about the lives of the saints and hermits.  As a result, the payoff of high Catholic standards is small at best. 

Some people claim that Catholic standards are better for people with low cognitive ability.  They're mistaken.  Kids have low cognitive ability, and how do we get them to behave?  By setting absurdly high standards, calling them all sinners, and then forgiving them for "being human"?  Of course not.  We get kids to behave by setting clear-cut, realistic standards (such as "Don't hit people"), and then consistently punishing deviations.

What about the "Victorian" variant: Extremely high moral standards plus selective enforcement (loose for elites, stricter for the masses)?  For the elites, Victorianism just duplicates the Catholic approach.  For the masses, the effects are less clear.  Are the masses supposed to live under Catholic standards combined with Protestant enforcement?  Sounds like hell on earth.  Are the masses merely supposed to live under marginally less forgiving Catholic standards?  This gives the masses an extra incentive to avoid very bad behavior, but simultaneously raises their default level of guilt for merely existing.

In my experience, the Victorian standard's proponents hail its flexibility: Some people need strict rules, others don't.  But if we're talking about the putatively dissolute masses, the Protestant approach has major advantages over the Victorian.  If people lack self-control, they need clear, livable rules, reliably enforced - not the Sermon on the Mount with an extra helping of guilt.  If we're talking about elites, I have to ask: What is so great about giving elites the "flexibility" to commit adultery, disregard the rights of others, or vent hatred against harmless strangers?  Yes, we can construct bizarre hypotheticals where you have to cheat on your wife or rant against the Jews to save mankind.  But in real life, what is to be gained by forgiving affronts to common decency?

Perhaps I'm so Protestant that I can't even grasp the hidden wisdom of the Catholic or Victorian approaches.  But I doubt it.  In the real world, the Catholic and Victorian approaches simply have little to recommend them.  Both would do well to reflect on the wisdom of Mark Twain: "Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Antoine writes:

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Dan Hill writes:

"...since it's nearly impossible to live up to the precepts, there's always room to narrow the gap between your behavior and your ideals."

Is this the source of the typical Catholic's over-developed sense of guilt?

Big Dubya writes:

Yes, as a Catholic I can certainly attest to a disconnect between the life to which I am called, and the shortfall that exists in reality. One point to consider on the Catholic side is that the sacrament of confession provides a concrete mechanism to absolve guilt once a sin has been committed. There is no real corresponding analog in the Protestant world.

Matt Flipago writes:

"After all, it frowns on even eminently defensible activities like working hard to get ahead, having sex with your spouse, or failing to love people you've never met.""

Why do you keep saying that the "Catholic" morality says not to have sex with your spouse. Who is advocating this or say or somehow less than virtuous?
Also who's saying working hard to get ahead is immoral, or somehow less than virtuous?
I certainly doubt it's the Catholic Church. I realize "catholic" is just a term here, but still lets at least talk about ideas that large amount of people share.

Also for those who are less than Saints, not only can you give more to those in need than expected, but many can strive to and attain at least some virtue above the protestant minimum. I know people who loves strangers from the bottom of their heart. I know those who practice chastity for virtuous reasons. It's not just the "saints" who go above and beyond the "protestant" call of duty and make the world a better place.

Also, the virtues of the "catholic" virtues include the saints. But there are also people who aren't "Saints" Look at the differences between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. One could be a multi-billionare, pay your taxes and not give much in charity, and still be good. But having the virtues of a perfect person can allow someone to fall somewhere in between saint and normal and still make a huge difference. There is no bare minimum needed to be good, you just do everything you can, even if you fail, and act greedy and lazy. It's not good and bad, it's just striving for what is best.

Second when you create a low bar that people clearly pass or fail, you create stigma and pride that hurts the community. Those who fail aren't just acting morally, but should be shamed, as mostly everyone is meeting these expectations. This can harm forgiveness, and willingness to help those who have fallen in the traps of immorality. When almost everyone fails, how do you accurately judge who's worse or not? You may find someone has more destructive than you, but perhaps you had less a burden then someone else. It's knowing that we all fail that allows forgiveness for all(after some form of penance on the immoral one/token of sincerity) to occur. Some will never forgive those who hurt them, no matter what occurs, that's inefficienct and wrong.

Thirdly, the catholic view is less arbitrary. Although there is some disagreement on what is most virtuous, the protestant approach would have all these problem plus the extra dimension of an arbitrary gray line meant only to punish those who fall beneath it. Punishing an arbitrary group of people, just because some people are less virtuous than the majority seems absurd to me.

The "catholic" approach makes it harder to judge people who do wrong. Sure you can say that you can judge a person as not being a saint, but beyond that, there is no reason to judge a person beyond that.

Those are the reasons that I think focusing on the most virtuous outcome and possibility, instead of minimum baseline expectations with punishment, is better for society.

Falupo writes:

I guess these two blog posts resolved the Protestant Reformation once and for all. Why did you decide to stay quiet during the Thirty Years' War?

Pat writes:

Bzzt Turing fail

M. Swaim writes:

As a convert to Catholicism, I'm a bit confused as to what I've signed up for- The Church frowns upon sex with your spouse, and yet smiles upon large families? Enlighten me, please.

VangelV writes:

This is a very difficult topic to deal with effectively because the arguments are very general and make assumptions that are not always easy to defend. But the biggest problem comes from the fact that both approaches tend to be contradictory and violate some important principles.

If one accepts the arguments made by Aquinas or Grotius it is easy to see that both Catholicism and Protestantism establish the same lines that should not be crossed. The problem is that the churches go well beyond these lines and meddle in the lives of people in ways that are arbitrary and superficial. As such they fall short.

In the real world, the Catholic and Victorian approaches simply have little to recommend them.

As do any approaches that violate the fundamental principles taught by Grotious and Aquinas. Moral relativism is not the solution. Even in the 'real' world.

Pat writes:

I should be clearer. I'm referring to Caplan's own previous posts about ideological Turing tests. It seems strange to me to spend so much time evaluating philosophies while stubbornly sticking to obviously wrong assumptions about Catholic beliefs.

Slim934 writes:

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Ken B writes:

I know Bryan likes to provoke (as do I) but here we have an epic fail. It's not what you say, it's what people hear that matters. Bryan is quite clear how he used catholic and protestant, but what people seem to hear is quite different.

It seems strange to me to spend so much time evaluating philosophies while stubbornly sticking to obviously wrong assumptions about Catholic beliefs
Case in point.
Philo writes:

It is best to combine the “Catholic” and the “Protestant” approaches: to have some (minimal) rules that are strictly enforced, plus a range of aspirational prescriptions, adherence to which is regarded as supererogatory. And, of course, this is how everybody--Catholic, Protestant, or whatever--*does* operate in practice.

Lucas Reis writes:

Just a remark:

I don't think that using the terms "catholic" and "protestant" in this context helps anything. Here in Brazil, the "theological" view of these two correspond almost to the inverse of what you are talking about.

It would be more helpful to say "type A" or "type B", or create other names, because it won't help the discussion if in other areas they mean the opposite.

Tom writes:

I've gone to Catholic grade school, high school and college, and have never met anyone you'd recognize as a Catholic.

The major difference to me is that Ps seem to have a lot more rules than the Cs. C's approach is that you can always improve, there is no ideal that is reachable. When there is, humans will game the system to 'achieve' it.
Since we're all sinners, we can't judge others too harshly.

taimyoboi writes:

This seems like different tune from your endorsement of Charles Murray's recommendation for taking a more "Catholic" approach to curing our social ills. Curious to know which side of the divide Charles Murray would claim his recommendation falls on.

Also, isn't the "Catholic" conception of loving strangers the moral basis for supporting open borders and immigration? A restrictive position on immigration on the other hand would be consistent with the moral demand "to not hate people who have done me no wrong."

http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2012/03/losing_ground_t.html

Pat writes:

Ken B,

I agree that he was quite clear. But he's wrong about the standards of Catholicism "(eg Be celibate; give everything you have to the poor")

He could've just used, "Don't use artificial birth control" as an example to make the same point. Or he could've said, "Be celibate if you're not married". There's something else going on here to pass up correct examples for standards that aren't true. It is unlike him to be so sloppy, but religion brings that out in people sometimes.

TomO writes:

I think this post fails to address a rather obvious reply in favor of the Catholic position; that the Protestant ethics will set the minimum bar below where it should be.
Anticipating Caplan's reply that all this means is Protestant ethics should try to get the minimum bar right:
1) if Catholic ethic epistemology is correct you can't get the bar right, because ethics is inherently unclear, and
2) Philo's point above but stronger - everyone in fact does set a minimum Protestant ethic line in which failure to adhere is actively punished, but that is not the whole of ethical obligation.
I would argue the actual Catholic position is a lower minimum bar (generally stuff that is actually illegal/harms others directly), but then an understanding that this is not enough.
Further I think this is more in accord with Caplan's empirical observation of how we educate children. Yes we tell them not to steal, but we also teach them to share.
People who only follow the minimal moral standards are bland. Human flourishing requires more than simply following the rules - generosity, heroism, etc. are necessary.

Jameson Burt writes:

Monotheistic religions are better viewed not through "morality", but through "monopoly".

A monopoly has many tools, mostly artificial and unnatural, to seize customers.
Religion's monopolistic tools have included both prescribed "morality" and "inquisition."
The inquisitions lasted 700 years, from the 1100's to the 1850's,
when a typically austere inquisition acted against some Jews.

Why adopt moralities designed to benefit monopolistic tyrants themselves?
When reading their morals, does not obey loom?
If we aren't our own moral agents, we defer morality to whom we are obedient.
This obedient relationship with religion, we should recognize as immoral.

Seeking monopoly, the first four of the Ten Commandments
are not statements about morality,
but marketing statements by priests promoting their own religion,
(1) Don't listen to those other competitor gods
(2) Avoid distractions from religion
("You shall not make for yourself an idol")
(3) Don't blashpheme the religion
(4) Commit the whole Sabbath day to religion,
often getting governments to close business on religion's Sabbath day.

In the market place of morals, two common competitors are
(1) An inter-personal moral code (from whatever source, including religious)
(2) A somewhat ruthless commercial moral code.
This commercial moral code represents a more profitable breakup
of unprofitable monopolistic religious "morality."
The competition of these two moral codes suggests that the commercial moral code wins.

Following God is the religious or pious action,
but not the moral or ethical action.
Indeed, to accept God's commandments is to remove us
from decision making -- from ethical decisions themselves.
Obedient morality is an unthinking though absolute morality;
should we purge thinking from morality?
Morality should be a subset of decision making.
Optimal decision making includes gains/losses to yourself (your tribe)
and externalities to others.

Any religion pinned by a book to a morality hundreds or thousands of years earlier
carries forward its bronze-aged immutable immoralities into the present.
Today's moral sense has no room for yesterday's dominant moral underpinning of obedience.
While God once demanded genocide to redistribute land from its owners to His chosen people,
today our consciences reject religious genocide as atavistic and odious.
"Women obey your husbands" signals a brutal society.

Kathryn Schulz, from her book
Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error
"The more scientists understand about cognitive functioning,
the more it becomes clear that our capacity to make mistakes
is utterly inextricable from what makes the human brain
so swift, adaptable, and intelligent.
Rather than treating errors like the bedbugs of the intellect ..."

Psychology identifies three stages to morality,
(1) Pre-conventional morality
-- pleasure and pain produce correct behavior in children
(2) Conventional morality
-- obey others' statements or rules (most people spend their adult lives here)
(3) Post-Conventional morality
-- set our own moral decisions.

Little revolts me more than 1 billion people obeying the same axiomatic code (morals),
for that code determines their variety/uniformity of productivity.
The more extensive those moral mandates,
the more obvious their artificiality,
the more uniform become the people,
and the less gain comparative advantage sees.

In today's language, obedience to others' morality
"crowd sources" our own apposite moral axioms."

Evan writes:

@Philo

It is best to combine the “Catholic” and the “Protestant” approaches: to have some (minimal) rules that are strictly enforced, plus a range of aspirational prescriptions, adherence to which is regarded as supererogatory. And, of course, this is how everybody--Catholic, Protestant, or whatever--*does* operate in practice.

I think you've got it right. To me a "bad" person is someone who violates the minimum standards, someone who obeys them is a "good" person, and someone who goes above and beyond is an "even better person."

I think the key behavioral insight is the diminishing returns of moral condemnation. If someone gets moral condemnation no matter how much good they do because they could have done better, they will likely respond by growing a thick skin, rather than doing better. It's best to shower the "better" people with praise, but not morally condemn those who are merely "good."

Of course, this implies that if we find a way to improve the human will to do good (conscientiousness enhancing drugs or something like that) we should raise the bar.

PG writes:

we're better off if people like Steve Jobs follow "Catholic" values, no?

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