The protestant ethic or what is commonly known as the protestant work ethic is a concept used in economics, sociology and history. It largely attributes much of its theory from the works of Max Weber. This ethic basis its arguments upon the emphasis by the Calvinist on the usefulness of hard work, which according to the Calvinist is part of one’s worldly success and calling and a sign of individual salvation (Grossman, 2006, pp.128- 131). Weber’s ethic therefore, is a study of the relationship that occurs between the spirit of modern capitalism emergence and the ethics of Protestantism.
Martin Luther together with other Protestants conceptualized the idea behind worldly work to a duty with benefits, which are both necessary for the society and the individual. Following this, the idea of good works, as the Catholics knew it, was entirely transformed into an obligation; diligent work was a sign that one had been adored with grace. The theories about good work were thus completely changed, with Catholics believing that good works were a requirement of salvation, and the reformists believing that good works were a result of a salvation that had priory been received (Grossman, 2006, pp.128- 131).
A different school of thought was however, introduced and taught by the Calvist theologians and the Lutheran theologians as well. These claimed that one could only be saved if it had been predestined as so. Therefore, as it was not possible to discern if one would be saved. The new school of thought argued that it could be discerned whether a person was predestined to be saved through observations of the way they lived (Kalberg, 2001, pp. 345- 353). Frugality and hard work therefore, became to be known as the two main ways to discern whether one had been saved or not. For these reasons, followers of this doctrine became attracted to such characteristics because they sought to be obedient to the one they owed their salvation to.
In relation to this, many people especially those in northern Europe became very attracted to the Protestant doctrine. This ethic then influenced many of its followers, and as a result, it became credited with aiding to redefine certain societies in countries where Protestantism was practiced. These countries include northern Europe, Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Germany, and the U.S.A (Weber, 1997, pp. 351-363). Many, in these societies, believe that the protestant work ethic is one of the most important cornerstones of economic and national progress. This, they argue, is because people from such protestant societies are more focused on work practices that are more effective than people from catholic societies (Kalberg, 2001, pp. 345- 353).
The relationship that occurred between the society and business when modern capitalism evolved, according to Max Weber is pertinent to discussed and the establishing whether there is a different relationship between these two entities today is also important. To attain this goal, this paper is going to be subdivided into four main parts, the introduction, the descriptive part, the evaluation part and the conclusion.
In one of his books, the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber argues that ideas of various religious entities played a big part in developing the spirit of capitalism. In his analysis of the relationship, he first observes the relationship between one being involved in business while at the same time remaining a protestant (Weber, 1997, pp. 351-363). With this, he argues of the need to explore religion as one of the most probable cause of the emerging economic conditions. To him, the modern spirit of capitalism views making profit as the end of the working process, and thus as virtuous to seek and make profit. In writing these essays, Weber’s main goal was to understand were this kind of spirit came from. For potential explanation, he turns to a religious entity that had many followers, the Protestantism. According to the Protestants, there is a meaningful concept behind the worldly calling. It also assigns a religious character to a worldly activity. While these findings were important, they were not nearly enough to explain the need individuals possessed of pursing profits (Weber, 1997, pp. 351-363).
Calvinism however, provides a certain explanation to this need; as Calvinists had developed a deep need for clues as to whether it was possible for one to be saved, they looked at their success through worldly activities for answers. For this reason, they came to view material success and profit as a sign that God had favored them. Other various religious groups including the Methodists and the Pietists had the same views of profit and success, but to a much lesser extent. According to Weber, this newly acquired attitude did away with the old economic system, and thus opened up a way for modern capitalism. However, once this way was paved, and capitalism had evolved, the values of the Protestants became irrelevant, and their ethic changed (Grossman, 2006, pp.128- 131).
In chapter two of his book, the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber describes how capitalism, that is business, interacts with the various social issues in the society. Max Weber shows this relationship through Benjamin Franklin’s attitudes towards profit and material success. Franklin defines time, and credit in terms of money; he says that just as well as credit is money, so is time. To him, when people pay debts on time, they increase other individuals’ confidence, and that people should at all time represent themselves as trustworthy and industrious (Korotayev, Malkov & Khaltourina, 2006, pp. 249). To Weber however, this philosophy only serves to advance the idea that seeking and gaining capital is the final goal in a business. This in turn becomes an ethic and it obligates an individual to find prosperity and success. This according to Weber is the spirit of capitalism, which differed greatly from the one that existed in such countries as India and China. Franklin’s morals and values only seem to be there for the purposes of promoting profit. According to this ethic therefore, making profits and making money reflects proficiency in a calling, an idea that the capitalist ethic is based upon (Kalberg, 2001, pp. 345- 353).
For a way of life so in line with capitalism to become so prominent, Weber argues that it had to emerge from a society, whereby it were used as a way of life common to many. He sought to explain and find out this origin. He however does not agree with the fact that this way of life emerged from economic conditions and situations. Weber points it out that the spirit of capitalism in societies like Massachusetts was stronger probably because of its strong motives in religion, than in countries like America, whose main purpose for development of capitalism was business (Weber, 1997, pp. 351-363). He concludes that the attitudes Franklin had of capitalism would be referred to as greed in ancient times mostly because capitalism did not just develop, it had to fight its way through against forces that were very hostile. In places that lacked capital ethic, such capitalist motives would then have been termed as greed, and therefore, as evil acts against the community (Korotayev, Malkov & Khaltourina, 2006, pp. 249).
Weber stated that one of the biggest opponents of capitalism was traditionalism. To explain this term, he explored several cases like that of the laborer. Modern employers encouraged work mainly through piece rates. This means that workers were paid according to work done. To increase productivity therefore, the employer used tactics such as increasing the pay rates. This however, resulted in a problem in that workers would actually work less instead of working harder when the payment rates were increased. This is because they found out that they could reduce their work load and at the same time earn more (Weber, 1997, pp. 351-363). This according to Weber, demonstrates traditionalism, because it is through nature that men do not want to change their way of living , and in turn wants to earn as much as they can. In contrast, capitalism increases productivity through reduces wages. To be an effective capitalist therefore, Weber pointed out that labor is a must, and to him that is not natural.
This theologist argues that a capitalist can still have some characteristics of traditionalism. These characters are entirely different than those represented by modern capitalism, like an attitude of systematic and rational seeking of profits and money. Weber points out that a business can have a better relationship with the society only if it separates its spirit of capitalism from its capitalist activities (Kalberg, 2001, pp. 345- 353). An example of how this can achieved is through the putting out system, whereby a rational capitalist corporation incorporates into its operations some traditional spirit. Such an organization would then reflect a company with traditional means of work, a company that still relates with its laborers in a traditional manner and also a company that has traditional ways of interacting with its customers. Such a company, according to Weber would be much more successful as it would have the support of the community. However, this traditionalism was completely shattered by the emergence of modern capitalism, which pushed those who could not compete out of business, and replaced the leisurely attitude towards work and life with frugality (Weber, 1997, pp. 351-363).
In the third chapter of his book Luther’s Conception of the Calling. Task of the Investigation, Max continues to look at the relationship between business and society that was introduced by modern capitalism, by first looking into the meaning of the term calling. Calling was a word that was new and came with the reformation. It was neither heard of nor significant to Catholics (Weber, 1997, pp. 351-363). The reformist sought to give worldly activities a religious significance through this word. Calling therefore, meant that people had obligations to fulfill their duties which had been assigned to them by their worldly positions. Martin Luther was one of the major contributors to the reformation especially with his view of calling; that each true calling had equal importance to God. To Weber however, the significance of Luther and thus Lutheranism was very little to capitalism because Lutheranism’s ideas of calling were only evolved and furthered by other churches, and also by the fact that Luther was himself a traditionalist (Kalberg, 2001, pp. 345- 353). Consequently, the development of capitalism can not be attributed to the attitude and views of Luther towards the activities of the world. Calvinism on the other hand has a better connection to modern capitalism. According to Weber, the religious reformers had not set their main goal as the capitalistic spirit. This was because its effects on the culture of many societies had not been foreseen and it was not desired.
Max explains that reformation was a historical necessity that resulted from various economic situations (Weber, 1997, pp. 351-363). This is because certain other necessities like many of the historical and political circumstances, had to occur independent of such economic factors, for the survival of the churches. He however attributes some certain aspects of capitalism to reformation. For example, he indicates that before reformation, societies did not take most of the worldly activities as a service to God (Korotayev, Malkov & Khaltourina, 2006, pp. 242). Some of these activities included businesses and occupations, rather these activities were only viewed as necessary evils for the survival of men. The reformation therefore, condemned and changed some attitudes like the monastic lifestyle which required people to separate themselves from the world and its activities in order to come close to God. The reformation saw this attitude as wrong and largely condemned it because to serve God, one could not afford to remove themselves from the worldly activities. As a result, business and labor became part of society’s way to serve God (Kalberg, 2001, pp. 345- 353).
Many critics and commentators on modern capitalist mostly argue and therefore, assume that it was inevitable for it to emerge, and that it is a reflection of a significant human nature that shows a very essential phase in a universal series of phases. However, the accounts that Weber give of this particular issue questions the above assumptions and arguments. This is because he argued that the spirit necessary to develop a successful capitalist is simply not a natural aspect of men (Becker & Wossmann, 2007, pp. 30- 37). He also argued that seeking money and profits is just one way and not the only one, which one can use to approach business; various ways like finding a traditional way of life or seeking subsistence could be useful approaches to economic activities. To him, capitalism prospered because people were ready to incorporate and internalize some of its values. Therefore, these particular values are what make capitalism possible and not human nature.
Capitalism therefore, as Weber points out, cannot be a necessary step in developing the world, because for it to come about, certain values and factors must be provided. Max thus, lives a wide gap for the significance of culture and ideas in the human development history (Becker & Wossmann, 2007, pp. 30- 37).
Max also seems to be replying to the materialism approach specifically. This is wrong because this particular approach only views developments and ideas, capitalism included, as a result of various economic and business situations. Economic activities and thus business, are the foundation of all institutions in a society. Religion being a part of the society and a product of these activities cannot be assumed to be the cornerstone of history (Becker & Wossmann, 2007, pp. 30- 37). Weber also seems to be suggesting that people had to embrace a set of values for civilization to emerge from traditionalism. These values however, could have evolved from many of the economic situations; people therefore had to incorporate these values for them to rid themselves of the situations. The creation of these values though influenced by the economic situations, they were not completely as a result of them (Bouma, 1973, pp. 141-155).
t is also significant to note the ways in which Max tries to explain terms like the spirit of capitalism and traditionalism. He uses case studies, like the case study of laborer, and anecdotes to make sense of these terms. Also his discussion of capitalism would not have been possible had he not relied so heavily on the views of Benjamin Franklin. This way of writing can be both disadvantageous and advantageous (Bouma, 1973, pp. 141-155). For example, by using carefully chosen examples, his work can serve as a target for many critics on the basis that they are not a reflection of a larger ethos. In deed the author has been widely criticized for his work (Becker & Wossmann, 2007, pp. 30- 37).
For example, some have argued that the term calling and its implication was not as alien as Weber would make us believe. These critics point out that the concept of calling was a common and known phenomenon in the interpretation of various catholic scriptures (Becker & Wossmann, 2007, pp. 30- 37). Other critics like the widely renowned economist, Henryk Grossman, have also criticized Weber for his analysis. Grossman for example, argues that capitalism came by mainly through force and therefore not as Weber seems to think; through vocational training based on the Protestantism values. Grossman also shows how people came to follow capitalism, not through choice as Weber argued, but through force by masters who aspired and sought to produce more profits. He however acknowledges that the protestant work ethic could have had something to do with the advancement of capitalism through reinforcing some legal measures in a larger cultural basis (Grossman, 2006, pp.128- 131).
Those people who succeeded in business in the period when modern capitalism emerged were mostly temperate, devoted to their work and reliable (Fischoff, 1944, pp. 62- 68). This is a phenomenon not common in today’s business world. The relationship between the society and many businesses is sour and has been for a while. This is because there is no connection or relationship between religious beliefs and conduct anymore, and when present, this relationship is normally negative. For today’s business people, business, making money and becoming successful materially is an end in itself. Making profits and striving for material success is what motivates them, despite of the fact that it is wrong, when viewed from the personal happiness perspective. The modern world that has become so individualistic, the spirit of capitalism can only be viewed as an adaptation, because it is a characteristic that fits in so well with capitalism. Capitalism no longer requires the reinforcement of convictions derived from religion because it has become so significant and necessary. This however, is true because it has become very powerful, and unlike in the ancient times, it does not need religion or any other entity but itself to overpower the traditional economic system.
Money making was viewed as a calling in those times, and it was believed and followed for many years. Capitalism as well was tolerated, mainly because people felt and believed that it was their duty or obligation to do so (Fischoff, 1944, pp. 62- 68). What then changed people’s minds about being devoted to their businesses, about being reliable, and about being temperate? The only answer for this is that people removed or separated religion from capitalism. Religion imposed on the traditional money makers, certain values that ensured that they fulfill their duties to the society. Besides, making money was viewed as a calling, working for God; today making money is an end to itself. Its motivation is getting rich within any means and within the shortest time possible (Fischoff, 1944, pp. 62- 68).
To me, the capitalism attitude towards business and making money was the best way. This is because people fulfilled and therefore, took care of their societies while still making money, and they also regarded the society, including workers, fellow business men and customers with respect. Today’s attitude towards business is not desirable because its only goal is making profits. There is no regard for the society or religion. People take advantage of situations, conditions, and other people to make money. I would therefore agree to the Protestant work ethic as it took the society as its responsibility and not its well of wealth. What then can be done to turn this around?
It is the responsibility of the whole community to turn around the situation that has become of today’s economic activities. The government for example, has a very great responsibility in streamlining and introducing guidelines to control various business activities. The international community also falls under this category. The religious institutions and other correction and teaching institutions like schools and colleges should also make it their responsibility to impose certain values in young adults aspiring to be business men; values that regard and take care of the society as a whole. Corporations and other business entities also have a responsibility of changing their attitudes towards business and making money. They should consider work as a way of serving God or the community as the capitalists did. If such actions are not taken, activists should make it their responsibility to ensure that everyone makes it known that today’s corporate world is having negative impacts on the society and that things must change for every ones benefit.
In protestant work ethic, Weber implies that the ideas and ethics of the Puritans fueled and furthered the emergence of capitalism. Though most religious entities contemn the pursuit of worldly affairs and activities, Weber through some of Benjamin Franklin’s views, points out that capitalism is generally not a philosophy that cultivates greed, but a theory filled with morals. The religious reformation impacted significantly, his work by dignifying a lot of worldly professions, in the name of calling and duty to God and society (Baehr & Wells, 2002, pp. 374- 392). Weber quotes several examples to emphasize the Protestantism work ethic, for example, by giving an example of how pre- capitalist laborers were becoming a problem to industrialists. While agricultural businessmen tried to encourage their worker to increase productivity through a higher salary, the laborers spend less time working and expected to be paid the same amount of wages (Baehr & Wells, 2002, pp. 374- 392).
Weber also argues that those societies with more protestant following are the societies that are most developed when it comes to the capitalist economy. He further points out that it is more beneficial to laborers to become devoted to their work , to view work as a calling or as an end in itself so as to be able to attend to their needs better. This school of thought seemed very successful and beneficial for the business people and the communities (Baehr & Wells, 2002, pp. 374- 392). This attitude however, has become eroded and is no longer present in the world of economics today. Something must be done to correct this before things get out of hand. Every one must view it as their responsibility to correct the way business is conducted today.
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