Thursday, November 20, 2008

Religion and Money: Pushing a Point Too Far

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Daniel Henninger, who comes out from behind the black curtain of the Wall Street Journal editorial page each week, had a column today that had me nodding in agreement until the last overstated conclusion.

My thesis has always been that neither economic models nor legal models will supply judgment; there's something irreducible about judgment that requires engagement with fundamental assumptions about the way the world works.  Models, for example, of risk and reward, only describe pieces of the world, not the world itself.  So Henninger is correct when he says that the three Rs of responsibility, restraint, and remorse "are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets:  risk and reward."

I'm okay with that.

But then:

Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions. . . . The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines.  We are erasing the chalk lines.

Huh?  The challenge in 2008 is not to save boardrooms and management suites by fundamentalist appeals to Jesus before taking each decision.   I'm not aware of anything in the Sermon on the Mount directly on point when I'm trying to figure out an optimal debt level.  And why Southern evangelicals?  My daughter and son-in-law were married at the Society for Ethical Culture on the Upper West Side of New York City, no doubt within shouting distance of a couple Northerners and atheists.  Amazingly enough, there are a few of us (even here in Cambridge) who know that Adam Smith wrote both The Wealth of Nations and A Theory of Moral Sentiments.

No, the real challenge is demonstrating the practice of wisdom, which is something different either than adherence to a risk algorithm, davening each morning and afternoon, or singing on Sunday mornings in the choir.  There's no doubt that religion can provide the source of a moral code, but I'm troubled by one that might say that God caused the Dow to fall 4,000 points to punish atheists, homosexuals, and East Coast liberals.

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/legal_profession/2008/11/religion-and-mo.html

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