Christopher Wright on the Ideology of Mammon

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I'm enjoying reading Christopher Wright's commentary on Deuteronomy. He's especially insightful on ethical matters, and he's been excellent at defending against positions that I think have needed some careful argument to address (such as the claim that the Mosaic law treats women as property). But the following quote is puzzling.

It is not surprising, then, conversely, that a whole culture that systematically denies the transcendent by excluding the reality of God from the public domain, as Western societies have been doing for generations, also turns covetous self-interest into a socioeconomic ideology, rationalized, euphemized, and idolized. Knowing full well that you cannot serve God and mammon, we have deliberately chosen mammon and declared that a person's life does consist in the abundance of things possessed. [p.86]

I'm not interested in ignoring the role that covetous self-interest plays among those whose lifestyle is all about accumulating material wealth or the fact that such self-interest might attract someone to political views that they might expect to serve that self-interest. But he's talking about a systematic denial of God that turns covetous self-interest into an ideology, so it's got to be much more thoroughgoing than just the fact that people for self-interested reasons might like views that they see as serving their self-interest. It's as if the ideology itself is caused by self-interest and would have no existence otherwise. So what ideology does he mean? Capitalism? Libertarianism? Mainstream economic conservatism? Randianism?

If any of the first three, I think he's simply mistaken. The arguments in favor of those are not selfish pursuit of mammon, at least not in the ideal case, and the view itself is not the same thing as declaring that a person's life amounts just to the abundance of things possessed. Such views are at work in our culture, but what Wright says here is confusing two separate things. It would be more on the mark if he's targeting Ayn Rand, because she explicitly did ground her view in ethical egoism, but even she wouldn't treat human nature as if it's just about material possessions, and her view isn't exactly the mainstream socioeconomic view on the right.

8 Comments

I wonder if he perhaps it wasn't just a case of Wright being a little careless with his words. Perhaps he has the rampant consumerism that infects our entire society in mind?

Is consumerism an ideology, though?

I think it depends on how loose your definition of ideology is. Strictly speaking, no I don't think consumerism is an ideology. But, if you were to define it simply as a body of beliefs belonging to an individual or group then you could probably squeeze it in there.

I certainly think Wright could have written that paragraph better and clearer than he did if he meant what I'm suggesting.

why can't the 'socioeconomic ideology' that he refers to simply be the principles of the free market economy that do shape ethical values at the national level? also, i'm not sure that he is saying that the denial of God is directly generating an ideology but rather our socioeconomic principles are an unsurprising correlative of a society that suppresses the knowledge of God.
it is a great little comentary - i enjoyed reading it recently

If he's talking about free market principles, then his claim is implausible. Is it really true that everyone who believes in free market principles is idolizing mammon rather than thinking it leads to greater well-being for the majority of people? Is it true that thinking it's the best model for governing ourselves in this fallen world is automatically idolizing mammon? That's what it seems like he's saying about this ideology.

of course it isn't true that everybody who adheres to the free market economic model idolizes mammon, and neiter does he claim that in the excerpt; what he does assert is that western culture as a whole (personally, i think there are limitations to speaking about 'western culture') does so. if one views this from the top down, surely the claim is defensible. the grounds for many ethical wrongs at the national and international level have obvious politico-economic roots. i would guess that the transition from 'covetous self-interest' to ideology that wright is looking at is simply the observaton that what is found to be true at an individual level will also be reflected corporately. i would question whether as a society we do know full well that one cannot serve both God and mammon even if our actions testify to this implicit knowledge.

I think he's exactly right, but you have to keep in mind that you can defend the same practical principles from two different ideologies. Doug Wilson argues, for instance, that free markets only really work for free peoples, and he defines "free" as in "redeemed from sin." But most economists will argue that the best and only way to evaluate an economic policy is how it affects the prosperity of the people, in other words, mammon. Who in the world defends an ideology on the ground that it leads to holiness?

I guess what I'm disputing is that well-being is equivalent with mammon. Free market principles are grounded on the worthiness of seeking well-being for the general populace, and often free market arguments explicitly speak of that well-being as wealth. Some of them crudely do mean mammon, which I take to be purely self-interested gain at the cost of others' well-being, but the more careful and helpful free-market defenders mean something very different by wealth, something much more akin to general well-being, and it's hard to argue on biblical grounds that general well-being is only an instrumental good. Where much of Western culture disagrees with Christian teaching is over what counts as contributing toward general well-being, particularly when it comes to intangible goods involving one's relationship with God. But it's not mammon to recognize that it's good for people to have instrumental goods that will enable them care for those they have responsibility for, to pursue morally worthy goals in society, and to create an environment of good will. The best free-market defenders argue that a free market is the best road to that sort of goal.

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