Does the Free Market Corrode Moral Character?

That’s the question over at a forum sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, and I find most of the answers disappointing.

The main difficulty in tackling this question is squaring moral means with moral ends. The moral ends worth caring about are the various constituents of human welfare–longevity, health, wealth, pleasure, happiness, a sense of purpose and self-efficacy, the realization of potential, creativity, love, friendship, etc. Moral character, or virtue, is a means to achieving moral ends. As the socioeconomic structure shifts, the means of achieving moral ends shifts. But there is an inevitable lag in moral culture, in the evolution of our shared moral sentiments. Free markets precipitate extremely fast socioeconomic change, and therefore market cultures are most likely to see a mismatch between the traits of moral character valued by the culture and the traits of character actually effective as means within the existing structure for achieving moral ends. So you can (I think we do) have a situation in which people may seem debased according to the superannuated standards of our lagging moral culture while the system  simultaneously delivers moral goods more effectively than at any time in human history.

So, the correct answer to the Templeton question is: Yes, market societies corrode traditional moral norms. But this corrosion is an integral part of moral progress. Nothing in human history has done more to eradicate moral evil than the development of market societies. If cultural lag makes it difficult for us to see this, then cultural lag may in fact be our greatest moral danger.

[via Tyler, whose answer is here [pdf].]

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center