protestant ethic

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The set of values embodied in early Protestantism, which has controversially been linked to the development of modern capitalism, most famously in Max Weber's classic essays on The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).

Initially this relationship appears paradoxical, since protestant beliefs did not embrace the idea of economic gain for its own sake, yet clearly this is an essential (and novel) component of capitalism. Weber's argument is that, whilst capitalism had existed elsewhere in elementary form, it had not developed on anything like the scale seen in modern Europe. Its emergence here was a result of the relatively wide endorsement of the idea of accumulating capital as a duty or end in itself. This, in itself, is an irrational attitude: there is no rational reason why we should choose work against either leisure or consumption. For Weber, religion provides the key to understanding this peculiarly modern orientation to everyday life, since religion entails a choice of ultimate values which cannot be justified on rational grounds. Once we have chosen such a value, however, we can pursue it by rational means: it makes sense to talk of rational and irrational ways of realizing an ultimate value. (For example, if I were to choose communism as an ultimate value, it would be irrational of me to join a conservative political party.) Weber's argument is that the rational pursuit of the ultimate values of the ascetic Protestantism characteristic of 16th- and 17th-century Europe led people to engage in disciplined work; and that disciplined and rational organization of work as a duty is the characteristic feature of modern capitalism—its unique ethos or spirit.

The crucial link to Protestantism comes through the latter's notion of the calling of the faithful to fulfil their duty to God in the methodical conduct of their everyday lives. This theme is common to the beliefs of the Calvinist and neo-Calvinist churches of the Reformation. Predestination is also an important belief, but since humans cannot know who is saved (elect) and who is damned, this creates a deep inner loneliness in the believer. In order therefore to create assurance of salvation, which is itself a sure sign (or proof) of election, diligence in one's calling (hard work, systematic use of time, and a strict asceticism with respect to worldly pleasures and goods) is highly recommended—so-called ‘this-worldly asceticism’. In general terms, however, the most important contribution of Protestantism to capitalism was the spirit of rationalization that it encouraged. The relationship between the two is deemed by Weber to be one of elective affinity.

This interpretation of the origins of Western capitalism provoked a huge response and even today continues to generate controversy. It was not intended, as is sometimes claimed, to be an alternative to Marxist accounts which offer explanations based on the economy. Weber argued against any simple, one-sided, or reductionist explanation of the rise of capitalist society. Protestantism did not cause modern capitalism, but it was one necessary pre-condition of its appearance. Much of the enormous secondary literature is reviewed in Gordon Marshall 's In Search of the Spirit of Capitalism (1982). Despite a range of objections on empirical and theoretical grounds, particularly concerning lack of clarity in the argument, the thesis remains influential. A number of translations exist. Parsons translated Weber's slightly revised version of 1920 (in 1930), which was subsequently retranslated in 2002 by Stephen Kalberg. The original essays of 1904–5 have been translated by Peter Baehr and Gordon Wells (published in 2002). Unfortunately, all these translations have been published with the same book title. Weber's various responses to his principal critics have been brought together in David Chalcraft and Austin Harrington (eds.), The Protestant Ethic Debate (2001).


Subjects: Sociology — Arts and Humanities.

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