Moral Foundations of Capitalism

This winter quarter, the Ethics and Society program will be offering a new class entitled, “Moral Foundations of Capitalism”. Taught by part-time professor Dr. John McCaskey, the seminar has been widely publicized and enjoyed enthusiastic support from students. The class assesses various 20th century defenses of capitalism, and, according to McCaskey, focuses on the question, “How it is that Americans have defended free enterprise as good and morally right.”

After coming up with the topic of the class last year, McCaskey bounced the idea off colleagues and students and found demand for a seminar focusing on the foundations of capitalism. What McCaskey didn’t anticipate, however, was just how high that demand would be. After strategically advertising to members of economic, religious, and conservative clubs on campus, passing out fliers at Activities Fair, and talking to current students about the seminar, McCaskey created hype around the class that surpassed its capacity.

Within the first 12 hours of registration opening, all fifteen spots had been filled. Axess didn’t properly cap registration, so enrollment rose to twenty-seven before the glitch was corrected later that day. These additional twelve class members will not able to participate in the class. One class member, Autumn Carter ’11 recalled registering at 2 AM, while another, Dakin Sloss ‘12, was relieved he was only the fourteenth person to register on Axess at 6 AM.

McCaskey believes that the primary reason Moral Foundations of Capitalism has gained so much attention from students is because of its interdisciplinary nature. “It is not an economics class, nor is it is not a literature class, it is not a history class, and it is not a philosophy class,” he warns, but rather a way to look at the aforementioned “together in some way.” Furthermore, the course’s placement in the Ethics and Society Department has drawn attention from students looking for a class that applies to different areas of study. For instance, Autumn Carter says, “I signed up for the class mainly because I enjoy wrestling philosophy when it is placed in the context of politics and economics.”

The high student interest for the class can also be linked to the seminar’s setup and the way it examines the different arguments for capitalism. Instead of debating capitalism vs. socialism or the pros and cons of capitalism, the class looks at multiple defenses of capitalism and evaluates whether or not they are compatible or equal. For instance, “a religious argument might say, well, on altruist grounds, capitalism is good- it helps a lot of people and I have a religious obligation to help people. This will however open up some challenges that one may not be comfortable with. It is not an argument based on individual rights; it is an argument based on the collective good. Does this mean that if there are cases where violating capitalist principles would serve the common good that we should do them? Some schools [of capitalist thought] would say no, the principles of individual rights are inviolate, and others would say yes, ultimately the goal is for the biggest good for the most people. Two individuals who say they are capitalists in fact may value and judge a policy very differently,” states McCaskey, giving a preview of the type of discussions that will take place in the class. “Our goal is to analyze the ethical arguments and schools, not to promote one or the other,” he concludes.

The website Coursework describes the class as an “interdisciplinary examination of alternative and largely incompatible twentieth century defenses of the morality of capitalism.” Starting with a reading of “the father of capitalism”, Adam Smith, the class quickly moves to historical readings from early critics of capitalism like Karl Marx and Herbert Hoover. The purpose is to set the context and present topics that were in the air when defenders of capitalism in the late 20th century had to marshal their arguments.

The rest of the seminar is split among three different defenses of capitalism: economic arguments, focusing on Austrian and Chicago School economists, late 20th century religious defenses, and the Objectivist philosophies of American author Ayn Rand. The seminar is heavy on outside reading and class time is spent evaluating the premises, holes, attributes and implications of the different defenses of capitalism. At the end of the quarter, class members take issues like healthcare and the subprime mortgage crisis and consider how the three different schools of capitalist thought would evaluate these policy issues.

McCaskey first decided to teach this class because of applicability of the topic to current events. Participants agree that the debates dividing Washington, such as healthcare, environmental regulations, and fixing the economy, will fuel class discussions. Dakin Sloss, the head of the Stanford Objectivists Society, claims, “The class is so popular because people are looking for answers right now… In general, this is a pivotal time in our history where we are choosing between big government and capitalism. This class will offer people a different and rather unique perspective on how to evaluate that choice morally.”

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