Usury and the fundamental option
December 1, 2012 § 6 Comments
Fundamental option moral theories, which separate a person’s inner orientation or intentions from his objective concrete chosen behaviours, have been condemned by the Magisterium as heretical, to wit:
A distinction thus comes to be introduced between the fundamental option and deliberate choices of a concrete kind of behaviour. In some authors this division tends to become a separation, when they expressly limit moral “good” and “evil” to the transcendental dimension proper to the fundamental option, and describe as “right” or “wrong” the choices of particular “innerworldly” kinds of behaviour: those, in other words, concerning man’s relationship with himself, with others and with the material world. There thus appears to be established within human acting a clear disjunction between two levels of morality: on the one hand the order of good and evil, which is dependent on the will, and on the other hand specific kinds of behaviour, which are judged to be morally right or wrong only on the basis of a technical calculation of the proportion between the “premoral” or “physical” goods and evils which actually result from the action. This is pushed to the point where a concrete kind of behaviour, even one freely chosen, comes to be considered as a merely physical process, and not according to the criteria proper to a human act. The conclusion to which this eventually leads is that the properly moral assessment of the person is reserved to his fundamental option, prescinding in whole or in part from his choice of particular actions, of concrete kinds of behaviour.
A similar disconnection between concrete reality and an imaginary inner world is made in economics when it comes to usury. It should come as no surprise that justifications for usury ultimately rest on an appeal to imaginary unreality: St. Thomas Aquinas after all tells us that what is morally wrong about usury is that it involves selling what does not exist.
Usury is when profitable interest is charged for the use of money -qua- money, independent of what the borrower does with the money and without reference to the purchase and rental of actual real assets from which principal may be recovered.
One reason usury is proposed to be morally licit – that is, one of the arguments against the Church’s teaching that usury is morally wrong – is that people have a preference for money now as opposed to money later. In a purely interior way, without reference to any specific choice or behaviour (does this sound familiar?), value is created by the mere fact that the lender would, all other things equal, prefer to keep his money rather than lend it out. His mere preference creates value out of nothing, which translates into a moral obligation on the part of the borrower to produce for him a profit.
I don’t have a theory of real economic value that can answer whatever questions people may raise about it. But I do know that a theory of value which proposes it to arise from the mere preferences of individuals independent of concrete actions cannot be right.
This of course does not deal with all of the various arguments about usury over the past 500 years or so. But I do think that arguments which rest on a preference theory of value can be dispensed with, because preference theories of value are not fully in touch with reality.