The intimate asymmetrical dance of usury, slavery, and economic libertinism

January 1, 2013 § 8 Comments

“Are we not ashamed to pay usury? Not contented within the limits of our own means, we do by giving pledges and entering into contracts, fabricate the yoke of our slavery.” – Plutarch

In applying the Simple Usury Test it becomes obvious that the critical distinction between usurious lending and non-usurious lending is collateral. If the loan is secured by specified tradable collateral and only that specified tradable collateral, with no further moral or legal obligation beyond surrender of that collateral on the part of the borrower to repay principal or interest, it is not usury. This naturally shifts the focus to what constitutes legitimate tradable collateral, and commenter Antonym points out that in the past the custom of selling onesself into slavery to pay off a debt was common practice. If it is not intrinsically immoral to sell onesself into slavery, even in the most desperate of circumstances, it seems to follow that no lending contracts are usury.

An economic libertine has no principled way to oppose the practice of selling onesself into slavery, because for an economic libertine the essence of the justice of a contract is mutual consent: if the contract is mutually consensual that is sufficient for it to be “permitted”, that is, enforced by the police, courts, bully pulpit and guns of the government. So it is perfectly natural for economic libertines to fail to see what is unjust about usury.

I would suggest (perhaps counterintuitively) that it is not intrinsically immoral to sell onesself into slavery in desperate circumstances; but at the same time, it is intrinsically immoral for a lender to take usury on a loan. The reason is because the person who commits the intrinsically unjust act is the one who purchases and takes possession[1] of the chattel slave (whether from the enslaved himself or from someone else). In the case of usury the person who commits the intrinsically unjust act is the lender who takes usury on the loan, not the borrower who acts out of desperation. The act of the borrower is asymmetrical to the act of the lender, as the act of the victim is always asymmetrical to the act of the criminal.

Now, this is not a blanket permission slip to sell onesself into slavery nor to borrow from a usurer on a whim. It is merely a conclusion that neither action is intrinsically immoral, and therefore may be justifiable in some circumstances under some rubric of material cooperation with evil. The work involved in justifying a particular act of material cooperation with evil – or concluding that it is not justified – always depends on the particular circumstances.

St. Thomas Aquinas gives us his view of the matter (ST II-II, Q78, A4):

I answer that, It is by no means lawful to induce a man to sin, yet it is lawful to make use of another’s sin for a good end, since even God uses all sin for some good, since He draws some good from every evil as stated in the Enchiridion (xi). Hence when Publicola asked whether it were lawful to make use of an oath taken by a man swearing by false gods (which is a manifest sin, for he gives Divine honor to them) Augustine (Ep. xlvii) answered that he who uses, not for a bad but for a good purpose, the oath of a man that swears by false gods, is a party, not to his sin of swearing by demons, but to his good compact whereby he kept his word. If however he were to induce him to swear by false gods, he would sin.

Accordingly we must also answer to the question in point that it is by no means lawful to induce a man to lend under a condition of usury: yet it is lawful to borrow for usury from a man who is ready to do so and is a usurer by profession; provided the borrower have a good end in view, such as the relief of his own or another’s need. Thus too it is lawful for a man who has fallen among thieves to point out his property to them (which they sin in taking) in order to save his life, after the example of the ten men who said to Ismahel (Jeremiah 41:8): “Kill us not: for we have stores in the field.”

[1] Someone who purchases a slave in order to gain his freedom is clearly doing something categorically different, since the purchaser does not ‘take possession’ of the ‘slave’ in the pertinent sense.

§ 8 Responses to The intimate asymmetrical dance of usury, slavery, and economic libertinism

  • tz2026 says:

    So a virgin can pledge her virginity (she agrees to commit an act of fornication or adultery) as collateral, and if she cannot repay, it is not she who sins?

    The obverse to “good ends” is cooperation in sin. If you encourage, cooperate, excuse, cover-up, provide the opportunity, etc. any particular sin even if you do not commit the act yourself (consider torture), or even if you are a too willing victim.

    So in the instance you have someone either defrauding (plans to run away, maybe to “sanctuary”, another old and forgotten institution, instead of becoming a slave), or otherwise cooperating, placing themselves at risk, and giving the opportunity and encouragement for the institution of chattel slavery. Can you be preemptively repentant yet encourage, cooperate with, and engage in the sinful act?

    You can criticize economic libertine-ism and contracts yet you’ve shifted an individual’s responsibility not to encourage others – including pagans – to sin or otherwise do evil by creating circumstances where it is likely to happen. Creating a near occasion of sin. The church – and every individual member of the body – has the responsibility to pull people out of hell, not push them in. If they are not in a state of grace (baptized or otherwise) they are to be evangelized, not exterminated or exploited.

    For Augustine’s example, it seems to be a case of “double-effect”. The pagan virtue of honoring a promise might supersede the circumstances of the oath. I suggest it would be very different if the “oath” involved drawing geometric shapes, drawing blood, and human sacrifice. Yet even saying the name of a demon is not safe. At best paganism is merely a soft atheism or deism (e.g. Camile Paglia) where there is no belief in any actual gods or they woudl actually engage in some act if the oath was violated, but the expression is merely a public proclamation of sincerity.

    The gates of hell are invisible and on a wide and gentle slope. You do not want to see how far you can go before you have crossed the threshold. Nor to see how close you can go before encountering “an Angel of Light”.

    It is possible to discuss technicalities, I remember a tedious discussion on Catholic Answers that the death penalty was not intrinsically evil. However as JP2 pointed out in Evangelium Vitae, in the 21st century there are practically no circumstances where it could be legitimately applied. There can be no prudential judgment which would allow for it when there is no extreme circumstance imaginable which would allow it.

    Someone in extreme circumstances requires charity. Practical charity. A corporal (or spiritual) work of mercy. To be fed, clothed, medically treated, visited, counseled, or whatever THEIR need is.

    Usury is at its root a substitute for (a counterfeit of) charity. Instead of giving without repayment, it is a giving with a demand of repayment with a promise to legally take something if it is not repaid through other voluntary means.

    As for Aquinas, I would agree, but the “good end in view” is something like when a war can be a “just war”. It must never approach the possibility of fraud (if you know with any certainty you will NEVER be able to repay). A more difficult criterion is you must not do (actively and intentionally) evil even if good will result, double-effect again. If you are borrowing in summer for a need which arises in summer, but have a bumper crop which in the autumn will easily repay the usurer, and the good done (or evil mitigated) will not wait until autumn, then it may be permissible.

    This is exchanging profits for cash-flow. Something like a reverse mortgage where the elderly are house-rich but cash poor (very solvent, but illiquid).

    But again, you don’t want to see how far you can still do a U-turn down the wide road that leads to destruction you can go before you lose traction on the slippery slope.

  • Zippy says:

    Virginity is definitely not a transferable asset, so I’m not following that part.

    Exchanging profits for cash flow is fine as long as the agreement is collateralized by real assets: the lender gets the farm (and only the farm) if the wheat isn’t produced or what have you.

    I say in the OP that one who borrows from a usurer has to justify material cooperation with evil, that is, must have a proportionate reason and pass double effect. I’d go further: he has an obligation to pay what he agreed to pay precisely because he made the commitment to do so, unless he made the commitment under extreme duress to an extent that means it was not a freely given commitment. There may be other limitations as well; but the point here is not to grant blanket excuses for people to renege on promises made, which is a separate moral problem in itself.

    None of that excuses the lender who lends at usury, an act always and without exception intrinsically evil. Nor does it justify government enforcement of usurious contracts, which is formal cooperation with an intrinsically immoral act.

  • Zippy says:

    Let me put it this way:

    Someone who pretends to sell himself into slavery and then runs away with the money commits fraud. But whether he commits fraud or not, the person who purchases a slave with the intent to retain him as chattel property does evil.

  • […] follows, then, that if a contract has intrinsically immoral terms – say it charges usury for money lent or asserts that two homosexuals are married – that the government officials who enforce it, […]

  • […] the subject of property and my thoughts on moral theology related to property: usury, currency, slavery, and the like. In order to do that I had to do some reading and take several steps back to think […]

  • TomD says:

    ST II-II, Q78, A4, Reply to Objection 3 states you can even deposit your money with a known usurer. I wonder if that allows you to receive interest on your deposit?

  • Zippy says:


    It depends upon what secures your contract with the known usurer.

    Usury is when a lender contracts for interest on a mutuum loan; that is, a loan secured by a personal guarantee by the borrower. So if your “loan” to a known usurer is not a mutuum loan then the “interest” he pays you is not usury.

    It is however still material cooperation with a known usurer, so it has to be justified under double effect. If it fails double effect it is still morally wrong, even if not technically usury in itself.

    See question 44 of the Usury FAQ.

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