Generosity and finance porn

April 8, 2016 § 19 Comments

All the complicated discussion about usury tends to make the mind glaze over and can create a kind of moral smokescreen. That is just because usury is one of those things that people really want moral license to do though, so they are always scrambling around to find loopholes.  Someone who is tempted toward adultery is likely to find himself rationalizing behaviors in its vicinity, including behaviors which may not technically be adulterous.

Someone who has developed in virtue will not merely avoid technically immoral behaviors but will avoid flirting with sin.

Even though usury is a pervasive moral evil in modern economies, it is really quite difficult to do it by accident. Accidentally committing usury is like accidentally committing theft. Christians and men of good will can avoid it very, very easily by just following a few simple guidelines.

1. If someone is in a tight spot and you are able to help, do so generously. Expect nothing in return. If he is not generous back toward you when things improve materially for him then keep him in your prayers, because material misfortune is obviously not his only affliction.

2. If someone helps you out, be generous in your gratitude when you are able.

3. If you invest, save, or enter into contracts to preserve your wealth, never require someone to personally guarantee that you won’t lose all that you invested to misfortune. (It is OK if an institution makes that kind of guarantee. Institutions are not persons). Make sure that what secures your investment is property and only property. Require either payment or pledge of property as security when you perform work or sell products.  In summary, do not – except as an act of gratuitous charity – accept personal pledges as security in any business agreement or contract.

Accidentally committing usury is like accidentally sinning sexually. If you aren’t constantly gazing at financial pornography when you ought to be just doing the Christian thing and helping someone out, you are much less likely to have a problem with it.

§ 19 Responses to Generosity and finance porn

  • josh says:

    What about the other side of the equation. Am I sinning when I use a credit card?

  • Zippy says:

    josh:

    The behavior which is intrinsically immoral – usury – is, as a lender of money, binding a mutuum borrower, by contract or agreement, to pay interest.

    Paying interest on a mutuum – the borrower side of the contract – is not intrinsically immoral. I address this in Q23.

    So the answer to your question is that by using a credit card you are, like any mutuum borrower at interest, engaging in material cooperation with evil. Material cooperation with evil is subject to prudential judgment: if you have a proportionate reason it can be justified under the doctrine of double effect, but if you do not have a proportionate reason it cannot be justified. Double-effect analysis of prudential judgments is a big subject, though there are probably quite a few posts on it in my archives.

  • buckyinky says:

    For those like me tempted to remove myself one step from the material cooperation factor by saying that I pay it off every month before interest accrues, it’s good to remember that material cooperation occurs by the fact that any charge you make on the card is treated at that moment as a claim upon yourself, and you as a person are put on the credit card company’s balance sheet as an asset. Using the credit card helps the credit card company to maintain this lie regardless of whether they ever get around to accruing usury.

  • CJ says:

    Zippy –

    Will you be commenting on Francis’ latest document?

  • Zippy says:

    CJ:
    No idea.

  • Alex says:

    Zippy, you wrote:

    The behavior which is intrinsically immoral – usury – is, as a lender of money, binding a mutuum borrower, by contract or agreement, to pay interest.

    Paying interest on a mutuum – the borrower side of the contract – is not intrinsically immoral. I address this in Q23.

    So the answer to your question is that by using a credit card you are, like any mutuum borrower at interest, engaging in material cooperation with evil. Material cooperation with evil is subject to prudential judgment: if you have a proportionate reason it can be justified under the doctrine of double effect, but if you do not have a proportionate reason it cannot be justified. Double-effect analysis of prudential judgments is a big subject, though there are probably quite a few posts on it in my archives.

    I can see the logic behind that, but I am a bit confused. Just yesterday, I found this post of yours. And while I never saw things through that angle, I can see the logic there too. But I don’t understand why these two cases are different. It seems to me that by acquiring a credit card, you are creating a situation where the members of the bank can sin by practising usury. Much like a pro-life sting might create a situation where the people who work in a clinic are tempted to collaborate with murder.

    Why then is one a prudential choice, while the other (as far as I understood) is always a sin?

  • Zippy says:

    Alex:

    Aquinas does thread a pretty fine needle between “it is immoral to entice a man to sin” and “it is not immoral to take advantage of another man’s sin to do good”.

    I should mention that in the case of the sting operator it is my belief that he is lying, that lying is intrinsically immoral, so we know his actions are morally wrong before we even look to double effect. As I mention in the comments of that post I am setting aside the question of the intrinsic immorality of lying and am addressing the situation as if it were a question of double effect. This requires us to look at the intentions of the parties and the circumstances.

    (I do a similar thing in Question 53 of the Usury FAQ, where I stipulate charging interest based on counterfactuals and argue that even if interest levied against counterfactuals were morally permissible – which it isn’t – the borrower’s counterfactual claims to interest are more reality-based than the lender’s).

    So we are stipulating a case of prudential judgment / double effect for the sake of argument, not because we agree that it is actually a double-effect case.

    Anyway, one key double-effect distinction between the cases is that the sting operator’s actions fail if his target fails to form an intention to do evil and begin acting on that intention. The sting operator won’t get the footage he needs without this taking place: the good effect he seeks depends upon a bad effect caused by his own action, so it fails double effect. There is a strictly necessary connection between the target forming evil intentions as a result of the sting operator’s own action, and beginning to act upon them, and the sting operator achieving his goal.

    The actions and intentions of the credit card user however will not (necessarily) be thwarted if the lender does not form an intention to charge him usury. The lender is not bound by necessity to charge usury and achievement of the borrower’s goals do not depend upon him doing so.

    So yeah, it is a pretty fine needle. But it seems to me that there are still valid distinctions between the cases even once we’ve stipulated that the sting operation is a case of prudential judgment / double effect.

  • Zippy says:

    Some folks might find the criticism here of interest (no pun intended), if only as an example of missing the point. In particular, note that the criticism rests on conflating (rather than distinguishing) persons and property.

  • Alex:

    Getting a credit card isn’t intrinsically evil unless you specifically ask to be charged interest.

    Zippy:

    Could you summarize the criticism? I’ve been ip banned from SD for some time.

  • Zippy says:

    ArkansasReactionary:

    It is a long post, so I’m reluctant to just paste the whole thing in here or paraphrase. The username of the poster is “Gardener”.

    If I had to pick out key contentions they would be:

    To lend money thus becomes an exercise of lending the time-value of one’s own labor, and thus, in an abstract sense, self.

    Opportunity cost is valid…

    Property is not necessarily subject to decay. [That one is a real howler, and demonstrates my point that acceptance of usury involves, on some level, denial when it comes to the second law of thermodynamics applied to property. – Z]

    Did peaches in the bucket now just fall from the sky? [Here he simply misreads the contention, which was not that peaches in a bucket have no value. – Z]

    Wealth preservation is more easily realized by not lending, … [I don’t know about more easily, but it is certainly true that many kinds of investment strategies can be pursued without doing any mutuum lending whatsoever. – Z]

    The author essentially argues for the licity of negative interest rates as a moral good. Absurd. [More misreading. He is still in the frame of mind where he sees mutuum loans as morally licit other than as acts of charity or friendship, as a kind of gift. He won’t grasp the point at all – whether he still disputes it or not – until he stipulates mutuum lending specifically as, in general, a morally illicit part of any investment strategy whatsoever. – Z]

    Being a fungible proxy, money or anything of considered value, is a proxy for a man’s time, labor, and thus life. [This is the essence of his criticism, as best as I can tell. A man’s money is the man: Shylock’s pound of flesh. – Z]

  • Mike T says:

    The behavior which is intrinsically immoral – usury – is, as a lender of money, binding a mutuum borrower, by contract or agreement, to pay interest.

    Did you address the extent to which workers in a corporation are morally liable for the usurious loans they authorize in their capacity as an employee?

  • Alex says:

    @Zippy

    I think I get it. Thanks!

    @ArkansasReactionary

    Yeah, I get that now. But thanks anyway!

  • Zippy says:

    Mike T:
    It is the same as any situation where an employer insists that an employee do something objectively evil (lie, steal, publish pornography, etc). There isn’t anything special or unique about usury in this regard.

  • Mike T says:

    I don’t know if you referenced this, but it occurred to me that merchants would generally be shielded from moral liability on participating in evil WRT credit cards by virtue of the fact that all readers handle debit cards. The merchant does not specifically have involvement in the credit card system, but rather the electronic messaging system that supports credit cards and ACH transactions alike. Using systems like Google Wallet and PayPal further reduces the issue by creating an additional buffer between the merchant and the credit card.

    Probably has no place in your FAQ at the moment, but it might come up.

  • Leo says:

    So as a borrower receiving a usurious loan are we creating an occurrence of sin in the lender that makes us sin by taking on the loan? Or are we using another’s sin for good (potentially)?

    It seems close to the situation where an undercover operative induces an abortion provider to intend to do evil. Is it not similar?

  • Zippy says:

    Leo:
    I discussed that upthread and in Q23 of the Usury FAQ.

  • Asking a person to do something morally good or neutral, with the knowledge that they will do it in an evil manner, is different from directly asking someone to do evil.

  • […] profit from mutuum loans is at least sometimes morally permissible, and that in any event it is impossible to avoid interest on ‘loans’ (understood […]

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