Organizations or Markets in Morality?

Moral codes can be produced and enforced through markets or through organizations. In particular, Catholic theology can be interpreted as a paradigm of the organizational production of morality. In contrast, the dominant moral codes are now produced in something resembling more a market.

The organizational character of Catholicism comes from its centralized production and enforcement of the moral code by theologians and priests and the mediation role played by the Church between God and believers. The epitome of both features is the old institution of confession of sins, a cultural universal that reaches full sophistication—for good and for bad—within Catholicism. My forthcoming JSSR paper argues that confession was a strikingly organizational solution to the production and enforcement of morality, something that Western societies now do mostly through markets.

Instead of centralized decisions by popes, councils, and theologians, the moral code is now written by millions of human decentralized interactions of all sorts. Now that there are thousands of gods, including the environment, mediation has also been transformed or disappeared. These market features make for lesser specialization. Most morality producers also play many other functions, from teaching to advertising.

It is well known that Catholic confession suffered heavily from the standard agency problem: priests often used their privileged position to extract rents. Sale of indulgences was only the most prominent historical case. The same problem plagues our societies. And it is hard to remedy because most modern priests sell their morality with a professional disguise.

By the way, coming back to indulgences, what are CSR and environmental audits but indulgences for sinful deeds? (I thank Joaquín Trigo for this lead). Should we be surprised that some Jesuit-inspired organizations are active suppliers of green and CSR credentials?

Comments at the Organizations and Markets Blog


By: Benito Arruñada

July 5th, 2009 , 18:38

How Active are Governments in the Moral Business?

Brad Taylor doubts in his reaction to my previous post on organizations and markets in morality that:

The moral authority of the Church was anywhere near complete in even the most ardently Catholic societies. The Church claimed a monopoly on morality, and many people went along with it to a greater or lesser degree. This seems pretty close to what government does today. The state doesn’t simply create laws aimed at resolving the inevitable conflicts among people, but attempts to influence public opinion through various types of propaganda – telling people not to smoke or get drunk and dance, for example.

I would not claim that the Church enjoyed a monopoly, only that the production of morality was more organizational — i.e., it took place within organizations (the Church itself was divided in several organizations), was more centralized, and was made by specialized moralist experts (mainly, theologians and priests, but even with some specialization of priests between those who focused on taking care of parishes, preaching, and confessing).

In contrast, I am inclined to think that morality is now produced more in the market: it is less centralized and is produced by generalists. It is true, as Brad says, that governments play an increasing role, especially in many European countries where they (1) control most education, even introducing new mandatory courses on “Good Citizenship”; (2) run their own TV stations, with plenty of scope to manipulate its contents; and (3) are actively running advertising campaigns about everything from global warming to racism or the use of condoms. However, there are many other powerful sources of morality that are purely market driven: e.g., Hollywood movies and commercial TV series; biologists, pop stars, and former politicians moonlighting as preachers for their favorite causes; reality shows; gossip media; and so on.