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THE PROTESTANT ETHIC
AND THE SPIRIT OF CAPITALISM
School of Business
University of Alberta
T6G 2R6 CANADA
By the 17th century, as the industrial revolution began to unfold, the
idea that work has its own virtue necessary for a full and complete life developed into,
what is known as, the Protestant ethic, with its emphasis on abstinence and
self-discipline. In many respects the Protestant ethic laid the moral foundation for the
division of labor common to most modern industrial relations systems, and for the
authoritarian structure of modern organizations.
Why has society been so fascinated with concepts such as productivity, efficiency,
rationalization? Weber tries to answer this question in this book.
The book is about how a religion -- Protestantism -- served to dignify and promote the
spirit of capitalism (the systematic accumulation of wealth rather than the pursuit of
gain for its own sake). Weber recognized the meaningfulness of human behavior and tried to
explain it. The questions he deals with are basic: what is the origin of the value of
work? Why do we have a division of labor? Why capitalists try to grow, a process that for
many contains the seeds of their own demise?
The Spirit of Capitalism. Weber differentiates between the pursuit of
gain as such and the economic enterprise which is based on the rational organization of
free labor. By the latter he means its routinized, calculated administration within a
continuously functioning enterprise.
A rationalized capitalist enterprise implies two things: a disciplined labor force, and
the regularized investment of capital. Most importantly, the regular reproduction of
capital, involving its continuous investment and reinvestment for the end of economic
efficiency, is foreign to traditional types of enterprise. It is associated with an
outlook of a very specific kind: the continual accumulation of wealth for its own sake,
rather than for the material rewards that it can serve to bring. In Weber's own words:
"Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the
satisfaction of his material needs" (p. 53). This, according the Weber, is the
essence of the spirit of modern capitalism - systematic accumulation of capital.
Calling. What explains the relationship between the accumulation of
wealth and an absence of interest in the worldly pleasure which it can purchase? Weber
finds the answer in the concept of "calling."
Calling refers to the idea that the highest form of moral obligation of the individual
is to fulfill his duty in worldly affairs. This projects religious behavior into the
day-to-day world. "Labor must... be performed as if it were an absolute end in
itself, a calling. But such an attitude is by no means a product of nature. It cannot be
evoked by low wages or high ones alone, but can be the product of a long and arduous
process of education" (p. 62).
Calling "is an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel
towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in
particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal
powers, or only of his material possessions as capital" (p. 54).
A modern calling might be "nation-building" in post-war Japan or Germany, or
any feeling, among groups or individuals, that there is more to work than just a means for
Predestination. Weber bases his thesis on the doctrine of predestination:
Only some human beings are chosen to be saved from damnation, the choice being
predetermined by God. Now, it became obligatory to regard oneself as chosen, lack of
certainty being indicative of insufficient faith; and the performance of "good
works" in worldly activity became accepted as the medium whereby such certainty could
be demonstrated. Hence success in a calling eventually came to be regarded as a
"sign" -- never a means -- of being one of the elect. The accumulation of wealth
was morally sanctioned in so far as it was combined with a sober, industrious career;
wealth was condemned only if employed to support a life of idle luxury or self indulgence.
According to Weber, unwillingness to work is symptomatic of the lack of grace, or a
calling (p. 159). Even the wealthy should not eat without working, "for even though
they do not need to labor to support their own needs, there is God's commandment which
they, like the poor, must obey" (pp. 159-60).
ON THE DIVISION OF LABOR
Unlike Lutheranism according to which, "the world had to be accepted as it was,
and this alone could be made a religious duty" (p. 160), Puritanism believes that
there is a meaning to the division of labor. The specialization of occupations leads,
since it makes the development of skill possible, to a quantitative improvement in
production, and thus serves the common good, which is identical with the good of the
greatest possible number (p. 161). This is of course a highly utilitarian view shared by
many non-Protestants. But the following introduces the religion element into this view:
...outside of a well-marked calling the accomplishments of a man are only casual
and irregular, and he spends more time in idleness than at work. The specialized worker
will carry out his work in order while another remains in constant confusion, and his
business knows neither time nor place ...therefore is a certain calling the best for
everyone (p. 161).
Irregular work, which ordinary laborer is often forced to accept, is often unavoidable,
but always an unwelcome state of transition. A man without a calling thus lacks the
systematic, methodical character which is demanded by worldly asceticism (p. 161). To sum,
"what God demands is not labor in itself, but rational labor in a calling" (pp.
But if a religion provided that vital spark that ignited the sequence of changes
creating industrial capitalism, the latter order, once established, eradicated the
specifically religious elements in the ethic which helped to produce it. As a result,
"the Puritan", Weber concludes, "wanted to work in a calling; we are forced
to do so" (p. 181). Taylor replaced the religious belief with Scientific Management.
In other words, the original romantic rational for working hard has given way to an
instrumental rational. The romantic objective disappeared, yet the means for its
achievement still exist but have become part of an automatic behavioral pattern working
people adhered to, that is it has become a part of our paradigm.
Life without a calling. "In the field of its highest development, in
the US, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to
become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character
of sport" (p. 182). "Sport was accepted if it served a rational purpose, that of
recreation necessary for physical efficiency. But as a means for the spontaneous
expression of undisciplined impulses, it was under suspicion; and in so far as it became
purely a means of enjoyment, or awakened pride, new instincts or the irrational gambling
instinct, it was of course strictly condemned." (See note 115 p. 283)
While Weber never discussed how traditional industrial relations institutions, such as,
unions, strikes or collective bargaining, were perceived by Protestants, it is not
unreasonable to assume that they had no role to play within the Protestant paradigm. Faith
in the calling, a deep-seated belief that people should work to dignify God on earth,
should regulate the employee-employer relationship, rather than any manmade institutions.
Traditional industrial relations institutions, probably, could only disrupt the industrial
harmony that was erected upon faith.