26 April 2012

"Catholic" versus "Protestant" Ethics

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | "Catholic" versus "Protestant" Ethics

I've often heard people distinguish between two distinct ethical outlooks. They usually call them the "Catholic" approach and the "Protestant" approach, but the distinction has little to do with theology. Instead:

The "Catholic" approach has extremely high moral standards (e.g. Be celibate; give everything you have to the poor; love everyone), but enforces them loosely.

The "Protestant" approach has moderate moral standards (e.g. Don't commit adultery; prudently give to the deserving poor; don't hate people who've never done you wrong), but enforces them strictly.
See also: The Behavioral Effects of "Catholic" versus "Protestant" Ethics
3. Some claim that the Catholic approach is less vulnerable to the slippery slope of moral decay. The opposite is true. The slippery slope is easiest to avoid when there is a clear standard of virtue, and anyone who falls short suffers stern rebuke. The slippery slope is hardest to avoid when no one lives up to your standards, and forgiveness is just an "I'm only human" away. [...]

Overall, we can imagine scenarios where Catholic standards give better incentives than Protestant standards. But they're pretty fanciful. In the real world, only a tiny minority surpasses the standards of bourgeois respectability, no matter how many times they hear about the lives of the saints and hermits. As a result, the payoff of high Catholic standards is small at best.
I think you could use this paradigm to make a very good critique of the way Notre Dame handles student conduct. They purport to be Catholic, but in reality have created a hybrid of the Catholic and Protestant approaches that combines the worst of both. It's not quite the "Victorian" variant that Caplan describes, but it's close.

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