Students dedicate weekend to exploring the question, “Is capitalism moral?”
In September 2017, a group of 17 undergraduates at the University of Notre Dame gathered in a classroom on the Friday evening before a football game –– and the Saturday morning of the game –– to discuss and debate the morality of capitalism. This seminar was led by Professor Vincent Phillip Muñoz and hosted by the Tocqueville Program for Inquiry into Religion & Public Life and the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS).
This February, a new group of 18 students engaged the same topic in a weekend seminar hosted by Professor Muñoz’s Constitutional Studies Program and supported in part by IHS. Students were incentivized with food and a modest stipend, but they set themselves apart in deciding to give up their Friday night and Saturday morning to take on a significant reading load in order to prepare for hours of discussion.
Professor Muñoz said of his decision to hold the seminar, “The Constitutional Studies Program seeks to challenge Notre Dame students to ask and answer fundamental questions about the meaning of justice. We designed this seminar to bring students from Arts & Letters and the Mendoza College of Business together for a weekend of discussion about the nature of economic justice and the extent to which capitalism does or does not foster it.”
To lead the discussion, the ConStudies Program brought to campus Professor Jim Otteson. Otteson is a professor of economics at Wake Forest University, where he also holds the Thomas W. Smith Presidential Chair in Business Ethics and directs the Eudaimonia Institute. Participants read his most recent book, Honorable Business: A Framework for Business in a Just and Humane Society, and had the opportunity to engage and debate with its author.
Professor Otteson offered his thoughts on the seminar in an email to the Rover: “There are few topics of greater or more timely importance than reviewing the moral arguments in favor of and against market-based economies. An opportunity to read Adam Smith and Karl Marx, to consider the benefits and liabilities of both capitalism and socialism, and to engage in an open and serious discussion with civility and mutual respect is of great value for students. Wherever they end up, students benefit from deep engagement with differing perspectives.”
“One important aspect of our discussions was considering how Catholic social thought bears on these issues, and asking how Catholicism can inform a conception of honorable business and whether market economies can reflect the dignity of the human person,” Otteson continued, commenting on how the seminar might relate to the University’s mission. “Virtually all students will go on to engage with business in one way or another, so it is vital that they explore how they can, and should, do so with virtue and in solidarity. It is an honor and privilege to work with students through the Constitutional Studies Program, and I hope the Program continues this important effort to foster what Pope Francis has called ‘an authentic human ecology.’”
Student participants were eager to share their own reflections on the weekend they spent reading and discussing ideas about freedom, markets, morality, and more.
Veronica Maska, a sophomore from Austin, Texas studying Business Analytics offered, “This particular seminar presented a chance to take a step back from financial statements and pricing strategies to consider fundamental questions about the definition of value and to conceptually analyze how value is created. The discussions helped to clarify my thoughts on the relationship between the creation of value in markets and moral uses of that value.”
Joe Cook, a fifth-year senior pursuing dual degrees in mechanical engineering and theology, observed that though it seemed “the group of us were settled on the merits of capitalism over any other form of economy, there was still a lively debate about the limits of freedom in the market. Several of us, including myself, found ourselves in the camp of current political figures like Marco Rubio, who has been advocating for a greater recognition of the real value of labor and the dignity of the worker, than the truly free market camp, and, as a result, there was a lively debate on the current state of American corporations.”
Cook continued, reflecting on the seminar’s significance in his own education: “All in all, being able to debate in an informed, civil, and passionate way, while drawing upon both historical sources such as Smith, Marx, and Locke and current events, was a great addition to my academic career, especially as I near the end of my time as an undergraduate at Notre Dame.”
Describing his seminar experience, Trevor Lwere, a sophomore studying economics and Global Affairs, said, “I am grateful for having been a part of this seminar, and particularly for the opportunity to engage in critical debate and discussion with Prof. Otteson and the other students. The best part of the discussion for me was learning what I did not know through listening to the submission of others, and particularly the objections to my own submissions. I was able to learn of the capitalists’ most fundamental objections to an alternative imagination of an economic
system. I also enjoyed our opening discussion on the definition of wealth. I think a definition of wealth is important because it is the starting point for our social systems. We set out to maximize whatever we believe wealth to be. Getting this wrong can have severe consequences for our wellbeing as the growing emphasis on alternative measures of success within economics are starting to show us.”
“I wish we could have more of these discussions. The world is looking upon our generation to resolve our current challenges,” Lwere concluded.
At a Catholic university tasked with forming the next generation and some of the nation’s next leaders in business, politics, journalism, and other fields, it’s important for students to explore the big questions of the age in a robust, challenging, and respectful manner. This seminar was one way in which academic programs on campus contribute fruitfully to that mission.
Nick Marr is a senior from San Diego, CA studying political theory. As a 10 year old, he argued with a Supreme Court justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan. It was neither his first nor his last argument. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.