Alex Mayyasi writes that a banker listening to a theologian seems like a curiosity, a category error. But for most of history, this kind of dialogue was the norm. What happened that clergy serving as consultants became viewed as a category mistake?
Gilbert Ryle coined “category mistake” in his 1949 book, The Concept of the Mind. He argued against putting body and mind in two categories, an idea that arose with the Enlightenment. Mayyasi, a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Atlantic and Priceonomics, cites another category mistake in a recent column in Aeon. He recounts the story of Citigroup hiring David Miller in 2014 as an on-call ethicist.
I met Miller in 2003, just as he was receiving his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. He had previously worked in finance and business for 16 years. Now David is a professor of business ethics and the director of Princeton University’s Faith and Work Initiative. Miller’s “How to Succeed without Selling Your Soul” is the students’ popular nickname for his signature course. In 2014, Citigroup called him.
The bank had been battered by successive scandals. Citigroup sought to hire an on-call ethicist. David Miller fit the bill. He talks to bankers and business leaders about finances, faith, and philosophy. Many like it, confessing a desire to do good.
Miller says he’ll often have lunch with an executive, and they say: “You do this God stuff?”’ They spend the next hour talking about ethics, purpose, meaning. Miller wants leaders in finance to talk about “wisdom, whatever its source.” To ignore this, as the bulk of the industry tends to do, is equivalent to “putting on intellectual blinders.”
The blindness is forgetting that, as modern finance arose in Europe, clergy counseled bankers. From the 1100s to the 1500s, church leaders, including Thomas Aquinas, discussed money’s “natural end’” or purpose. Using money to make money, rather than to facilitate the exchange of goods and services for the good of all, violated natural law. In another treatise, the prominent Italian cardinal Thomas Cajetan analyzed the ethics of how bankers hid interest payments in inflated exchange rates. “It was equivalent to a cardinal in 2006 writing knowledgeably about credit-default swaps,” Mayyasi says.
So when and why did most financial people stop seeing their work in moral terms? As Mayyasi notes, “It shouldn’t be so strange for a big bank to hire a theologian such as Miller; what should be strange is that we find it strange.” He’s right. It’s a category mistake. But when and where did it come from?
It came from positivism. Auguste Comte founded positivism, the idea that humanity progresses through stages of positive improvements. The first is theological, when God is seen as the great cause of all things. The second dispenses with theology in favor of philosophy. Comte called the third and final stage the “positivist,” when only science is seen as legitimate and rational. This created two categories. Facts are objective. Faith is subjective. God might be divine, but he’s deficient in matters of commerce and business.
Positivism got traction in the second half of the 19th century with a network of influentials. Members included James Joyce, William James, Charles Darwin, Thomas Huxley, John Dewey and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. They represented the new authorities on ethics and finance. By the 20th century, economics had become the supposedly scientific study of self-interest and individual incentives.
That’s not working out real well. We’re heading into a new Gilded Age. A growing number of financial people seem to be sensing this. They want to see their work in moral terms. They seek purpose and meaning in what has become “the dismal science.”
I think this is a grand opportunity for believers who are familiar with the biblical story of finance and money. If you aren’t, I recommend “The Good of Affluence” by John Schneider. If you are familiar with this story, the next step is learning the language and literature of finance so that clergy can translate Bible into boardroom language. It can be done. Clergy can reclaim their ancient role as consultants to those in finance. It’s the best way to override the reigning category mistake in banking.