Greed: Economics and Ethics in Conflict

By James M. Childs Jr.
Fortress. 2000. 152 pp. Pb. $15. ISBN 0800632303

Reviewed by Gordon K.Douglass, Claremont, Calif.


To regard capitalism as little more than a system based on greedy behavior, as this book does, is to underestimate vastly the ethics of capitalism. In fact, the efficient working of the capitalist economy is dependent on powerful systems of values and norms.

Successful markets operate the way they do not just because exchange takes place, but also because effective legal structures protect the rights of contracting parties and the parties readily honor negotiated contracts without need for constant litigation.

To be sure, capitalist ethics is deeply limited in some respects, particularly on issues of economic inequality, environmental protections and the need for cooperation of different kinds that operate outside the market. But within its domain, capitalism works effectively through a system of ethics that provides the vision and the trust needed for successful use of the market mechanism and related institutions.

Childs’ book ignores altogether that system of ethics, preferring instead to assume that Christian social ethics is the only system worth consulting. Hence he writes only about “how we go about our Christian calling” when confronted with greed. The ethics of contracts is never discussed. This is not to say Christian social ethics is an inappropriate anchor for discussing what is wrong with modern capitalism.

On the contrary, the book does an effective job identifying some of capitalism’s limits, including especially the book’s treatment of endemic hunger and poverty, the unsustainable use of resources, consumerism and the market’s failure to provide health care for all. Indeed the author is at his best drawing special attention — not to respect for one another’s rights — but to our obligation as Christians to respond to one another’s needs.

In chapters on a “sharing society,” Childs draws stark contrasts between the greed of personal ambition and concern for the common good. The individualism so deeply ingrained in American culture, he observes, is antithetical to God’s ideal of love in community. Accordingly, Christians must learn to practice and to promote the virtues of love in all venues of human interaction — virtues like generosity, openness to one’s neighbor, compassionate justice and solidarity with those in need.

To illustrate the complexity of practicing love in today’s world, he often tells stories from the business world — stories that serve nicely to introduce a chapter on the sharing that is required in “stakeholder capitalism.” If stakeholders — owners, employees, suppliers, customers, communities — are seen as partners in a mutually beneficial venture, they become less the source of conflicts and more a group whose aspirations need to be managed.

Childs ends the book with a call for Christians and the church to combat greed, in all its manifestations, with renewed Christian witness for a sharing society.

The book reviews at length many sources of the author’s insights. They can be consulted for additional reading. Churches wishing to use the book in adult classes will be aided by the questions ending each chapter.