“There is a misunderstanding that has crept into the cultural furniture with which we decorate the palaces of our worldviews.
Contrary to what the world may claim,
private vices quickly leak into public wickedness.”
his is not a diatribe about Adam Smith and economics, but I cannot let the opportunity pass me by. There are three lines of defense that are appropriate concerning Smith and “private vice.” First, he wrote The Wealth of Nations after he wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments. Second, these works, when read together, are obviously complementary. That is, the theory of moral sentiments creates a moral structure in which economic activity in the wealth of nations operates. Finally and most importantly, no one should believe in capitalism for the bare utilitarian and sterile moral reasons that Smith did. We have a better justification for private stewardship of resources when we look to Scripture and observe the framework it establishes.
Of course, we can appropriate Smith’s wise observations of the genius of God’s system, by which even the wicked are, by threat of force, compelled to serve their neighbor in order to eat.
Let us consider this a little further. Smith famously states that we do not rely on the good will of the baker to receive bread; instead we rely on the baker’s self-interest. We say that we do not rely on the good will of the baker to receive bread, but we certainly rely on the good action of the baker to receive it. If the baker were wholly free to act wickedly, all those weaker than the baker would receive no bread at all. By grace, God has limited the baker by instituting government, a relatively even distribution of individual power, and a soft temperament to bakers, generally speaking. Consider also: could a baker of righteousness request payment in exchange for bread? Certainly for “the laborer deserves his wages,” and what is capitalism but the service of all to each other? To conceive of the whole affair as “private vice causes public virtue” is a severe misunderstanding.
And this misunderstanding has crept into the cultural furniture with which we decorate the palaces of our worldviews. Of course, the myopia is a perversion of a good thing (since all wickedness, as Augustine teaches, is only a perversion of the true Good and is never a true innovation). Scripture teaches that the wide social effects of wickedness are not to be punished by the hand of the state. The individual correspondence of action and justice is sufficient in this broken world, though one day God will judge all sin and righteousness in its fullness.
Contrary to the world, we claim that private vices are always public vices. This is not true simply because the private-public dichotomy is itself a perversion (though it certainly is a perversion). It is not even only true because every sin against people made in God’s Image is an offense against that person and God (though this also is true). It is further true since all the actors are irresistibly social beings. This final point is true in two ways.
First, the concept of the autonomous individual is a myth. The concept of the concept’s mythical status, of course, has been overwrought almost to the point of cliche, but it is still worth mentioning since it is necessary to decontextualize this point from its atheistic postmodern context. An autonomous individual is a myth according to postmoderns because there is no identifiable aspect of an individual that does not borrow social resources. Matter, language, thinking, living, “being autonomous,” and all possible behavior or situations have a participatory, and therefore social, component.
For the Christian, these facts are much less riveting. Since we construct our worldview first from Scripture, these phenomenological decorations are simply illustrative of the true distinctions of interdependence found in Scripture. For example, Christians wisely avoid placing too much stress on the social aspect of our material coexistence with the earth. In Genesis, God makes man out of the earth in a specific act of individuation. To place our own impression of connectedness over God's action would be a mistake. Similarly, there are many other ways that we are truly social that do not seem, from Scripture, to contact our root identity.
However, there are three identity-centric social aspects to Man that God has made plain to us in Scripture. First, God completes His creation of Adam when He places him in the social covenant of marriage. The covenant marriage produces a second interlaced social object called a family. The patterns of God’s creation dictate that all humans participate socially either as part of a family, but not a marriage (as a child of parents), or as part of a family through a marriage (as one of the spouses). Second, God unites in His covenant Law large meshes of the family of Israel with particular domains of land. The covenant at Sinai is the particularization of the second social identification that all people have: all people are national citizens. One’s default citizenship is directly determined genealogically (as with family), and may be changed by law through immigration (as with family through adoption). Finally, everyone has a social status as either part of the Kingdom of Darkness or the Kingdom of Heaven. The relationship between the Kingdom and the Church is too complex to discuss here, but it should be evident that a similar irrevocably social pattern exists. Either one is bound up (healthily or sickly) in the life of the whole Body of Christ, or one is bound up in the society of the world, which ironically includes radical individualism. (Anyone who has used the internet knows that individualism loves company.)
This information is critical to my second point: every vicious act is also a public vice because it always harms the virtue of the actor. Since there is an objective moral order to which all souls conform or rebel, viciousness is to the detriment both of the attacker and the defender. Even if both souls agree so that there is no “defender” in the normal sense of the word, the harm of the vice is only transmuted such that both are acting viciously and are hurting themselves. Since these selves that they are hurting are building blocks of families, nations, and the Holy Church, it is evident the private vice quickly leaks into public wickedness.
Sin Hurts Everyone
This is the Christian dogma: there is no victimless sin. At minimum there are always four people and three societies that are affected by every sin. The sinner harms himself. Christ, the Father and the Holy Spirit are directly offended by the sinner’s affront. The family and nation that the sinner participates in are brought that much lower. The sinner in the World adds that much depravity to the Kingdom of Darkness; the sinner in the Church poisons Christ’s very Body with a toxic existence.
By grace and mercy, God has given earth the antidote to the streams of cyanide that flow from our hearts: the sacrifice of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit who washes us in the experience of forgiveness repeatedly. We look forward to the glorious day of visitation when we are perfected and the spring of poison is purified forever. But until that day, we must remember that private vices are also public vices.