Individualist Economic Values and Self-Interest: The Problem in the Puritan Ethic

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The Puritan ethic is conventionally interpreted as a set of individualistic values that encourage a degree of self-interest inimical to the good of organizations and society. A closer reading of original Puritan moralists reveals a different ethic. Puritan moralists simultaneously legitimated economic individualism while urging individuals to work for the common good. They contrasted self-interest and the common good, which they understood to be the sinful and moral ends, respectively, of economic individualism. This polarity can be found in all the details of their moral system, including the Puritan understanding of vocation, economic virtues, property rights, contracts, wealth and poverty, market prices and interest, and the proper economic role of government. The efforts of contemporary ethics to confront the problem of self-interest in business organizations and society would be enriched by a rediscovery of the Puritan understanding of self as a fundamental problem for any individualistic value system.

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