Research Proposal: Max Weber Protestant Ethic

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Max Weber's Protestant Ethic

America's 'free market economy' is one of the calling cards of its defiant stance on individual liberties and personal opportunities for the pursuit of happiness. As a nation founded on explicitly capitalist principles, the United States has established a culture by which the acquisition of material wealth is commensurate to this pursuit. In concordance with the ideals of capitalism, the nation has evolved according to a definably lenient class system which is nonetheless sharply stratified. This is not, as it may at first appear to be, a contradiction in terms. In fact, as the criticism offered on this subject by historically significant schools of intellectual and economic thought will demonstrate, capitalism is an economic proposal which by nature requires the acquisition of material wealth by one at the direct expense of another. A discussion taken from the perspective of American social class divisions helps to demonstrate the moral quandary precipitated by this circumstance, focusing on the salient aspects of Max Weber's 'Protestant Ethic' as a lens through which to critique this pattern.

Though the United States is typically seen according to a set of very general economic categories defined upon earned annual income, it is in fact an extraordinarily complex diversity of living conditions, all of which function relative to one another. Max Weber, German economist and contemporary of Karl Marx observed that "In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it the character of sport." (Weber, 182) the cruelty of capitalism, as it were, is described here as a consequence of its materialist emphasis, which drives the desire to acquire greater wealth with little serious consideration of those whose ability to acquire might be obscured by this drive.

It is upon this premise that the American division of classes is comprised, with a literally infinite range of categories required to describe the diversity of American experiences. The basic structure of the stratified economy determines that there is a lower class, a middle class and an upper class. The middle class will frequently be divided according to an upper-middle class of working and educated professionals, and a lower-middle class of labor or wage labor earners. Certainly, it is immediately apparent that this is an oversimplification of the American experience. However, it serves as the point of entry for any discussion on the distribution of American wealth.

Today, the struggle for many Americans to remain afloat in the highly competitive American economy is the dominant economic condition. Though a historical doctrine drafted by the wealthy founders of the United States perceived rather sportingly as suggested by Weber the notion of the pursuit of happiness through the acquisition of material wealth, today, those "who study consumer behavior say that the wanting and getting of material goods is not just a competitive exercise. In this view, Americans care less about emulating the top tier than about simply having a fair share of the bounty and a chance to carve out a place for themselves in society." (Steinhauer, 1) Weber describes capitalism in his 1930 text the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as resembling the world of ancient Egypt, with the implication being that the system builds pharaohs on the backs of slaves. America's sharp and widening social divisions, Weber would argue today, are illustrative of this portentous ethical analysis.

All of that stated, it must be recognized that Weber not only endorses the premise of capitalism, but that in fact the thinker argues that there is a direct connection between this economic force and the dominant strains of protestant Christianity. In fact, the extensive criticism which is offered of the executed form of free market competition which has emerged in such contexts as America is underscored by a more complimentary assessment of the premise of the United States Constitution. Indeed, the positioning of its rhetoric suggests some admiration for the reflection in the constitution of effectively ethical sociological values. Where the United States would initiate with a Protestant value system, it would begin to break apart from the vastly unequal modes of feudalism that had defined Europe for centuries. Writing at the time of the global industrial revolution, Weber would be in a position to observe the inevitable change that would come both with philosophical revolutions such as that which had occurred in the United States and with a simultaneous shift in religion values.

With this in mind, Weber makes the contention that the relationship between the concepts of religion and economy is one that stands inextricably firm at the base of nearly every civilization and every empire. In order for either a religion or an economy to survive, the devotion of the people is a vital necessity, without which the force and relevance of either abstract entity will be without merit and without meaning. It should therefore be considered quite sensible that Weber would be inescapably preoccupied with the concept and underlying implications of organized religion. In Weber, one of the most carefully articulated endorsers of capitalism, we are given a clear ideological integration on the subject of economics, morality and religion. Under those collected areas of though, Weber would characterize capitalism as an inevitable manifestation of man's rational pursuit of material gain. And to Weber's credit as he makes a comparative statement on differing religious values, he may be observed as occupying a certain safeguarded distance from personal religiosity while nonetheless investing considerable effort in understanding its relationship to the economic conditions defining man's experiences.

This dynamic may best be summed up in Gerth et al.'s discussion on Weber, wherein it is notes that "although he was personally irreligious -- in his own words, 'religiously unmusical' -- he nevertheless spent a good part of his scholarly energy in tracing the effects of religion upon human conduct and life." (Gerth et al., 25) Weber's interest in religion, the Gerth text suggests, may well have extended from his deep exposure to his mother's devotion, which spawned a certain distaste in the philosopher for organized religion as a whole. He might be effectively described as an atheist with what the authors describe as an empathy for the devotion which people felt toward the Christian Church. The empathy would extend not just from his personal experience but from his political and economical perspective that the sovereignty of state and the hierarchy of economic impulse both implied by the Church's authority are appropriate measures of capitalist economic organization. This is to indicate that Weber's lifelong intellectual exploration of religion would be driven by a sense of religion as occupying a place of central importance in defining the moral and political parameters of rational capitalism.

This comes through loud and clear in the opening statements of his primary text, which is critical of the issue of social stratification and which is therefore complimentary of the forces which he recognizes as driving societies away from this pattern. Particularly, he is moved by the idea that American society's principles, if not its actualization, seemed to be in harmony with his criticism. As in much of Europe, Weber persisted in a time of deeply ingrained Catholic authority, a force which has historically invested itself in the machinations of monarchy, hierarchy and sharply intended social stratification. His response is the observation that "a glance at the occupational statistics of any country of mixed religious composition brings to light with remarkable frequency a situation which has several times provoked discussion in the Catholic press and literature, and in Catholic congresses in Germany, namely, the fact that business leaders and owners of capital, as well as the higher grades of skilled labour, and even more the higher technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises, are overwhelmingly Protestant." (Weber, 1)

While on one hand we might find it troubling and relativist to address one as somehow philosophically superior than the other, it is to be understand that Weber does not produce this discussion as a strident endorsement of one faith over another. Instead, it might be seen that the Protestant population and its connection to the free market competition of capitalism can be regarded as something of a reaction to the limitations and exclusivity of Catholic economy.

Certainly, Weber would be inclined to agree that there is a direct relationship between the economy and the preeminence of religious devotion in many hierarchical societies. But he implies that the particulars of one religion, including its moral customs, identity and racial characteristics, will produce the economic approach which this religion pursues through the course of its social dominance. The moral order, the sense of devotion to authority and the submission to such forces as a capitalist economy will occur upon the basis of man's conscience not as an independently functioning thing but as a channel for society's ideals.

Weber views the conscience as a reaction to religious premises, indicating that individuals accept… [END OF PREVIEW]

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