For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Protestants and Catholics: Similar work ethic, different social ethic"

by Arruñada, B (2010)


This article develops two hypotheses about economically‐relevant values of Christian believers, according to which Protestants should work more and more effectively, as in the ‘work ethic’ argument of Max Weber, or display a stronger ‘social ethic’ that would lead them to monitor each other’s conduct, support political and legal institutions and hold more homogeneous values. Tests using current survey data confirm substantial partial correlations and possible different ‘effects’ in mutual social control, institutional performance and homogeneity of values but no difference in work ethics. Protestantism therefore seems conducive to capitalist economic development, not by the direct psychological route of the Weberian work ethic but rather by promoting an alternative social ethic that facilitates impersonal trade.

Key Passage

Following Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), many writers have considered that this change in beliefs improves economic incentives, especially in the Calvinist version that emphasises predestination but also in the common Protestant focus on ordinary labour and vocation. The argument goes that even though good works do not warrant salvation, they serve as a signal to the believer, who is therefore moved to constant self-examination, with increased moral awareness. Worldly success is also seen as a positive signal when coming from disciplined work and not resulting in excessive consumption. Reformers thus modified the contents of the moral code in some dimensions with two potentially crucial economic consequences: by giving a more positive moral meaning to worldly activities, they encouraged a work ethic that favoured effort; and, by frowning on excessive consumption, they encouraged savings. According to this argument, the consequences to be expected are that both the laity and the clergy will focus on productive activities and abandon unproductive ones. A sort of secular asceticism should develop, in which individuals comply with divine plans by punctually performing their earthly duties. However, the degree of motivation provided by Protestant theology in Weber’s interpretation is open to doubt for a variety of reasons. First, there is a psychological inconsistency in that Protestant believers are saved by God, with good works contributing nothing. Even sixteenth-century reformers soon realised how difficult it was to persuade their flocks to be religious, while also teaching that good works of piety were worthless to earn salvation (Cameron, 1991, p. 400). Second, Protestant believers could easily deceive themselves when relying on self-examination. In contrast, Catholic enforcement was grounded on confession of sins to a priest, which suffers greater agency costs but offers specialisation advantages. (p.893)


Protestant Work Ethic, Catholicism, Protestantism, Weber, Social Ethic, Theology


Protestantism, Religious Views on Work

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