Dwight Lee on Ebenezer Scrooge's Morality
By David Henderson
The first Scrooge [before the visit of the three ghosts] satisfied only the requirements of the first morality, which I call mundane morality, while the second Scrooge [after the ghosts’ visits] enthusiastically embraced the second morality, which I call magnanimous morality. Economists who want to make a moral case for free markets need to take both moralities into account.
This is from Dwight R. Lee’s Econlib Feature Article for May, “The Two Moralities of Ebenezer Scrooge.”
Why run an article about this in May rather than, as is traditional, December? Because, as I explain in an editor’s note upfront, “people’s understanding of that classic affects their thinking all through the year.”
In the article Lee highlights the fact that Scrooge was a moral man. He didn’t cheat or steal. He worked hard and productively for what he earned.
But after the visits of the three ghosts, Scrooge became magnanimously moral. Lee’s last two paragraphs give us the moral of the story for those who want to teach about the wonders of mundane morality:
Most economists understand the importance of magnanimous morality to a good life. However, they approach their teaching by trying to get their students to appreciate the mundane morality of the market in the absence of magnanimous morality. As a result, they face much the same difficulty as when they try to get people to appreciate the first Scrooge. Economists could go a long way toward eliminating this difficulty by recognizing that those whose mundane morality helps them succeed in the marketplace are motivated largely by magnanimous morality–the desire to take care of their families and help their friends, neighbors and close associates, and being willing to make sacrifices to do so. Both moralities are necessary for a life of achievement, of purpose, and of the joy that comes from being able to do more for those we care about and who care for us.
Market behavior really is motivated largely by the same desire that transformed Scrooge on Christmas morning–the desire to help those who mean the most to us–and that motivation, when directed by the mundane morality of markets, results in our also serving the interests of multitudes of people we will never know. By emphasizing that a good economy, like a good life, is best achieved by the mundane morality of markets coupled with recognition of the motivational importance of magnanimous morality, economists would make a case for the morality of markets that has some of the same emotional appeal as does the transformation of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.