I’ve often heard people distinguish between two distinct ethical outlooks.  They usually call them the “Catholic” approach and the “Protestant” approach, but the distinction has little to do with theology.  Instead:

The “Catholic” approach has extremely high moral standards (e.g. Be celibate; give everything you have to the poor; love everyone), but enforces them loosely.

The “Protestant” approach has moderate moral standards (e.g. Don’t commit adultery; prudently give to the deserving poor; don’t hate people who’ve never done you wrong), but enforces them strictly.

John Derbyshire’s apology for Mel Gibson is a nice illustration:

The notion that we are not fully human until we have washed ourselves
pure all the way through, pure and white as the Lamb, is, to my mind,
highly obnoxious. I don’t know where it came from, or why it has taken
such a grip on us in this age. I think it is a Protestant doctrine —
Roman Catholics have always been much more sensible about human weakness
(so I’m guessing that Mel finds it as obnoxious as I do, whatever his
lawyers are telling him to say to the press). It certainly has some deep
roots in American culture, from the Puritans and the old Philadelphia
Quaker sects.

There’s also a “Victorian” variant, with extremely high moral standards and selective enforcement: Loose for elites, stricter for the masses.

As a moral realist, I think the most important question is “Which ethical view is correct?”  And as a moral intuitionist, I judge the Protestant approach plainly superior.  The moral case against adultery is easy to grasp; the moral case for celibacy (!), not so much.  The moral case against hating people who have done you no wrong is easy to grasp; the moral case for loving (!?) total strangers, not so much.  And if an action is wrong, it merits condemnation, not pity for the “human weakness” that many humans habitually overcome.

When people distinguish the Catholic and Protestant approaches to ethics, though, they strangely avoid ethical arguments.  They’re more likely to appeal to the behavioral effects of the two approaches.  Or to be more precise: (a) Proponents of the Catholic approach coyly allude to the good effects of their approach on behavior, without clearly identifying these alleged effects; and (b) Proponents of the Protestant approach keep their thoughts to themselves – at least around me.

Economics can’t resolve the underlying ethical dispute.  But economics can shed plenty of light on the behavioral effects of the two approaches.  We’ll see how in my next post.