Why is it important to establish the moral status of entrepreneurship? Unless it can be shown that the entrepreneur does what is morally worthwhile as an entrepreneur, that his role is ethically praiseworthy, not only his or her status in the market but the market itself becomes vulnerable to serious moral criticism. This is because it is well recognised that ethics are the free market’s life line. Many economists are beginning to realise this. Indeed, it is entrepreneurial activity that makes the best sense of profit – another vital part of capitalism.
However, without also demonstrating that entrepreneurship is ethical, the market would at most be hospitable to morally indifferent kinds of behavior; at worst it would encourage moral callousness and discourage the pursuit of presumably morally more significant objectives, such as order, self-restraint, artistic excellence, family values.
When a system is vulnerable in one of its essential ingredients, competing systems that lack this weakness become very powerful if not immediately successful alternatives. Their images improve, even if their actual performance leaves a lot to be desired.
Some argue that all we need is the hospitable environment, but this is false. Even in the freest of societies many, many potential market agents can be lazy. Not that laziness is encouraged but that it is clearly not foreclosed. That is partly what freedom means. One has a genuine choice whether to be productive or not. It is not enough to show that under capitalism human beings are free, unless the kind of uses to which such a system puts human effort can themselves be
morally worthwhile. So the question needs to be addressed. Why should one be productive? Why should entrepreneurship be practiced? What is good about it?
It is not enough by a long shot to answer that entrepreneurship is the ticket to a decent chance for wealth. Certainly one can agree that between stealing and producing, the latter is more honorable. However what if quietism – the form of religious mysticism that involves complete extinction of the human will, drawing away from worldly things – is proposed as an alternative?
How about asceticism – the religious ideal that one can reach a higher spiritual state by self-discipline and self-denial? How will the system that is hospitable to entrepreneurship be defended in the light of such powerful challenges?
The most serious challenges to capitalism come from those who contend that by making entrepreneurial effort possible – by protecting the rights to private property and the pursuit of happiness here on earth – this system corrupts human life. It tends to permit the commercialisation of human relationships, making us self-interested economic agents instead of what we really ought be, altruistic members of our community.
It is insufficient to reply that the capitalist system makes it possible for people to attain a better life here on earth. That is just what is in need of defense. Why should we strive for such a life in the first place?
In a society of just human relationships, there must be a consistent and constant hospitality to entrepreneurship because without this, an important moral dimension of human life would be suppressed or at least seriously distorted. Without such a welcome, public policy and law would yield to more widely accepted but sadly misguided moral sentiments, for example, the call for
greater and greater state power to regiment or re-engineer society instead of making it safe for natural human initiative.