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Accountability Under Virtuous Capitalism

This is the 8th in a series introducing the book Redeeming Capitalism by Ken Barnes. You can pick up the start of this series here. See the chart here for the context of ACCOUNTABILITY in the major historic forms of capitalism.

Image Credit: Canva

“Of course we cannot discuss morality without also considering accountability. Who, finally, decides whether someone is acting ethically? Who will be the judge of our conduct? And what will adhere that conduct to conscience when no one else is watching?

In the days of traditional capitalism, most people believed that God was the one watching and that God ultimately decided (and made judgments about) whether or not one's conduct was ethical. The Roman Catholic system maintained a strict hierarchy of sins, and certain offenses required specific acts of penance or purgatorial atonement.

In the modern, Protestant era, though, no such system existed, and accountability was not unlike Adam Smith's ‘impartial spectator’ or ‘man within the breast who determined whether or not one's conduct was moral. In this system, each person was responsible for his or her own behavior based on the exercise of his or her own conscience and the conviction of the Holy Spirit. There was no confessional, no earthly penance, and no purgatory, only the believer's duty to be holy as God is holy, in grateful response to the all-encompassing atonement of Christ on the cross.


Fast-forward to postmodern capitalism, where those vestiges of accountability have given way to a moral relativism and a focus, to the detriment of common good and common grace, on personal freedom. If something in this system is legal, it might be assumed to be moral, and even if it were not legal, the only crime would be getting caught. With a lessening of accountability in postmodern capitalism, a belief that no one is watching, and the absence of a religious or common good consensus, from where will this accountability come?

With the word common at the center of this redeemed capitalism, the answers are covenantal relationships and mutual accountability. In today's postmodern setting, economic activity has become purely transactional with only the blunt instrument of law holding agents accountable for their actions. In a virtuous, redeemed system, economic intercourse would be relational, based upon the covenantal model of mutual interdependence and fealty, expressed through a spirit of mutuality.


We looked previously at mutuality as fundamental to virtuous capitalism. Mutuality enables us to define the very nature of our business relationships and determine whether we treat each other with dignity, respect, and fairness or continue down a path of economic self-destruction. Mutuality is the basis upon which we hold each other accountable for the morality of our economic actions. This mutual accountability is not merely from the bottom up (that is, in our day-to-day dealings) but also from the top down (that is, in how we construct economic models and devise economic systems for the common good).”(Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism, p. 197-8)(Emphasis throughout is ours)

We at are fond of the phrase, “Questions are the engines of thought and action.” From that posture, we invite you to give thought to a few of our questions.

  • What’s your experience trying to hold a moral compass in your business affairs?

  • By what standard are you willing to be held accountable to others in your business affairs? And by what standard do you hold others?

  • Do you agree postmodern capitalism operates from “moral relativism” and “the only crime would be getting caught” perspectives?

  • Can you get a vision for mutuality working, as in the case of Mars, Inc.?

How might these questions prod you to re-think your perspective of capitalism? How might these questions prod you to make different marketplace decisions? We'd love to hear your answers and so invite you to share them with us.

Stay tuned for future excerpts of Redeeming Capitalism. Or. Why wait for us? Buy and read a copy for yourself now.


Tired of "profit is evil" vs "maximize my profit by exploiting others," as if those are the only two options?

Buy now, or get a free sample here >>

"This book merits close, sustained attention as a compelling move beyond both careless thinking and easy ideology."—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary

"Better Capitalism is a sincere search for a better world."—Cato Institute


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