Towards a metaphysics of usury: flourishing in time or eternity?

Upcoming presentation for the ILSE Conference “Economics and Human Flourishing: (What) Can Economists Learn from Theology?

Beyond general warnings about the spiritual dangers of wealth and money, the usury prohibition is a very specific religious intervention in economic life by all three Abrahamic traditions. For the catholic scholastic tradition, the usury prohibition was part of natural law, not merely part of divine positive law. They therefore sought to develop a consistent philosophical argumentation for the usury prohibition (Noonan 1957), an attempt which arguably foundered in the early modern period when exceptions eventually became the rule (van Houdt 1995; Decock 2009).

This paper aims at unearthing the metaphysics of time, value and money that served as the foundation for the ethical intuitions concerning usury. It thereby seeks to contribute to a common anthropology for theology and economics on the nature of human flourishing. The hypothesis is that perhaps neither the scholastics nor moderns were, or are, fully aware of what was and is metaphysically at stake since the metaphysics of time, money and value are highly problematic and contentious. What were and are the implicit and explicit metaphysical assumptions that made usury problematic for the scholastics, but unproblematic for the moderns? The goal is not a hermeneutical exercise towards a historical position, but doing constructive metaphysics of the social (and economic) world by contrasting two positions on the specific issue of usury.

This endeavor will start from a Platonist conception of money (Schindler 2009), rather than the Aristotelian background that was predominant in the scholastic analysis of usury (Langholm 1984). In that sense, the more specific hypothesis will be that such a Platonist approach might better unearth what is metaphysically at stake than an Aristotelian one. Three specific approaches will be considered that try to capture what is metaphysically problematic about usury.

The first one is that pure time preference is problematic given the eternal presen(t/ce) of God, especially in combination with the metaphysical characteristics of money. Whereas the natural growth of plants and animals implies that even sub specia aeternitatis they are worth more at a later point in time, money as something that captures pure value cannot (i.e. ought not to) receive a different value in relation to time.

The second one is that the principle of opportunity costs as developed in the lucrum cessans and damnum emergens extrinsic titles to interest is again problematic given the presence of God in relation to which these relative differences ought to disappear, whereby only the value of what is contingently chosen ought to remain. That is, in the full presence of that which is of infinite value, all relative value differences ought to disappear.

Thirdly, the ancient argument that the usurer is a thief of time is reconstructed whereby usury is the theft of eternity through the monetisation and hence valuation of time at the expense of eternity. Given the metaphysical properties of money as a potentially infinite and self-diffusive representation of pure value, it can become an immanent counterfeit of transcendent value through the monetisation of time.

Decock, Wim. 2009. “Lessius and the Breakdown of the Scholastic Paradigm.” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 31 (1): 57–78.
Houdt, Toon van. 1995. “Money, Time and Labour.” Ethical Perspectives / Catholic University of Leuven ; European Centre for Christian Ethics 2 (1): 11–27.
Langholm, Odd Inge. 1984. The Aristotelian Analysis of Usury. Bergen Universitetsforlaget.
Noonan, John Thomas. 1957. The Scholastic Analysis of Usury. Cambridge (Mass.): Harvard university.
Schindler, D. C. 2009. “Why Socrates Didn’t Charge: Plato and the Metaphysics of Money.” Communio 36 (3): 394–426.

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