Video Interview with Professor Nicholas Capaldi — Transcript

Interview conducted at Rockford University by Stephen Hicks and sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship.

Hicks: Our guest today is Professor Nicholas Capaldi, who is the Legendre-Soulé Professor of Business Ethics at Loyola University in New Orleans. capaldinick-crop

Professor Capaldi was here lecturing on business ethics. You framed your discussion on business ethics in terms of two broad narratives that have dominated the modern political thought and modern cultural thought: the Lockean and the Rousseauian. So, let me first ask you to summarize the main ingredients, so to speak, of the Lockean narrative. How does that go?

Capaldi: I call it, technically-speaking, the Lockean liberty narrative, and then I would flash that out in comparison to the Rousseauian equality narrative because I think the meaning they give to those terms tells you a lot about where they going. I would make a couple of very broad historical claims, namely, that there has been this ongoing debate or discussion between Lockeans and Rousseauians over a long period of time. And I will even strengthen the historical claim by saying that all the major spokespersons in public policy debates, etc., at one point or another, are defending or attacking either the Lockean or the Rousseauian point of view. To piggyback here on a Keynes remark, just as politicians are invoking some dead economist through a philosopher they haven’t read, I would say that a lot of contemporary theorists are repeating, in contemporary rhetoric, arguments that have been around since Locke first expressed his view and was critiqued by Rousseau.

Hicks: Is it fair then to say, in a historical context, as feudalism was declining, being overthrown, then the question in the modern world is: What are we going to replace it with? And we have two answers, a more Lockean answer and a more Rousseauian answer? Fair enough?

Capaldi: Sure. Locke is looking at this, even philosophically, from a very different point of view. He is thinking of wealth in a post-feudal world as something that is not finite, but can grow.

Hicks: Okay.

Capaldi: And it grows through labor and what we’ve come to call technological projects. So, industry, technology, etc. He is in a universe, in his mind, which is capable of potentially infinite growth. He thinks that this growth would be enhanced through a market economy. And in those places where Locke discusses market issues, he clearly comes out in favor of a market being as free as possible. He is certainly very famous for arguing in favor of limited government, and he thinks government should be limited in the interest of freeing the market economy. When he discusses legal matters he is a proponent of what has subsequently been called the rule of law, which, put in simple terms, means you put as many limitations as possible on government discretion so that it doesn’t overstep its bounds and interfere with the market. And finally, in many ways the most important point he makes is that none of these institutions can be understood nor can they work unless you have a certain kind of person, a person we’ve come subsequently to call the autonomous individual, and this is very important to Locke. Now, Locke’s assumption is that society is started on a contract. He means this in a metaphorical sense, but he understands a contract to mean the following: that all negotiation in the contract begins from the status quo. That you can’t have any negotiation unless you begin from status quo. That certainly privileges some people over other people. Continue reading Video Interview with Professor Nicholas Capaldi — Transcript

On not telling other people what to do

The cartoon reminds me of two quotations from John Locke and John Stuart Mill.


johnlockeLocke on freedom of choice for students: “great care is to be taken, that [education] be never made as a business to him, nor he look on it as a task. We naturally, as I said, even from our cradles, love liberty, and have therefore an aversion to many things, for no other reason, but because they are enjoin’d us. I have always had a fancy, that learning might be made a play and recreation to children; and that they might be brought to desire to be taught, if it were proposed to them as a thing of honour, credit, delight, and recreation … .” (Some Thoughts concerning Education, Section 148)

millAnd now Mill on freedom of movement: “Many a person remains in the same town, street, or house from January to December, without a wish or thought tending towards removal, who, if confined to that same place by the mandate of authority, would find the imprisonment absolutely intolerable.” (Principles of Political Economy, p. 213)

Profiles in Liberty: Nicholas Capaldi


In this extended interview, philosopher Nicholas Capaldi responds to a series of questions about his life and work. Capaldi is Legendre-Soulé Distinguished Chair in Business Ethics at Loyola University, New Orleans and co-author of The Two Narratives of Political Economy.

question-bannerWhy did you become a philosopher? [0:17]

Where did you get your education? [3:41]

What was your first academic position? [12:41]

What are the key themes of your book John Stuart Mill: A Biography (2004)? [15:49]

What are the key themes of The Two Narratives of Political Economy (2010, co-authored with Gordon Lloyd)? [31:28]

What are the key themes of America’s Spiritual Capital (2012, coauthored with Theodore Roosevelt Malloch)? [47:52]

What philosophers have you learned most from? [55:52]

What philosophers do you most disagree with? [1:11:11]

What is the state of liberal thought today among philosophers? [1:19:46]

To bring about a more liberal society, what key practical steps can and should be taken? [1:30:10]

Previous Profiles in Liberty:
Philosopher Douglas Den Uyl.
Philosopher Douglas Rasmussen.
Economist David R. Henderson.
Philosopher Tibor Machan.

Forthcoming: economist Robert Lawson.

The Profiles in Liberty main page.

PowerPoint added: The Enlightenment

condorcet-stampFor Week 8 in my Western Civ course: The Enlightenment.

Previous files in the series:
1. Introduction.
2. The Renaissance Context.
3. England to the Glorious Revolution.
4. Justice and Modernizing the Law.
5. From Feudal to Modern Business and Economics.
6. The American Enlightenment.
7. The Battle for Women’s Liberty and Equality.

Philosophy and a century of war

“History is philosophy teaching by example” said Bolingbroke.

Philosophy has a reputation for being abstract, which it is. Philosophy also has a reputation for being impractical or pointless, which it certainly is not. Here is my nine-minute explanation for why philosophy is life or death.

(Much thanks to Christopher Vaughan for his fine video and graphics work.)

Update: A good comment from David R. Henderson about the Soviet Union in World War II prompts this follow-up.

Galileo and the modern compromise

galileo-mid-ageIn his open letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615), Galileo offered a defense of science against the prevailing heavy hand of religious orthodoxy:

“But I do not feel obliged to believe that that same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.”

The immediate context was the great debate over the geocentric and heliocentric models. The larger context was the tension between religious philosophy, which stressed faith in revelation and tradition, and Renaissance philosophy, which stressed observation and reason. How, for example, should we decide whether the earth or the sun is at the center of our cosmos? Should we trust the views handed down to us by the best theologians of the centuries, heliocentricthose views derived primarily from Scripture? Or should we trust the views presented to us by scientists, their theories based on observational data from telescopes and other instruments and mathematical calculations of that data?

The traditionalist position was that reliance on observation and reason — when that conflicts with Scripture and tradition — is heresy. Giordano Bruno was convicted and executed, in part, for such heresy. When reason conflicts with faith, reason must give way. Or else.

Galileo’s solution is to argue that God wrote Scripture, of course, so Scripture contains the truth — and that God also created nature, and so nature also contains truth. God also created us humans, giving us sense organs and intelligence. So we can study Scripture rationally and learn important truths, as theologians do. But we can and should study nature rationally and learn important truths, as scientists do. And since both Scripture and nature come from the same author — God wrote two books, so to speak — the best theology and the best science should be compatible.

Consequently, the real heretics are those who place faith over reason and who use apparent theoretical conflictsexecution-of-giodano-bruno1 as a pretext for persecuting or killing their intellectual opponents. The truly devout, by direct contrast, are those who use their best intelligence, as God intended when He gave it to us, to try to understand the universe and who, when intellectual conflicts arise along the way, use reasonable methods — discussion, debate, and further investigation — to resolve them.

I call this “the modern compromise” because versions of it are also found in Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and John Locke. In Galileo’s version, the intellectual turf is divided into two realms — the natural and the supernatural — and as long as scientists and theologians stick to their own turf, there should be no problems.

Locke uses the same dualist point is used to argue for the separation of church and state: “The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable. He jumbles heaven and earth together, the things most remote and opposite, who mixes these two societies, which are in their original, end, business, and in everything perfectly distinct and infinitely different from each other” (A Letter concerning Toleration [1689]).

So the early modern compromise is to use a strong metaphysical dualism to separate the natural and the supernatural, the realm of science and the realm of religion, the scope of the state’s power and the scope of the church’s, the physical and the spiritual, the factual and the moral. As long as everyone stays on their side of the line, we can avoid conflict.

I sometimes wonder to what extent the dualism was a genuine metaphysical claim by these founding modern thinkers — and to what extent it was a tactical claim to create a safety zone for naturalistic life and inquiry, given the often-dangerous religious orthodoxies of the time.

Despite having lost much of Europe to the Protestants over the preceding century, the Catholic Church was far from toothless, especially in southern Europe, and in 1616 it issued a Codex with a formal response to Galileo’s argument and the threat of heliocentrism:galileo-trial

“Propositions to be forbidden: That the sun is immovable at the center of the heaven; that the earth is not at the center of the heaven, and is not immovable; but moves by a double motion.”

Thus the stage was set for continued tension on both sides and Galileo’s trial for heresy in the 1633.

Who is the real father of modern philosophy?

The two Americas: 13 countries’ GDP

I’ve started reading Guillermo M. Yeatts’s 2010 Plunder in Latin America. Yeatts lists thirteen American countries’ per capita GDP in 2008 US dollars, first alphabetically by country:
Argentina 8,281
Bolivia 1,948
Brazil 8,379
americas-220Canada 46,826
Chile 10,933
Colombia 5,478
Cuba 4,840
Ecuador 3,770
Mexico 10,278
Peru 4,454
Uruguay 8,942
USA 46,647
Venezuela 4,315

I re-arranged them by GDP from highest to lowest:
Canada 46,826
USA 46,647
Chile 10,933
Mexico 10,278
Uruguay 8,942
Brazil 8,379
Argentina 8,281
Colombia 5,478
Cuba 4,840
Peru 4,454
Venezuela 4,315
Ecuador 3,770
Bolivia 1,948

What a range. The two North American countries in the middle 40s. Five countries in the 8-10 range. Another five in the 3-5 range, and one around 2.

Yeatts raises the natural question: Why are the North American countries spectacularly more prosperous than the Latin American countries? Both are well endowed with natural resources, he points out, so that can be ruled out as the explanation. Several early hypotheses for our consideration:

* Religious differences: The majority of North Americans are Protestant and the majority of Latin Americans are Catholic.
* Colonial motivation: The Spanish colonists of Latin America were motivated primarily by extracting gold and silver and the earliest British colonists of North America were motivated by the desire to practice their religion freely.
* Philosophical: The North Americans adopted a Lockean view of the priority of individual rights over the power of government, while the Latin Americans accepted the Rousseauian priority of democratic majoritarianism over individual rights.

Along the way Yeatts introduces Douglass North‘s institutional theory and James Buchanan‘s Public Choice theory for further discussion, and that makes sense.

plunder-in-latin-america-guillermo-m-yeattsWhatever the full explanation turns out to be for the difference between North and Latin America, the differences within Latin America are also important. Why are Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina on average twice as wealthy as Venezuela, Cuba, and Peru? And why are the latter three nations on average twice as rich as Bolivia?

Source: Guillermo M. Yeatts, Plunder in Latin America (CreateSpace, 2010) p. 3. The data are from 2008.

* On J. H. Elliott’s 2006 Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 (Yale University Press). Elliott’s explanatory hypothesis: Spain’s empire in America was an “empire of conquest” while Britain’s was an “empire of commerce” (p. xv). Though Brazil was originally a Portuguese colony, so some additional connections need to be made.
* Comparing Buenos Aires and Chicago over the 20th century: Economists Filipe Campante and Edward Glaeser on two initially very similar cities with divergent paths over the 20th century.
* Argentina, Hong Kong, and the psychology of belief: Resource-poor Hong Kong’s relatively laissez-faire free market has taken it from poverty to riches. Resource-rich Argentina’s experiments in statism have taken it from prosperity to decline and semi-functionality.
* Crank economics and astrology in Bolivia: Ugghh.

Justifying liberal capitalism

What makes liberal capitalism good?

Here is a flowchart I’ve developed for use in some upcoming talks. The chart diagrams the positive claims about liberal capitalism by its defenders — John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others. Click on the image for full size or check out this zoomable version at


Most advocates of liberal capitalism believe that most or all of the above claims are true. But they differ among themselves about which claims are most significant in morally justifying liberal capitalism. And that is the follow-up topic of my upcoming talks. More to come.

(Thanks to Chris Vaughan for the graphical design of the chart.)