The Piety fallacy is uncritical action based on pietistic interpretations of scripture without regard to actual outcomes resulting from those actions.
This fallacy has a variety of expressions. In the previous post I pointed to the jubilee code in Leviticus 25 and its use in the debate over debt cancellation and wealth distribution in developing nations. A close reading of the text makes clear that the jubilee has nothing to do with debt cancellation or wealth redistribution. Some use the early chapters of Acts to make the case that the Bible teaches society-wide communal ownership, which a careful reading doesn’t support. Yet to champion justice for the poor and the oppressed, or to be counter-cultural against perceived mainstream values of materialism, is seen as the pious thing to do. The piety fallacy is usually grounded in fervent good intentions but the commitment to pious responses comes to take precedence over critical evaluation of outcomes.
I’ve borrowed the name for this fallacy from a lecture by Jay Richards in which he used precisely the example I thought of when he described the fallacy. Nearly twenty years ago in an urban economics class, I remember reading about the impact of rent controls on housing. There was a strong correlation between imposing rent controls and the increase in homelessness. Rent controls decreased the amount of affordable housing stock.
If a landlord can not increase rent and costs of operations for him continue to rise, then all profitability is eaten up. New apartments aren’t built because developers know they can’t collect enough to make it worth their while. Apartment owners begin converting apartments into condos or non-residential uses. When rent controls have been tried in some major cities, landlords have actually turned to arson in order to collect insurance money for property they can no longer make money on or sell to anyone else. Meanwhile, the available rental housing is decreasing making what remains more expensive. Tenants with leases don’t relinquish them even after the leave, subleasing apartments to others for what the market will bear. They get the difference between the rent control price and the market price that the landlord should have gotten. This makes the rental market even tighter. Yet in nearly all rent control initiatives, pious Christians will be out supporting rent control as justice for the homeless even as they deride there opposition as impious heartless people who are callous toward the poor.
Richards offers another provocative example. He notes child labor laws came into effect in the early twentieth century, just as child labor had gone into significant decline within the workforce. Not long before this time child labor was essential to family survival as indeed it has been in agriculture throughout history. By the early twentieth century public education was widespread and child labor was preventing children from engaging in activities that would have greater long term consequences for them.
Today, as we look at many developing nations, justice folks champion an end to all child labor. In many developing nations, half the population or more is under 18 years old. What is often not taken into account is that the alternative to children working is not children going to school for an education. The alternative is prostitution, starvation, or worse. Until basic survival needs are met, removal of children from the work force is not practical. This violates our sensibilities and there is no question it is far from what we desire for others. Yet uncritically imposing our pious sense of moral judgment on these cultures can do great harm, despite our best intentions. I’m by no means saying that the ethics with these issues are easy to sort out but doctrinaire pietism is not the answer.
When judgment day comes we will no doubt be held accountable for our intentions but I’m also convinced that we will be held accountable for use of our discernment. Many economic justice questions require us to balance competing ethical claims against each other as well as using discernment about what will actually work or not work. Uncritical pietistic actions can be an expression of naiveté but too often they are also personal identity statements a person uses to demonstrate their piety in contrast to those they believe less pious. Biblical justice demands that we have not only pious intentions but truly just outcomes.