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The Morality of Debt

A History of Financial Saints and Sinners

The word "Bankruptcy" is painted on the side of a building in Detroit, Michigan, October 25, 2013. Joshua Lott /Reuters

Credit and debt are more than just rational material exchanges within a market economy. They are socially constructed and center on matters of hard moral judgments about character, equity, and “good conscience.” These judgments are, in turn, bound up with powerful emotions of resentment, shame, and humiliation. Changing and conflicting representations of personal credit and debt deeply affect the power and welfare of states.

DEBT SLAVERY

A diversity of social meanings has been attached to debt over time. And yet certain patterns do recur. In various European languages debt co-occurs with “bondage,” “freedom,” “gratitude,” and “honor,” as in “freedom from debt,” “debt of gratitude,” and “debt of honor.”

In Dutch and German, the word Schuld means both debt and guilt. A similar linguistic association is found in the Hebrew word Chayav. These terms illustrate the deep-seated cultural anxiety attached to debt and the powerful feelings of shame it can provoke.

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