Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Moral Bankruptcy

So, I recently had this conversation with a friend in which he kept using the term "morally bankrupt." He said (among other things) that his upbringing and immersion in the consumer, throw-away culture had left him morally bankrupt. And his implication was that this is the result for all of us, more or less.

Whether you agree with that point or not (after all, consumerism is just one aspect of our culture), the term "morally bankrupt" jumped out at me. Of course I've heard it many times before, but what exactly do we mean by it? Can a person be morally bankrupt? Is morality the kind of thing you can stock up on or save up, like in a bank account? Is it an asset that must be carefully balanced against liabilities to avoid bankruptcy? Obviously it's just a metaphor, but I think the metaphors we choose are really revealing. When we talk about greedy executives or corrupt politicians we almost always use the phrase "morally bankrupt," as if morality is quantitative like that. Maybe the problem is that we think of morality that way to begin with.


  1. Hmm, maybe bankrupt didn't always have the financial connotations it has now.

  2. Anonymous3/02/2011

    The etymology of bankrupt:
    1530s, from It. banca rotta, lit. "a broken bench," from banca "moneylender's shop," lit. "bench" (see bank (1)) + rotta "broken, defeated, interrupted" from (and remodeled on) L. rupta, fem. pp. of rumpere "to break" (see rupture). "[S]o called from the habit of breaking the bench of bankrupts" [Klein]. The verb is first recorded 1550s.

  3. We're bankrupt when we spend our energy pursuing that which is inconsistent with even the goals we hold true for ourselves. It';s common in our lives that the values we hold are often difficult to live up to. Indefensible, our behavior contradictory to our own values leaves us bankrupt -- in other words, unable to spend on anything because we've spent all of our resources in the pursuit of something not even worth having by our own conclusions.

  4. Anonymous3/04/2011

    Well, it makes sense that in a capitalist system we use capitalist terminology for our metaphors. Which is ironic, given the context of this disucssion and your friend's claim about living in a consumer culture. Even our metaphors are "bankrupt"!

  5. Hmm, but how important is the actual metaphor we use? I can think of a lot of poor or ironic choices for metaphorical comparison. How much does the metaphor actually impact our thoughts on the topic?

  6. theotherHeather3/15/2011


    It seems pretty important, or at least very telling. Sometimes the metaphors we use are like Freudian slips, and reveal a lot about how we as a culture view something. So I think it's significant.