Friday, February 20, 2009


My Webster's New International Dictionary (the storied Second Edition, a three volume masterpiece I inherited from my grandmother) defines debt variously, but several definitions leap out: first, debt is "an obligation"; second, "A neglect or violation of duty; a fault; a sin; a trespass." (Hence, in some versions of the Lord's prayer, we pray "forgive us our debts). Third (obscure), "a bounden duty." Lastly, "State of owing, esp. of owing more than one can pay or perform; as, to fall in debt; deep in debt."

I think these varying definitions capture a transformation of the popular meaning and practice of debt in our time. Debt was something both remarkably positive and negative. Positively, it was an obligation or duty that was owed to another, and as such, represented a bond between people. At its most fundamental, debt was in some senses a possession: in cultures in which we literally inherit our ways and patterns of lives from our forbears, we are indebted to them for what we are, who we are, for our capacity to live and thrive in this world. Debt in this sense is thus something not literally to be paid back, but something that obligates us to pass our inheritance along intact. We are obligated, a word that comes from the Latin word ligare - to bind - and which is also at the root of the word "religion," "re-ligare". A debt is thus a bond between people that forms the deepest set of connections of a society, a source of memory and responsibility. We recall our debts to those who have come before us with gratitude and awe, and this recollection instills in us a duty and obligation to act with similar care and regard for generations that follow us.

Debt can also be neglected, and thus represents a severe moral lapse - hence its association with "sin, trespass, violation." Our indebtedness is thus a profoundly moral condition: to neglect or ignore our indebtedness, especially not to acknowledge gratitude and obligation, is to exhibit a deep moral failing. Our capacity to acknowledge debts as obligations is a fundamental requirement for the sustenance of a society. A society that loses both these senses of debt - debt as a kind of "possession" we inherit from previous generations, and as a moral requirement of obligation and gratitude - is one whose underpinnings are poised to unravel.

Our current understanding of debt was formed mainly by the evisceration of these twin understandings of debt - above all by eviscerating its moral dimensions. Debt became a financial management "tool," less a moral obligation than an avenue for ever-greater consumption. Debt was originally understood to be a kind of moral discipline, but was transformed to a method of self-indulgence. By stripping it of its moral dimension, it became a means of indulging our appetite and draining our capacity for self-denial.

To achieve this debased understanding, debt had to become temporally unmoored. Debt ceased to have at its root a generational dimension, but rather became a route to a profound presentism. Of course, this exclusively financial and consumer-based understanding of debt rested on a deep presupposition that future growth permitted present irresponsibility, but such a view of the future was only possible by disassociating past and future from the present. A view of a limitless future is only possible by discounting continuity between past, present and future: such a "future-orientation" is in fact an artifact of profound presentism. Debt became effectively unmoored from a conception of gratitude or from a deeper moral sense of obligation. It became a purely utilitarian concept that permitted both easy terms, excessive use and relaxed broaching, such as is now frequently the case in people "walking away" from their mortgage obligations.

The etymology of "debt" is of further interest, in that it derives from the word "habere," "to have." Thus, we see at its roots that debt is in some senses properly a possession, not a liability. "Habere" also lies at the root of the word "habit," one of the meanings of which is "a settled tendency of behavior or normal manner of occurrence or or procedure; a custom or practice." A proper understanding of debt as a possession that demands of us strict moral probity - including gratitude and obligation - requires a culture that encourages the development of good habits, including acknowledgment of generational debts and inheritance. Tendencies must be "settled" - we must have a palpable sense of the consequences of our actions and behavior on our community, lest we be tempted to act out of irresponsibility and negligence toward people to whom we believe we owe no obligation or gratitude.

We are decidedly reaping what we have sown, above all by dissociating the concept of "debt" from its moral basis and its temporal dimensions. If such a moral grounding serves as an implicit foundation for a good and healthy society, then we should understand our current sickness not as an "economic" crisis subject to solution by various stimuli aimed to increase our borrowing and consumption, but most fundamentally a moral one that demands a more fundamental and comprehensive re-thinking of our age.


Anonymous said...

Heard last night in an ad on TV: "You have a right to be debt-free."

Now there's some moral confusion for you! With some rights talk thrown in for good measure

Peter Y. Paik said...

It's good to be reminded of how "debt" contains two such sharply contrasting meanings, duty and trespass. I wonder if your post creates the closest Western equivalents to the notion of karma. Of course, in the West, it is not hard to understand debt as a sort of karmic force in the bad sense, as the consequences of our own wastefulness and profligacy accumulating towards some eventual reckoning. But we suffer from a failure of imagination, as well as amnesia, when it comes to debt in the ethical sense. I think this loss stems in large part from the shriveling of the concept of the subject in modern liberalism, as an essentially self-interested entity whose desires cannot be criticized in any way as long as they are selfish and have nothing to do with religious faith or patriotic duty. For debt in the positive sense involves an active sense of reciprocity - of being loved and cared for by those who come before us, which in turn enjoins us to do the same. But there is also an element of true liberty here which the word no longer evokes so easily, in the sense that the actions for which we owe the greatest debts are ones performed freely, in a spirit of love, in the hope that we will achieve spiritual and moral development. Of course, most people retain some intuition of these relations, as they are summed up in the golden rule and other ethical precepts derived from religion. Our lives are not our own - we can either live in awareness of debt as the blessings that have been given to us, or we can have our lives taken away by having placed too much faith in the reality of things.

Joshua said...


While I agree with your overall points, the Latin teacher in me must correct a glaring error.

The Latin verb you meant to write was debere , not habere. Debere means "to owe" or "to have an obligation to," depending on the grammatical context. In either sense it means that something is required of you, which I believe makes your point all the stronger!

Patrick Deneen said...

Your emendation is much appreciated, and it does indeed add to the point.

However, you will have to take up the linguistic point with Mr. Webster and his ancestors. The International, 2nd Edition provides the following etymology:

ME. dette, fr. OF. dette, fr. (assumed) VL. debita, for L. debitum, fr. debitus, owed, past part. of debere to owe, prop., to have on loan, fr. de + habere "to have." See HABIT....

Joshua said...


Excellent point! I was only thinking of the primary origin of "debt", but of course the origin of debere itself is as you say. Thank you for your correction to my correction, and please keep up the excellent blog work.