The Philosophy of Debt: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

The Philosophy of Debt

1st Edition

By Alexander X. Douglas


164 pages

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I owe you a dinner invitation, you owe ten years on your mortgage, and the government owes billions. We speak confidently about these cases of debt, but is that concept clear in its meaning?  This book aims to clarify the concept of debt so we can find better answers to important moral and political questions.

This book seeks to accomplish two things. The first is to clarify the concept of debt by examining how the word is used in language. The second is to develop a general, principled account of how debts generate genuine obligations. This allows us to avoid settling each case by a bare appeal to moral intuitions, which is what we seem to currently do. It requires a close examination of many institutions, e.g. money, contract law, profit-driven finance, government fiscal operations, and central banking. To properly understand the moral and political nature of debt, we must understand how these institutions have worked, how they do work, and how they might be made to work.

There have been many excellent anthropological and sociological studies of debt and its related institutions. Philosophy can contribute to the emerging discussion and help us to keep our language precise and to identify the implicit principles contained in our intuitions.


‘Debt is highly original contribution to applied philosophy; its sober and forceful arguments are presented with clarity and, without being moralistic, a high degree of moral urgency. Relying on conceptual analysis, logic, and empirical evidence, Douglas judiciously exposes many fallacies and popular myths about the nature of debt (and money). Douglas develops a sensible moral framework (traced back to David Hume and Anscombe) with which to understand and evaluate the modern institution of debt. It is public philosophy in the great tradition of Russell, Stebbing, Neurath, and Bedau.This quirky book is bound to be a classic itself and makes a useful companion to Graeber's Debt.’ — Professor Eric Schliesser, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

'This is an extraordinary project and I am of the firm opinion that this book is not only original and highly useful, but, on occasion, also brilliant.' — Mark Peackock, York University, Canada

‘Douglas demonstrates how philosophical tools can help us untangle our confused understanding of debt. Making the right moral and political choices about debt depends on this crucial project. This is an important contribution to the metaphysics, politics, and philosophy of money.’ — David G. Dick, Ph.D., University of Calgary, Canada

'The Philosophy of Debt is a book full of examples and insights from many disciplines: history, economics, linguistics and ethics, among others. This richness has to be acknowledged. It helps the reader to understand what debt is, and it sheds new light on the normative issues that lie at its heart.' - Louis Larue, Universite catholique de Louvain

Table of Contents

Section One: Language 1. ‘Debt’ as Equivocal 2. Debitum 3. Debt and Sin 4. Debt vs. Duty, I 5. Debt vs. Duty, II 6. Owing and Owning 7. Creditum, I 8. Creditum, II Section Two : History 9. What is the Institution of Debt? 10. Ancient Usury 11. Productive and Extractive Usury 12. The Defence of Usury 13. Forced Debts 14. The Taming of Debt 15. Usury and Abusury Section Three : Money 16. What is Money? 17. The Trick behind Money 18. The Origins of Money 19. Debunking the Myth of Barter 20. Money as Debt 21. Chartalism and Fiat Money 22. Government IOUs and Taxes 23. Bank Deposits and ‘Inside Money’ 24. Monetary Operations and the Dominance of Bank IOUs 25. Fixed and Floating Exchange Rates Section Four : Political Economy 26. The Monetary Theory of Production 27. Debt, Trust, and Production 28. Debt Deflation and Accidental Abusury 29. Government Deficits30. Inflation, I31. Inflation, II 32. What Any Housewife Knows33. Lazy Thinking and A New Proposal Section Five: Notes and Replies to Objections 34. A Note on the ‘Labour Market’ and Immigration 35. A Note on the Foreign Trade Balance 36. A Note on Marxism and the Falling Rate of Profit Conclusion

About the Author

Alexander X. Douglas is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London, UK.

About the Series

Economics as Social Theory

Social Theory is experiencing something of a revival within economics. Critical analyses of the particular nature of the subject matter of social studies and of the types of method, categories and modes of explanation that can legitimately be endorsed for the scientific study of social objects, are re-emerging. Economists are again addressing such issues as the relationship between agency and structure, between economy and the rest of society, and between the enquirer and the object of enquiry. There is a renewed interest in elaborating basic categories such as causation, competition, culture, discrimination, evolution, money, need, order, organization, power probability, process, rationality, technology, time, truth, uncertainty, value etc.

The objective for this series is to facilitate this revival further. In contemporary economics the label “theory” has been appropriated by a group that confines itself to largely asocial, ahistorical, mathematical “modelling”. Economics as Social Theory thus reclaims the “Theory” label, offering a platform for alternative rigorous, but broader and more critical conceptions of theorizing.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Economic History
BUSINESS & ECONOMICS / Economics / General