Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for October 2010

“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

These are the opening words of Adam Smith’s (1723-1790), The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book he wrote a few years before his more celebrated work, An Enquiry into the Wealth of Nations.

My comments today are prompted by a student quoting at me Smith’s well-known words, in Volume I of The Wealth of Nations:  “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.  We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” These seem to be the only words of Smith that the typical economics undergraduate has ever heard. (Not surprisingly, sociological studies in American universities reveal that economics students demonstrate higher degrees of selfishness than students of other academic disciplines!)

Adam Smith’s moral framework is an essential part of his economic theory, and yet many economists, policymakers and businessmen have routinely ignored it. The opening paragraph of Theory introduces what Smith considered the most important of the principles of natural law- compassion- in understanding human behaviour. Compassion enables people to enter into the miseries and joys of others. It is grounded in what his friend and fellow-Scot David Hume believed to be the basis of our “moral sentiments”: empathy. We do not live our lives as isolated individuals who are driven only by self-interest. Smith believed that natural law also assured that humanity is endowed with “an original desire to please, and an original aversion to offend his brethren” (Theory, III.ii.6).

Smith was, like many eighteenth-century European philosophers, a Deist. There is an Author of nature who has set up a rational system in which the social welfare is realized in general by each pursuing his or her own interests. Hence the famous metaphor of the “Invisible hand”, in both his works, that moves the rich to reduce gross inequalities and mitigate the suffering that arise from the operation of free markets. Human happiness, for Smith, is bound up with “fellow-feeling” and the development of communal bonds.

So, Smith’s proverbial butcher is motivated not only by the desire for profit but also for happiness, which involves caring for others and also being loved and respected in turn (Theory, III. Iv.8). Within this moral framework, the butcher is not likely to serve bad meat or to cheat his customers, not only because self-interest indicates that he is likely to lose his customers if he does so, but also because he recognizes through empathy that he would not like bad meat or price cheating to happen to him.

Smith believed, rather naively, that the power of our common moral sentiments by themselves would serve to mitigate any ill treatment of our neighbours and fellow citizens. The butcher lives in a community where he knows his customers and is known by them; the fact that he is in relationship with them beyond his economic transactions affects his behaviour. Believing in the capacities of craftsmen and labourers who were denied access to local and global markets through patronage by the state of monopolistic guilds and merchant cartels, Smith fought to break down these hierarchical power-structures and create a more level economic playing field. This was also why, in promoting the liberalization of trade and growth, at the same time he argued for the protection of fledgling national industries and was opposed to joint-stock companies because they encouraged irresponsible risk-taking.

How ironic then that Smith‘s name should be invoked by right-wing “think tanks”, such as the Adam Smith Institute in the UK, in defence of laissez faire, doctrinaire capitalism. How fascinating to speculate on what Smith must make of today’s world of casino capitalism,  high-risk “investments” with other peoples’ money, the multi-billion dollar advertising industry that intentionally masks the costs of products, the resulting asymmetric information between buyers and sellers, and the systematic exclusion of workers and small businesses from the marketplace through “mergers and acquisitions”.

Smith could not have envisioned the world we live in today. The globalized economy of the twenty-first century means that people often have no knowledge of where the products they are buying come from, who made them, and under what conditions. Given this situation, how likely is it that our moral sentiments of compassion and empathy will be engaged?

The Christian doctrine of “original” sin expresses the moral intuition that human beings receive their moral agency in the midst of human relationships and structures which are already distorted by prior acts of sin. Those relationships and structures are now global and ecological. Traditional morality in economic life is based on interpersonal relations among neighbours, but our contemporary global economy is based on impersonal exchanges around the world. Herein lies the challenge to ethicists and economists alike.

Several people have asked me to expand on my comments about partnership. I indicated in my last post, as well as in many earlier ones, that those of us who live in centres of political and financial power can, through simple neighbourly actions- writing a letter to a national newspaper, buying shares in a corporation so that one can attend the annual general meeting and raise questions about that corporation’s global practices, organizing a peaceful public protest, and so on- have a real influence on what is happening elsewhere in the world. The actions would express our solidarity with those we call our ‘family’ in the world Church. In our interconnected world, what we do- or fail to do- in our backyard can have ramifications, for good or ill, in remote places.

This is so glaringly obvious and I am surprised at the resistance this suggestion often evokes.  Cries of “We are powerless” greet my suggestion at international conferences. I can understand if these cries emanate from those living in, say, Pakistan or Burma. But, no, they are from people who have access to an open media, free internet services, and who can personally visit the politicians whom they voted into power!

It is troubling that mission has been reduced to what we (the relatively well-off) do in other cultures and places, and does not seem to apply to what the poor can do for us and what we can do for them where we are. Those who live in the poorer South are constantly at the receiving end of “packaged” gospels, discipleship courses, leadership seminars, church-growth “gurus”, even sermons and “worship” DVDs from rich churches abroad. The latter have no desire to learn from others and, ironically, have little impact in their own societies. There is no shortage of local people who volunteer to be appointed as the “national representatives” of these churches and organizations from the North and to promote their subsidized wares.

I have no objection at all to sending people or money to support Christian ministry in other places. (Indeed, the notion of “self-supporting” churches is not a biblical notion at all.) But the important questions to address are: who makes the decisions?  And do those who come from abroad work alongside and even under the leadership of local people? This morning I listened to somebody working in rural India, supported by a wealthy Singaporean church. He poured out his frustration with the mission board of the church who can only see the medical work that he and his wife are doing as a prelude to “church-planting”.  They have no understanding of the religious and political sensibilities of the situation, nor are they willing to unlearn the theology of mission they have uncritically absorbed from popular Northern authors.

As an author myself, I am particularly disturbed by the fact that it is “fundamentalist” literature that floods into our churches from abroad. At the risk of sounding vain, my own books are all published in the US and UK, receive excellent reviews and are freely available in the English-speaking world; and yet I don’t know anybody, even in the organization with which I work, who actively promotes these books – and others written by African, Asian or Latin American authors- among churches in their countries. In this regard, the American Catholic publishing house Orbis has been exemplary in promoting Southern authors and their writings to Christian churches and seminaries in the North.

Money has a way of skewing relationships, setting agendas, and defining priorities- whether in Christian conferences, theological colleges or “mission programs”. When my wife and I spoke on the theme of Justice and Reconciliation at a gathering of Asian-American staff of InterVarsity (USA) a few years ago, a Chinese-American told us: “We are convinced by everything you say, but if we start doing and saying these things, our churches will stop supporting us.” He was being admirably honest. But that kind of honesty is rare, sadly.

“Partnership” has been a buzz-word in contemporary evangelical circles; but cynics will say that it is simply a disguise for neo-colonial mission. Like “development” and “empowerment”, the gulf between the rhetoric and actual practice is enormous. Foreign organizations divert people as well as funds away from locally-initiated projects and ministries which have much lower overheads. But, more importantly, there is no ownership of these foreign programs by local believers let alone by the poor themselves. Local staff are disempowered; they are merely the people who implement the programs started and funded by foreigners.

We have spoken with many Christian leaders in the South whose attitude is “We can’t change them, so let’s join them”. They have become adept at giving rich donors what they want- writing attractive project proposals has become an art form that many local people are now expert in. The problem is that what is “sexy” to donors in the U.S is often far removed from the real needs in the countries concerned. That some American donors may want to be educated does not seem to register on the thinking of local leaders.

So, what would I like to see as authentic expressions of global partnership (in addition to what I said in the opening paragraph)? (a) I am biased about books, so I want to see Christians in the North doing much more towards reading and then promoting authors from the South; and (b) Christians taking the effort to find out which local organization or individual is already working (with their own limited resources) on something that they feel especially burdened about. Ask them what they need to do their work even better; and what, if anything, you can do to help. But please don’t turn up in the South with a pot of money and invite people to use it for your projects. You will find plenty of takers. But it will scuttle the integrity and witness of the Church.


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