Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for March 2009

The shopkeeper’s son comes home from school and asks his father, ‘Father, what is ethics?’ ‘Ethics is like this, my son.  A customer comes into the shop and gives you a hundred dollar note; you and he both think it is a ten dollar note and you give him change for ten.  Just as he is leaving the shop you see that it is a hundred.  Now, this is the question of ethics: do you tell your father or not?’

In my post ‘Blind Oracles’ (6 March 2009) I pointed out that there is a moral undergirding to market exchanges (what Adam Smith and those in his day called ‘civic virtues’)- moral habits of trust, truthfulness, honouring promises, and so on, which are indispensable for the viable functioning of the economy, which should themselves not be undermined by market activity. Dishonest businessmen are parasitical on the basic decency of the rest. Where money-making is the only respected game in town, or where all public conceptions of morality are reduced to ‘self-interest’, the market economy is undermined. Indeed social life itself becomes impossible.

In the three weeks since that post was written, we have witnessed the Bernard Madoff trial; a public outcry in the US over fat bonuses paid to AIG executives (and in the UK, fat pensions to former bank CEOs); the relaxing of Swiss banking privacy under pressure from EU governments pursuing tax dodgers; a credit card scam involving Indian call-centres; and fresh concerns over who is benefitting from the billions of taxpayer dollars poured down the financial black-hole. To change metaphors, this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Last week, my brother-in-law in Copenhagen almost lost his job. He is the manager of the Danish subsidiary of a German company whose profits are counted in billions of euros. He was asked by the parent company to ‘downsize’ by ‘laying off’ two sales managers who were an ‘unjustifiable expense’ (this has become the Orwellian business jargon of recent times). This he did, reluctantly. The company is still making massive profits, but as not as much as last year. When asked a month later to ‘lay off’ two more employee, he refused. He told his superiors that he could not and was willing to resign himself. Not only would he not go against his conscience but he would not jeopardize his marriage, as he would have to work longer hours with fewer people in his team. The execution order has been stayed.

Not many people make the choice my brother-in-law made; nor can they afford to. Should we not protest against an economic order that forces us to choose between saving our marriages and saving our jobs? One of the ways the global capitalist order has been promoted is by hyping its ‘freedom’ when, in fact, it brings new forms of enslavement in its wake. On the one hand we are told that we live in an era of unparalleled freedom of choice. On the other hand, there is a profound sense of resignation to fate.  Managers complain that their decisions are controlled by impersonal ‘market forces’. They are compelled to ‘downsize’ or move their operations elsewhere, otherwise they lose out.

The values espoused by capitalism are not optional for people who wish to remain employed. Worldwide, few labourers can choose to work part-time or with flexible hours in the interest of being available to their families. We are forced on to a treadmill of consumption and a 24/7 economy, and the slightest downturn in consumption threatens someone’s (or some country’s) livelihood. Unbridled capitalism demands that we prioritize work over family, greed over generosity, shareholders over neighbours. Like Marxism, this is a fundamentalist religious faith. Anyone who questions these values is persecuted as a dangerous heretic.

In an essay written at the peak of his fame, called ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’, the great economist John Maynard Keynes said: ‘When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals.  We shall be able to rid ourselves of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession- as distinguished from the love of money a means to the enjoyments and realities of life- will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties,  which we now maintain at all costs, how distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.’

The Biblical notion of Sabbath was intended to protect men, women and animals from the tyranny of accumulation. It reminds us that our identity comes not from our work but from the God who alone gives meaning to human work. ‘When we work we are most god-like’, observes Eugene Peterson, ‘which means that it is in our work that it is easiest to develop god-pretensions. Un-sabbathed, our work becomes the entire context in which we define our lives. We lose God-consciousness, God-awareness, sightings of resurrection.’

Do we have people courageous and imaginative enough to inject such ‘sightings of resurrection’ into the dismal world of economics?

I am dismayed by the news that US President Barack Obama plans to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryo-destructive research on new stem cell lines.

Stem cells are cells with the capacity to turn into any other type of human cell, be it a bone, muscle or nerve cell. The popular media often speak as if all scientists are in favour of harvesting cells from human embryos for their potential use in a range of life-saving therapies, and that the arguments against it are posed by reactionary religious groups out to stymie ‘progress’. This is dangerously misleading.  It perpetuates the self-serving myth of ‘science as our saviour’ and the muddled view that science and religion are implacable foes.

We are all human animals. And the vast majority of us- all those who were not the products of monozygotic twinning (i.e., twinning from a single fertilized egg) – began our lives at conception. From a scientific point of view, there is no doubt at all concerning what the early embryo is. The early human embryo is a human being at the earliest stage of his or her development. Not a ‘potential’ human being, or a ‘pre’ human being, or a mass of cells, or mere tissue, but an individual member of the species Homo sapiens. The embryo is a new human being– the same self-directing human organism as the later child and adult. The changes from embryo to fetus to infant to adolescent to adult are merely changes in degree of natural development of the same individual.

Where moral reasoning enters is in the following argument. If we accept that human beings are intrinsically valuable and deserving of full moral respect by virtue of what they are (as opposed to what they either possess or achieve), does it not follow that they are intrinsically valuable from the point at which they come into being? In that case, embryo-destructive research would be a violation of the most fundamental human right, namely, the right to life of an innocent human being.

This is the argument that is powerfully advanced in a recent book simply called Embryo, authored by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen.[1] George is a prolific writer and is professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, while Tollefsen is a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina. Although they are both Christians, they do not evoke a single Biblical text or explicitly ‘religious’ argument. Their approach is based solely on scientific evidence, drawn from human embryology and developmental biology, and moral reasoning that is open to all. The authors are unafraid to tackle head-on the counter-views on the moral status of the embryo that have been put forward, whether they be ideas about the moment of ‘ensoulment’ or attributive views of personhood.

Much of the impetus toward embryonic stem cell research comes from the fact that there are thousands of ‘surplus’ embryos produced by IVF techniques and condemned to perpetual cryopreservation or eventual incineration. This is certainly an unprecedented situation in human history- so many nascent human beings in a state of limbo with little hope of being brought to term. However, this is no argument for killing them, even for putative human benefits, for the same argument could be extended- and is rejected- for infants and children.

George and Tollefsen point out that ‘From the moral point of view, the certainty of death- whether in ninety years or nine minutes- does not alter our inherent dignity or relieve others of obligations to respect our lives. That someone will soon die, no matter what we do, is never a licence for killing him. That the human being whose death is imminent happens to be at an earlier or later stage of development is morally irrelevant. And that he or she came into existence this way rather than that way is scarcely any more relevant.’

Moreover, they urge that the practice of creating and freezing extra embryos as part of IVF treatment ‘should come to an end if we wish to be a culture that treasures life and children, and not one that commodifies, instrumentalizes, and mechanizes them. Reform of the assisted reproduction industry should therefore rank high on a list of partial solutions to the moral and cultural question concerning excess human embryos.’ They commend the example of Italy:  under Italian law, it is not permissible for couples to fertilize more than three eggs, and all successfully generated embryos must be implanted in the mother.

When, and even whether, embryonic stem cell research will prove to be therapeutically useful is a highly speculative matter, notwithstanding the inflated claims that have been made on its behalf. In contrast, adult stem cell research has already led to many therapeutic benefits, and it poses no ethical hazards. Similarly, recent studies have suggested that stem cells extracted from placental tissue may offer the same advantages scientists hope to obtain from embryonic stem cells.

Should we- scientists, entrepreneurs, legislators in rich nations- not be promoting these alternative avenues of research as top priority? Surely research that does not involve the production or killing of embryos should be what receives public funding from a government concerned to protect its most vulnerable citizens and to promote the well-being of all. And would it make a significant difference to popular perception if we started referring to ’embryonic human beings’ rather than simply embryos?

[For more on the ‘hype’ surrounding embryonic stem cell research, see ch.5 of my Subverting Global Myths (2008)]

[1] Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008)

If anyone in recent times has approached the stature of the Delphic Oracle of ancient Greece, it was the former US Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. World leaders, financiers, market traders and corporate CEOs venerated him. They waited with bated breath for his gnomic pronouncements on interest rates or, occasionally, the future of the world economy. Often hailed as the most powerful man in the word, markets rose and fell on Greenspan’s word. Economic experts, like war-time cryptologists, would sift through his phrasing to find hidden messages. From his position in the financial stratosphere he supervised the boom time of the US economy and the ‘derivatives bubble’.

On 23 October last year, Greenspan came down to earth with a bump. Summoned to give evidence before the House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee investigating the financial meltdown, Greenspan confessed to being in a state of ‘shocked disbelief’. He admitted: ‘I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.’ He went on to say that the collapse of the subprime mortgage industry- and the vast, mostly hidden trade in derivative financial instruments- exposed a ‘flaw’ in free markets.

Greenspan’s ‘shocked disbelief’ that the self-interests of bankers, insurance companies and business CEOs would automatically protect the interests of their shareholders and firms is itself a matter of some disbelief. Was he so naïve, so blinded ideologically, to think that people in power, when faced with a chance to enrich themselves, will put the interests of their stockholders and firms before their own? Or was this confession of lack of insight a way of evading personal responsibility for what went wrong? Was he unaware of what had been happening in the US and the world for decades? Wall Street has been lavishly rewarding companies that treated their workers as a financial ‘expense’ and chucked them out whenever profits slightly dipped. Older ideas of ‘loyalty’ or a ‘social compact’ were killed off by the deregulated market system that Greenspan and others promoted.

What makes matters all the more interesting is that Greenspan had spent the past twenty years of his life as a faithful disciple of the novelist and pop-philosopher, Ayn Rand. The latter’s humanist cult of ‘rational egoism’ and ‘rugged individualism’ not only chimed in well with the Reagan-Thatcher era, but provided a generation of privileged college students with an intellectual justification for their self-indulgent lifestyles.

If Greenspan had been a committed Christian, Jew or Muslim, his faith would have been greeted with howls of derisive laughter in trendy intellectual newspapers and magazines. But because his religious faith rested not in the God of the Bible or Qur’an but in the gods of the ‘rational self’ and unbridled ‘market forces’, his disingenuousness has been ignored in these media circles. After all, many businessmen and economists, it is safe to say, worship at the altar of the same gods.

‘Self-expression’, ‘self-development’, ‘self-realization’ and other terms which stress the centrality of the self ignore the ways in which we rely on other people and other people rely on us. All collective human activity is based on trust and mutual dependency. A society fostering an extreme individualism will quickly self-destruct.

The old motto of the City of London was ‘My word is my bond’. Trust between individuals and confidence in the system are an absolute precondition for business.  Corporations that falsely report their profits, and accountants that creatively manipulate the figures,  may do well in the short term, but if they are found out, confidence in the whole system can ebb away. Once financial traders take advantage of the presumption of honesty to cheat and deceive, the whole apparatus of financial dealing is put in danger. When corruption becomes rife, markets can no longer function. Economic freedom only makes sense if it is given a moral foundation, of which truth-telling, promise-keeping and personal integrity are an indispensable part. Can a well-ordered market economy flourish in a cultural climate of moral relativism (where morality is treated as a matter of convention or individual choice)?

The present ‘financial crisis’  is, at root, a moral crisis, a collapse of faith.  Financial institutions may attempt to meet the threat posed by personal dishonesty by introducing regulators and ‘watchdogs’.  But they themselves still depend on trust- for instance, honest reporting by those being investigated. And how far can we trust the regulators themselves? Once the suspicion of deceit enters the system, there can be no stopping its corrosive power. The lack of integrity is never going to be healed by regulation alone.

[For Alan Greenspan’s testimony before the US House Oversight and Governmental Reform Committee, see ]



March 2009