Vinoth Ramachandra

Money and Morality

Posted on: March 27, 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?

6 Responses to "Money and Morality"

Vinoth, I absolutely loved this post and will be saving both the Peterson and the Keynes quotes for future preaching.

I often have had conversations with congregational members who are business people where they outline a similar argument to the one you are making- that capitalism requires a moral foundation (that looks very much like a Judeo-Christian ethic) to function. But then they sometimes go a step further and say therefore, that capitalism is in some sense a Christian system. Would have any views/advice on how to deal with this kind of reasoning?

Kevin, your question is important enough to merit a whole new post. I shall attend to this in two weeks time.

Off Topic: you said in an interview with The Baptist Times on May 22, 2008 that: “I often feel lonely.” And you went on to describe reasons why.

Very often I also feel lonely. In considering the things I read and how Christian orthodoxy calls me to relate to the world, the end result is loneliness. I don’t think that I can say some of the stuff that is on my mind even to my family. Anyways, this all reminds me of a quote from CS Lewis: “We read to know that we are not alone”

And I’ve found that to be true!

Dear Bv, although your comment was addressed to Vinoth R., I felt compelled to comment as well.

Even though slightly besides your point, I think it is important to emphasise, that christianity is tantamount to a call to loneliness. The very core of Jesus’ message is love – and love is only found in relationships, as the article appropriately stresses at the end.

Yes, reading can be a way to find reassurance that we are not alone, but in order to not be alone we must love!

I find it appropriate to suggest that it is only our fear of the past repeating itself in the future that robs us of making ourselves available – and vulnerable enough – to love and be loved in the present.

Please forgive me if you find my comments to be too straightforward or glib!

-of course I meant to write, “I think it is important to emphasise, that christianity is NOT tantamount to a call to loneliness.”

I have a book in press on the history of Christian thought on wealth and profit-seeking. The publisher hasn’t exactly been swift with it so I don’t know when it will be out. Anyway, I argue that Christianity shifted in its attitude toward wealth before Calvanism.

I like your point about moral principles being different were accumulation not being so important. i.e., valuing accumulation colors even our moral constraints on it. I think you were citing Keynes.

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March 2009
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