<>Presentation in series “Creation of a New Ethic” St Andrews on the Terrace, Sunday August 24, 1997.
Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;
Exactly at the time I was invited to contribute to this series, I was pondering over the notion of the “commercialisation of sin”. The title parallels that of a book I have just had published: The Commercialisation of New Zealand. The theme of that book is that public policy has steadily and systematically used the standard model of commercial arrangements to organize social arrangements, even where the model is obviously inappropriate, or leads to outcomes detrimental to society. The book illustrates its thesis with examples from broadcasting, culture, education, the environment, health care, heritage, the labour market, the public service, and science.
At the time of the request I was pondering, perhaps fuming over a recent speech by the executive director of the Business Roundtable, entitled the “Seven Deadly Economic Sins of the Twentieth Century”. Commercialist imperialism was being extended even to sin.
Once upon a time there were the seven deadly sins – which are not mentioned the bible – but arose in the Middle Ages as an attempt to counter their ages excesses. I am not a theologian, so I simply report the definition that sin was once “guilt before God”, defined in my dictionary as an “act of transgression (especially wilful) against divine law or principles of morality. The deadly sins caused the death of the soul or were fatal to salvation.” The seven were:
Very obviously, three – avarice, gluttony, and sloth – could be called economic sins, and if I had time I could argue that at least three others had an economic dimension so the medieval times recognized economic transgressions. Note too, each of the sins is about excess. There is no objection in Christianity, or usually in ethics generally, to moderate pursuit of each of these attributes. For instance, as much as excessive pride in oneself may be sinful, we want to promote a degree of self-confidence, self-respect, and the courage that goes with it.
Instead, the Business Roundtable speech proposed the following seven deadly economic sins:
the growth of the state;
protection of the economy;
special interest lobbying;
the welfare state.
A myriad of random thoughts well up:
– the executive director of the country’s most successful special lobby group railing against its sinfulness, perhaps in the best imitation of medieval flagellants; or
– one can well understand why the Business Roundtable wants to abandon avarice as a sin; or
– despite claims of progress over the last thousand years, the commercial sector seems to have lost the skill of crafting language; or
– these transgressions align well with the 1948 manifesto of the right wing Mont Pelerin Society; or
– one might wonder what would be the Business Roundtable’s seven cardinal virtues, presumably replacing justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope and charity; or
– the list misses the essential element of the deadly sins, which was excess. Few would find difficulty with decrying the excessive pursuit of any of the items on the Business Roundtable list. But that does not appear to be the speaker’s intention.
I am not sure what god the speech writer had in mind when he constructed this list of sins. Presumably it was not the Business Roundtable itself, for that would be overweening pride. Perhaps it was Mammon. That gives us the text for the day:
No man can serve two masters: for he will either hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.
That is from Matthew 6:24. Luke 16:13 has a similar sentiment.
The issue of serving God or Mammon still faces us. I am not here so concerned with avarice, gluttony, and sloth, as with that there are institutions such as corporations and states which employed directly or indirectly ourselves and our loved ones. We also consume their outputs. Our economic welfare depends on these institutions, one way or another.
The Gospels do not talk greatly about these issues, mainly because states were not that dominant and corporations, as we know them today, did not exist. However, there is much more in the Gospels about economic issues, than there is about sexual ones. One might suggest the proportion is exactly the opposite to the time spent by today’s Church on each.
Jesus often discussed economic issues – the Good Samaritan, Caesar’s coin. He used economic stories to illustrate theological principles. The text from Matthew is but one of a case where he talks of one’s relations to god as a servant to master, the parable of the talents is another.
I have not the expertise to offer an exegesis of the Gospel references. But over the years they have been distilled into general principles. The seven deadly sins are a medieval example. A more recent list comes from the Advisory Group on Economic Matters which advises the World Council of Churches and the Commission on the Church’s Participation in Development. In a report, Ecumenical Reflections on Political Economy, the Group lists the “values and criteria increasingly accepted for testing existing economic systems, processes and institutions.” They are:
Meeting basic human needs: Does the system realistically promise to meet the fundamental psycho-physical needs of human beings?
Justice and Participation: Are these needs met equitably? Is there reasonable equality of access to the resources of a society?
Sustainability: Is the economic system ecologically and socially sustainable?
Self-reliance: Does the economic system enable people to achieve a sense of their own worth, freedom and capacity, rather than being completely vulnerable to the decisions of others?
Universality: Do the economic system and economic policies focus on the above elements for the global human family, beyond national or regional political boundaries?
Peace: Does the economic system promote the prospects for peace built upon the foundations of justice?
Now we could easily spend six sessions discussing each of these criteria for the identification of a good economic and social systems. I would expect any application of the principles would rule out some systems as intolerable, but end up with a number of different practical approaches to the organization of society. These ways, while not mutually incompatible, may be very different. Between them there may be no evidently superior option. In my adulthood, I have always thought God was affectionately tolerant of diversity. One only has to look at the diversity of humankind to see that.
However there is a gap in the list. It has only six principles, and every theologian with the slightest mathematical bent knows there has to be seven. What I want to suggest is the missing one may be “stewardship”, which I shall argue contributes to the resolution of that tension between God and Mammon. This is not far from Jesus who mentions stewardship in a number of contexts, including in the parable of the talents, where the master expects each steward to manage the talents wisely.
I use the slightly archaic term “stewardship”, because it is in The Bible – sixteen times in the Authorised Version. I am told that sometimes the term is used in a much narrower context, being reduced to a commitment to fund raising for the church. If you dont like “stewardship” you might use another term such as “guardianship” or “trusteeship”, although with a wider notion than the way they are used in law. The Maori have “katiakitanga”, stewardship of natural resources. “Rangatiratanga” covers general stewardship.
We are stewards in many ways. In this short life we are stewards for the environment; the notion is central to ecological ethic. Even if we are not chief executive we still frequently act as a steward in the firm for which we work. And we are stewards for our children, for others in need, and indeed for humanity as a whole. Some feel entrusted to protect certain principles. There are few occasions in the good life, in which we are not in a position of stewardship or trust.
What do we mean by stewardship? I have not time to detail all its features. Perhaps we cold later. But a recent report by Alan Schick about the state sector reforms made a useful distinction. He pointed out that the current governance emphasizes “accountability … an impersonal quality dependent … on contractual duties and informational flows,” which he distinguishes from “responsibility … a personal quality that comes from one’s professional ethic, a commitment to do one’s best, a sense of public service.” The steward is primarily responsible. The implication of the Schick report is that the reforms are down playing responsibility. Mammon wants us corporately accountable, not personally responsible.
Corporations and states are, of course, impersonal so they cannot be responsible. It is an artefact of law that we give them a legal personality, so they can sue and be sued, defame and be defamed, own property, incur debts, and pay tax. We talk of the New Zealand state as “The Crown”, as though it had a personality and interests independent from the people of New Zealand. And we treat the great corporations, whose chief executives sit on the Business Roundtable, the same way. But they are not people, and they cannot have a spiritual or ethical dimension in their behaviour.
The winebox affair has to be seen from this perspective. The corporations involved in the taxation arrangements were not ethical or unethical. The issue for the institutions was whether they broke the law. But upholding the law is not the same as being ethical. On certain occasions it is proper for an individual to break the law of the land because of higher ethical principles – as I would have in Apartheid South Africa or Fascist Germany (two societies which would never have met the six criteria of the Advisory Group). But a corporation or state should never break the law. It does not have the ethical framework to do so.
Educationalists argue that there is a three stage development of ethical understanding.
– the first, is when we behave ethically in order to obtain rewards, or avoid punishments: `you have been such a good boy, have a sweet’; `do that and I’ll knock your block off’; `theft leads to jail’; `dont sin and you’ll go to heaven’. This is often the ethics of children.
– the second level is when we behave ethically because there are the conventions of society which we slavishly follow or reject. We conform to other’s expectations; we are loyal to order, supporting, and justifying it, identifying with those actively maintaining the social order. Behaviour is perceived as valuable in its own right, regardless of immediate and obvious consequences. It is a sort of adolescence. Some people never develop past this second stage of “conventionalism”;
– the third stage is when we cease to operate ethically on the basis of convention, but do so autonomously, acting on general principles. We define moral values and principles to have a validity and application apart from the authority of the groups holding the principles, and whether we belong to that group. In this ethical approach one may break the law, overriding convention, where there is a serious conflict with deeply help principles. But as Bobby Dylan said “to lie outside the law you must be honest.” You must have ethical principles. This is the adult stage of ethically development.
I have described the three stages in terms of human development. I suspect that Lloyd Geering would draw parallels with his three stages of the development of religion.
Now where does a corporation or state fit in? Consider the corporation which behaves ethically so as not to break the law and be punished. That is definitely the first pre-conventional childhood stage of development.
Some go a step further, arguing that it is in a businesses interest to be ethical. Ethical businesses they say, generate greater long term profits, because their suppliers, their employees, and their customers can trust the firm. That may be true: it may not. But whatever, it is still at the childish stage where behaviour which appears to be ethical is justified because it is rewarded. In such cases ethical behaviour is not really ethical. For a child, such behaviour is on the path to becoming a fully ethical person. For a corporation it is a rule of thumb to obtain selfish goals.
But if corporations or states are not people, their employees are. Are the employees stewards, or were they just very well paid slaves of Mammon? Should they be ethical, as well as not to break the law? Are employees just accountable or should they be responsible?
The answer to such questions are individually personal ones. But we need also to consider whether we have an economic and social system which promotes stewardship, or whether it punishes stewards and rewards those who pursue lower standards of ethical behaviour.
My tentative judgement is that we might give the current system six out of ten, say, for its promotion of ethical behaviour in business. Many would say that score was too high, and the competitive mechanism rewards those who act legally even where they are not ethical. This places considerable downward pressure on public standards of morality – in commerce at least.
So we come back to the issue of the commercialisation of sin. Why I deeply object to the list provided by the executive director of the Business Roundtable, is not because it is wrong in some logical sense, or even that it promotes extremism by ignoring moderation.
My concern is the way it undermines personal ethics, by equating these with institutional arrangements, and ignoring individuals. It is fundamentally unethical, debasing the currency of morality, and inflating of the trivial into something of pretended significance. It is neglecting our spiritual and ethical dimension, engendering the unemployment of the soul. Most of all, it fails to tackle the real issues that confront us in regard to the design of social systems. By emphasizing particular arrangements the Business Roundtable’s seven deadly sins are ethically medieval, reflecting a conventionalism of adolescence, perhaps with a tendency to lapse to pre-conventionalism.
In contrast the Advisory Group tried to set down principles, which each of could apply could apply, to assess new and evolving situations and systems, rather than to be confined to looking to the past and the existing institutions and conventions. It is an ethics of autonomy, of adulthood.
Nevertheless I am not satisfied with the six principles of the Advisory Group. They apply to all life, and offer no specific guidance for the economic and political institutions which have evolved in the last two centuries. One would be unwise to propose a seventh anything but tentatively. In that spirit I offer, for your (autonomous) consideration:
Stewardship: Does the system enable the individual to act as a steward, responsible, behaving ethically, with a commitment to do one’s best. and a sense of public service?