Economics & Table Manners

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reflections on Caritas in Veritate, part iii


Trust makes for good business.  Without trust, deals are left undone, and markets collapse, as we have seen all too painfully in the present credit crunch. Credit evaporates when lenders lose confidence in borrowers.  As the current financial crisis demonstrates, even sophisticated risk-spreading insurance schemes like derivatives fail when there’s simply not enough good-old-fashioned personal trust to go around.

 Benedict XVI draws attention to the axiomatic importance of trust in his latest encyclical-

 [I]f the market is governed solely by the principle of the equivalence in value of exchanged goods, it cannot produce the social cohesion that it requires in order to function well.  Without internal forms of solidarity and mutual trust, the market cannot completely fulfil its proper economic function. And today it is this trust which has ceased to exist, and the loss of trust is a grave loss…[1]

 Solidarity and mutual trust.  These are the recipe for market health.  But the interesting dilemma for economic ethics is that this trust cannot be manufactured.  Like good ketchup, it’s “grown, not made”.  The market economy, in and of itself, does not have the wherewithal to create trust.  So where does trust come from?  It grows up around the dinner table and the kitchen table, where people share and depend upon one another for their common livelihood.  The household is the primal model for economics (which is why the modern word “economics” is based in the classical Greek word oikonomia, referring to household management).[2]  Thus, table manners may rightly be seen as the first principle of business ethics.

 Benedict defines solidarity in terms of mutual concern and fraternity, and names this as the fundamental concern of economic ethics.  Such solidarity grows through relationships in which gift-giving transcends the motive of financial gain:

  [T]he principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity.[3]

 But here is the crux of the problem for economic ethics-how are the transcendent values of “gratuitousness” and the “logic of gift” to be built into the economic system?  The problem is that the marketplace lacks the impetus to reward the “logic of gift”.  As Benedict notes rightly: “The market of gratuitousness does not exist, and attitudes of gratuitousness cannot be established by law.”[4]   If gratuitousness shows up at all in the logic of economics, it shows up as an externality, a side-effect, and not as a prime motivator of market decisions.

 To understand the “logic of gift”, we do well to look at the kitchen table again. Giving and sharing are good manners, and table manners might be considered the first principle of business ethics, because it is there that the values of solidarity, trust and mutual sharing are learned.  When a community gathers round a table and manages to get everyone fed, and delights in that healthy outcome, the system works and community thrives.

 Much the same principle is at work in a society.  Augustine expressed this idea in his definition of a “people”-

 A people, we may say, is a gathered multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love.  There can be as many different kinds of people as there are different things for them to love.  Whatever those things may be, there is no absurdity in calling it a people if it is a gathered multitude, not of beasts but of rational creatures, united by agreeing to share what they love.  The better the things, the better the people; the worse the things, the worse their agreement to share them.[5]

 Economic ethics and the health of the market system would therefore seem to be based in the degree to which a community shares common objects of love.  A society needs leaders who remind people of this love, cast a vision for its nurture, and draw attention to injustices where this love is lost.  How can these principles and values be built into the system?  We will turn to this question next.


 [1] Caritas in Veritate, 35.

[2] M. Douglas Meeks puts it well: “Every economy is shaped around a table… the crucial events of life largely transpire around tables…”; “The Economy of Grace: Human Dignity in the Market System”, in God and Human Dignity, ed. by R. Kendall Soulen & Linda Woodhead (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 196-214 (200f).

[3] Caritas in Veritate, 36.

[4] Caritas in Veritate, 39.

[5] Augustine, City of God 19.24.  quoted  by Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love (Eerdmans, 2002), 20.

Gratuitous Economics

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Show me the love?

market efficiency

Caritas in Veritate, part II

 In the previous essay, we saw that the ethics of economic activity are grounded in a vision of human dignity. Valuation and judgment of the costs and benefits of economic development proceed from a vision of human development and human worth.  Benedict XVI expresses this point cogently in his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Love/Charity in Truth), where he identifies the “transcendent vision of the person” as the basis for discussion of human development and vocation. Transcendence refers of course to the spiritual reality of God, and thus, to see the transcendent aspect of humanity is to see persons in relationship with God.  

 This means that mere economics-that is to say, economics shorn of the transcendent dimension of relationship with God-will lack the coherent vision necessary to make ethical judgments.  A realist approach to the ethics of economic activity will require to be understood in terms of a coherent vision of the whole person; and biblically speaking, this means the person as existing in relationship with God.  This relationship is the fundamental reality upon which theological ethics rests.  To forgo the vantage provided by a transcendent vision of human dignity is to make an a priori decision to rule out the very thing that gives humanity its ultimate value, and to replace it with a metaphysical artifice of moral norms.  While such metaphysical constructions can yield ethical rules, they cannot provide any transcendent significance to the value of human persons.

 Benedict notes rightly that a transcendent vision of persons requires ethical theory to countenance “the light of the revealed mystery of the Trinity”[1], for it is only within the light of this mystery that the true meaning of love (caritas) can be discerned.  And so, making a neat turn of phrase, he inverts the biblical exhortation to speak the “truth in love” [Eph. 4:15], and speaks of ethics as being comprised of acts of “love in truth”, hence: Caritas in Veritate.  This is a profound statement, for it ties ethics to the transcendent reality of God’s love (agape in the Greek, or caritas in the Latin), which is known only by virtue of knowing God as love (1 John 4:7-8).   Ethics is thus defined as the practice of “love in truth”, or caritas in veritate.

 What does this mean for economics?  It means that economics is fraught with inherent moral challenges, and all the more so in a climate of globalization which tends to increase the distance between participants in the global marketplace.  How is a community of love to be formed out of the disparate, economically motivated, remote, and anonymous factions involved in transactions on a global scale?  How is a community to be formed of such factions, in order that they might truly love one another as Jesus instructed?  Here is the crux of the problem: how to build love into the economic systems of the global marketplace.

 And in recognition of this problem, Benedict names the fundamental ailment underlying the global recession and the credit crunch:

 The great challenge before us, accentuated by the problems of development in this global era and made even more urgent by the economic and financial crisis, is to demonstrate, in thinking and behaviour, not only that traditional principles of social ethics like transparency, honesty and responsibility cannot be ignored or attenuated, but also that in commercial relationships the principle of gratuitousness and the logic of gift as an expression of fraternity can and must find their place within normal economic activity. This is a human demand at the present time, but it is also demanded by economic logic. It is a demand both of charity and of truth.

 The solution is to build gratuitousness (i.e., charity/caritas/love) and the logic of gift into the systems of normal economic activity which seem to rule the world.  But how?  Somehow we need to ensure that our economic structures are not only efficient, but also gratuitous!  Doesn’t this sound oxymoronic, to speak of gratuitous economics?  Difficult?  Yes.  Idealistic?  Perhaps.  But oxymoronic?  No.  There is indeed a logic to the idea of gratuitous economics.  It is precisely the logic of hope and the logic of confidence in the greater reality of human dignity which can never be adequately reduced to the mathematical principles of rocket science which have of late risen to such preeminence in the global financial playground.  This is the same logic by which the mosaic law of the Bible commanded harvesters to intentionally leave a little grain behind for the gleaners.  It is the logic by which the Israelites were commanded not to store up more mannah than they could eat.  And even more profoundly, it is the logic of the Sabbath, which bears witness to the transcendent reality that we depend ultimately on God, more than upon our economic diligence.  Hyper-efficiency, not gratuituousness, has been the historically more serious source of  an illogical streak within economics, because it leads into cycles of boom and bust, greed and despair.  In contrast to those unfortunate extremes, there is a logic of hope in gratuitousness which mitigates against those disruptive cycles.


 [1] Caritas in Veritate, 54.