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.


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