AN INTERFAITH DAY IN LONDON 2011

Into the Heart of the World

Photo:agnt.org

Theology, Philosophy, Ethics, Spirituality and Economics: A Call to Dialogue

Overcoming Greed, Dishonesty and Delusion: Reclaiming the Moral and Spiritual Roots of Economics

Kamran Mofid

A paper presented at

AN INTERFAITH DAY IN LONDON

Into the Heart of the World

Sponsored by

International Association for Religious Freedom; with World Congress of Faiths & Religions for Peace

 Hosted at

London Central Mosque & The Islamic Cultural Centre      7 December 2011

London Central Mosque & The Islamic Cultural Centre. Photo:bing.com

Introduction and Abstract

The topic which I wish to address here is vast; all I can reasonably hope to do is paint a picture with very broad brushstrokes. I wish to argue that economic and business decisions impact many aspects of our lives, whilst they also raise important moral and ethical concerns which call into question what it is to be a human being. I will argue that decision-makers (contrary to what is mostly practised today) need also to concern themselves with the world of heart, mind and spirit.

Although self-interest is an important source of human motivation, driving the decisions we make in the marketplace every day, those decisions nevertheless have a moral, ethical and spiritual dimensions, because each decision we make affects not only ourselves but others too.

I also wish you to note that, this brief synopsis is not addressed to the learned, or to those who regard a practical problem merely as something to be talked about. No profound philosophy or deep erudition will be found in the following pages. I have aimed only at putting together some remarks which are inspired by what I hope is common sense, and mostly further inspired by the wisdom of those before me. I have learnt greatly from the wisdom of others, and I wish to share a bit of that with you. All that I claim for the recipes offered to the reader is that they are as such confirmed by my own experience, observation, and most importantly, by my enriched life journey, both personally and professionally. On this basis I venture to hope that some among those thinking about the same and other related issues may find this contribution helpful.

It is my hope that with this personal and professional reflection, I can begin an open dialogue with all concerned colleagues, friends, the business community, bankers, politicians, theologians, fellow economists, students and others, so that together we can consider a working solution. As the current global crises have clearly shown, the whole world is waking up to the value of co-creation and the harnessing of knowledge from diverse sources, disciplines, experience and expertise.

Moreover, I wish to present my thoughts in an easy-to-read and jargon-free style. I see my role as a story-teller, in a heart-to-heart dialogue and conversation with the reader, nothing less, nothing more. We are facing some major crises. For me, the answers lie in simplicity. No need to complicate matters more. It is time to be contemplative and take action for social justice, for which a sustainable economics and business for the common good are an essential part.

Overcoming Greed, Dishonesty and Delusion: Reclaiming the Moral and Spiritual Roots of Economics

Hundreds of thousands of people, young and old, employed and unemployed, black and white, men and women, have come together in a continuing and lasting global unity, partaking in a dialogue of civilisations, faiths, cultures and peoples in consideration for the common good. This global movement has risen in a thousand cities on six continents: from Tahrir Square to Alexandria and Tunisia; Rio de Janerio to Bogota; Santiago, Chile to Barcelona; Zuccotti Park to Oakland; Wall Street to St. Paul’s; Frankfurt to Brussels: Rome to Athens; Toronto to Vancouver, Chicago to Philadelphia, Sydney to Brisbane and more, rejecting neo-liberalism and its prevailing economic and business models, demanding a better, kinder and more humane world.

In all these places, what is heard most is that, our world today is facing a multitude of crises in politics, economics, finance, banking, energy, food, environment and education, amongst others, simultaneously, resulting in much uncertainty, fear and anxiety. There is no doubt that, we should see this multitude of crises as a wakeup call to action, to see things as they are. We should search with an open mind for the wisdom we need to transform our economic system to a sustainable path, grounded in ecological reality, with respect for justice and dignity for all, and our appreciation for nature and our kinship for all living things.

Moreover, the rapid and unsustainable rise in consumerism and materialism, financed by debt has seriously destroyed the fabric of society, and has catastrophically weakened the ethical, moral and spiritual dimensions of our communities. It seems, there is nothing, but, “shop till you drop” left to bind us together. In short, the world is facing a crisis of values.

In this respect, Madeleine Bunting’s contribution to the ‘Common Good’ debate in The Guardian (21st March 2001) is most telling:

“… Christianity may have steeply declined but its language still permeates the public sector – words such as ‘service’ and ‘vocation’. A belief in altruistic, self-sacrificing service was a central thread running through the lives of many public servants and inspired great respect amongst those who encountered it. But from the 1960s onwards, secularisation introduced a new concept of duty to oneself along with a language of personal emotional needs and fulfilment which has powerfully reorientated the individual towards a preoccupation with self. Personal identity has been severed from any wider collective context such as class, creed or nationality. The decline of these collective identities of nation, faith and ideology – has left a vacuum and has been taken over and exploited by consumer culture. The most powerful collective identities now are those we buy: DKNY or CK mean more to your average teenager than any government service. Where, once socialism offered the promise of a better world, now GAP does. Nike sells its flash on the heroic myth of near superhuman individual effort and achievement. Where, once every seven-year-old girl wanted to be a teacher or a nurse, now they want to be Britney Spears. We have a culture of individual aggrandisement and self-promotion in which self-effacing service has no place … But the government’s voice is drowned out by consumer culture which is primarily focused on your relationship with yourself rather than a relationship with a wider collective: it is typified by the L’Oreal slogan, ‘Because you’re worth it.’ Brands are monikers to exclusivity, so they exclude as many as they include. Besides, DKNY is belonging to what? In that quest, a vision of the common good to which a new generation can subscribe is strikingly absent”…

To conclude my observation on this topic, we should note that, as it is been remarked before, this is precisely what the “crisis of capitalism” is all about. “It is nothing less than the crisis of humanism as a religion being played out in economic life. If freedom is made an absolute, as it is for example in the writings of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, such that it is impossible on intellectual grounds to place limits on the exercise of freedom, the result is an economic system shorn of justice … both the injustice and inhumanity of capitalist societies result inevitably from the failure to assert certain absolutes and so place proper limits on the use of freedom.”

In summary, although I defend certain positive benefits of a well controlled, regulated, accountable and transparent market economy, I also maintain that there can be no civilised marketplace if the economy and business are not value-led. I will also argue that the solution to the current socio-economic global crises is not technical. It needs to be looked at again in a fresh way that will embrace human values of wisdom, morality, ethics, justice, sympathy, empathy, accountability, responsibility, trust, integrity, cooperation and the common good.

Here the wise words of R .H. Tawney ring so true:

“Modern society is sick through the absence of a moral ideal… The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another … It is only when we realise that each individual soul is related to a power above other men, that we are able to regard each as an end in itself”.

All in all, the more I observe, the more it becomes clear to me that people everywhere, all over the world, young and old, are hoping for a value-led, people- nature- centred economics, business and way of life. They want, once again, to be able to trust. They want to see integrity and respect. They want to see accountability and transparency at all levels. They want to see more equality and justice. They want a fair playing field. They want to see people with high moral compass to lead politics, economics, business, finance, and media, amongst others. They want a value-led education and healthcare system. They want to be in a situation when they are in control of their lives, where they can plan and dream about a better future. They want to be free of the fear of getting old, sick, jobless and homeless. They want to be free of the pressures of modern life, consumerism, materialism, selfishness and more. They want to see stronger family values of love, sympathy, empathy, compassion, altruism, cooperation, giving and sharing. They want more respect for the mother earth, environment and nature. They want to see no more wars of "convenience", destruction for the sake of future lucrative reconstruction contracts! And they want to see more dialogue of civilisations, religions and cultures, and more consideration for the common good.

Since the collapse of the financial, banking and economic sectors, many articles, papers and books have already been written on why such scandals took place, on what went wrong. They all agree on the role of one vital element: dishonesty fuelled by greed. We forget at our own peril that honesty and greed are essentially spiritual and moral issues. They lie within the province of religious, philosophical and spiritual considerations, which seeks to apply transcendent wisdom to the formation of moral and spiritual values. Moreover, no part of human life can operate without these values, not least the sphere of business. Genuine faith, morality and spirituality far from being a private affair, relates to the whole of life, from the chief executive to the bottom line.

We must recognise that our economic problems are closely linked to our spiritual problems and vice versa. Moreover, socio-economic justice, peace and harmony will come about only when the essential connection between the spiritual and practical aspects of life is valued. Necessary for this journey is to discover, promote and live for the common good. The principle of the common good reminds us that we are all really responsible for each other – we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers – and must work for social conditions which ensure that every person and every group in society is able to meet their needs and realize their potential. It follows that every group in society must take into account the rights and aspirations of other groups, and the well-being of the whole human family.

In order to arrive at such understanding, we should embody the core values of the Golden Rule (Ethic of Reciprocity): “Do unto others as you would have them to do to you”. This in turn will prompt us on a journey of discovery, giving life to what many consider to be the most consistent moral teaching throughout history. It should be noted that the Golden Rule can be found in many religions, ethical systems, spiritual traditions, indigenous cultures and secular philosophies.

We should also recall the wisdom of Adam Smith, “father of modern economics”, who was a great moral philosopher first and foremost. In 1759, sixteen years before his famous Wealth of Nations, he published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explored the self-interested nature of man and his ability nevertheless to make moral decisions based on factors other than selfishness. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith laid the early groundwork for economic analysis, but he embedded it in a broader discussion of social justice and the role of government. Today we mainly know only of his analogy of the ‘invisible hand’ and refer to him as defending free markets; whilst ignoring his insight that the pursuit of wealth should not take precedence over social and moral obligations.

We are taught that the free market as a ‘way of life’ appealed to Adam Smith but not that he thought the morality of the market could not be a substitute for the morality for society at large. He neither envisioned nor prescribed a capitalist society, but rather a ‘capitalist economy within society, a society held together by communities of non-capitalist and non-market morality’. As it has been noted, morality for Smith included neighbourly love, an obligation to practice justice, a norm of financial support for the government ‘in proportion to [one’s] revenue’, and a tendency in human nature to derive pleasure from the good fortune and happiness of other people.

Given the above observation, pertinent questions at this time are:

1- Why is that today students of economics and business are not taught ethics, philosophy and theology? Or indeed, why is that the students of theology and philosophy, as well as those at seminaries are not taught economics and business?

2- Why is that, as the letter below, from Lord Kalms to the Times, clearly proves, today those teaching economics and business, by and large, do not believe that ethics has to do anything with economics?

The Times, 8 March 2011

Ethics boys

Sir, Around 1991 I offered the London School of Economics a grant of £1 million to set up a Chair in Business Ethics. John Ashworth, at that time the Director of the LSE, encouraged the idea but had to write to me to say, regretfully, that the faculty had rejected the offer as it saw no correlation between ethics and economics. Quite.

Lord Kalms, House of Lords

What a sorry state of affairs, I must say! Shame on those at the LSE, and all others like them elsewhere, bringing economics and the LSE into such disrepute, and in the process so destructively short-changing their students.

Lest we forget, it was the same establishment, the London School of Economics, whilst having turned down a generous offer for the funding of a Chair in Business Ethics, later on accepted millions from Gaddafi and “sold” a PhD to his son!

You see, when one believes in no correlation between ethics and economics, then, everything is possible, if the price is right. Everything! Quite.

Therefore, I am sure it is not difficult to note that, building a new economics system will demand challenging and novel ways of thinking, perspectives that encompass the broad swath of human experience and wisdom, from the natural sciences and all the social sciences, to the philosophical and spiritual values of the world’s major religions and of indigenous peoples as well. The task before us is a daunting one, and wisdom in how to proceed will come from a multiple of sources, and must embrace the panorama of cultural, religious and disciplinary perspectives.

If we could align the most powerful force in capitalism, namely wealth-creation, with ethical objectives by bringing economics and interreligious, as well as philosophical reflections together, then the world would be a better, safer place, and globalisation could become a force for good. If we could link these reflections we could make the study of these subjects far more effective than if they continue to be analysed in isolation. We should not reject the imperatives of economics, finance, politics and trade per se but should apply them to the common good: everybody must become a stakeholder; everybody must benefit.

Why should we try to combine theology, philosophy, ethics, spirituality and economics?

Because they have a common end: that all may live happily; it is just that they employ different methods in order to achieve this end. Economics uses the production and exchange of goods and services, whilst the others selfless service, love, compassion, as well as the moral and spiritual conduct.

Furthermore, religions could – if they choose to speak with their original source of inspiration– greatly contribute towards restoring the balance between the material and the spiritual elements and thus show the way to live fully human lives in a peaceful, just and sustainable society.

As it has been noted, the ethical and spiritual teachings of all religions and their striving for the common good can provide us with a clear and focused model of moral behaviour in what we term ‘the marketplace’. An overall ethical orientation to the challenges of daily economic activity can be related to each of our faith traditions.

In the Jewish tradition we see the effort to balance pragmatic considerations of economic efficiency with ideals of interpersonal equity and social justice. The key themes of Christian and Islamic thought are respectively a concern for human dignity and a concern for communal solidarity. These three themes are not separate: they overlap and interlock; and they are shared by all three traditions. Together they form an inspiring mosaic of Western religious ethics.

The traditions of the East have somewhat different themes from those of the Abrahamic religions; nonetheless, there is much that is similar. The importance of humility and patience characterises the Hindu view of economic life. In Buddhism, the theme that resonates most strongly is compassion; in Confucian thought it is reciprocity; and in Sikhism is service. These, also, are not separate themes, but overlapping and interlocked. The mosaic they form is not sharply distinct from that of the Western traditions. Related to the marketplace, it would inspire business and their CEOs to exhibit mutual compassion, while individual achievement would not be at the expense of communal solidarity. Steady economic and moral improvement would be pursued with humility and patience.

These must become the guiding principles, the vision behind the teachings of a new economics: the marketplace is not just an economic sphere, ‘it is a region of the human spirit’. Self-interest undoubtedly drives most decisions made every day in the marketplace, but those decisions also have a moral content because each decision affects not only us but other human beings too and often also the animal and natural world. To the extent that our economic decisions impact on others, we have a moral responsibility to assess our self-interest in the context of a broader sense of right and wrong.

This is why I firmly believe that economists, theologians and philosophers from different cultures and faiths need to engage each other. This dialogue has to some extend, started to happen, but surely it needs to become firmly entrenched and an everyday encounter. Hopefully, this may encourage a more engaging, as well as rewarding study of the these disciplines, a critically important tool for base-building in the economic justice movement. This, I would suggest, is an effective approach to raising the consciousness of those most impacted by economic inequality and empowering these individuals towards action. In short, economics, theology, and philosophy together can significantly help with movement-building to support the greater democratic social change, justice and peace.

This is the challenge we face. Successful and ethical businesses should be congratulated for their good work, and encouraged to play a fuller role in ensuring the good of the community, of the people who have helped to create their wealth, and to show a total respect for the environment. This mirrors transcendent goodness however we conceive it, which offers not wealth for the fittest but a level playing field for all.

In conclusion, paraphrasing the wise words of Marcus Braybrooke, writing in a book, which we had co-authored, it is not too late for a change of heart, which is the message of the great faiths. Only this can ensure that there is a significant will to provide at least the basic necessities of life for all people-but only politicians, economists and businessmen who seek the common good can ensure that effective programmes are in place to achieve this.

Finally, there is no doubt that we are facing many significant global challenges. Many campaigners for a better world, wishing to serve and to promote the common good, often face an uphill battle every day. In this final paragraph, I wish to quote a poem from Hafez, the 14th century Persian philosopher of love, a seeker of wisdom who became a poet of genius, a lover of truth who has transcended the ages. May this poem be a source of hope and inspiration to us, as we must remain positive; we must remain hopeful.

Don't Despair Walk On

Josef to his father in Canaan shall return, don't despair walk on;

and Jacob's hut will brighten with flowers, don't despair walk on.

Aching hearts heal in time, vanished hopes reappear,

the disparate mind will be pacified, don't despair walk on.

As the spring of life grows the newly green meadow,

roses will crown the sweet nightingale's song, don't despair walk on.

If the world does not turn to your whims these few days,

cosmic cycles are preparing to change, don't despair walk on.

If desperation whispers you will never know God,

it's the talk of hidden games in the veil, don't despair walk on.

O heart, when the vast flood slashes life to its roots,

Captain Noah waits to steer you ashore, don't despair walk on.

If you trek as a pilgrim through sands to Kaabeh,

with thorns lodged deep in your soul shouting why, don't despair walk on.

Though oases hide dangers and your destiny's far,

there's no pathway that goes on forever, don't despair walk on.

My trials and enemies face me on their own,

but mystery always backs up my stand, don't despair walk on.

Hafez, weakened by poverty, alone in the dark,

this night is your pathway into the light, don't despair walk on.

Bibliography:

Mofid, Kamran (2002) Globalisation for the Common Good, London: Shepheard-Walwyn

Mofid, Kamran (2003) Business Ethics, Corporate Social Responsibility and Globalisation for the Common Good, London: Shepheard-Walwyn

Mofid, Kamran and Marcus Braybrooke (2005) Promoting the Common Good-Bringing Economics and Theology Together Again, London: Shepheard-Walwyn

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