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Christian Morality and Economic Reason

by Wolfgang Huber Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006 at 6:05 AM

Finance capital circling anonymously around the globe seeking only short-term profit must expect the resistance of the affected and of the church that turns to the affected. The question is who profits from globalization.


By Wolfgang Huber

[This article is translated from the German in: Zeitschrift zur Evangelische Ethik 50/ January 2006. Wolfgang Huber is a bishop in the Evangelical Church in Germany.]

Christian ethics has proven again and again to be a decisive motor of engagement. This hardly needs to be emphasized in the jubilee year of Max Weber’s study “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” In its evangelical form, Christian ethics like catholic social teaching has influenced the conception and development of the social market economy. The evangelical form of the Christian faith has emphasized “responsible freedom” in the ethical justification of economic conduct.

New studies confirm the importance of this impulse. They show that Christian life is marked by responsibility and trust. The author of the latest book on our theme – theologian and manager Ulrich Hemel – underlines this. He sees a crucial foundation of entrepreneurial conduct “in the indispensability of personal responsibility, long-term ethical orientation for economic success and the demand for professionalism in the areas of strategy and value creation.”

These basic questions play a marginal role in the public discussion. Evangelical ethics should strongly accentuate the significance of Christian morality for economic reason. That is the goal of this article.

1. Resources in the one world are more limited than earlier generations thought.
Sensible or sparing association with these resources is necessary for the sake of future options. Rationality and efficiency in dealing with resources are commanded from this insight – from charity, from love for the next generation and from economic insight. Christian morality like economic reason is focused on the welfare of people. An orientation from the Christian faith and an orientation in economic efficiency run in the same direction.

This old insight of Christian ethics gains new explosiveness in our time with view to the unjust global distribution of poverty and wealth. The standard of living of western industrial nations is in no way sustainable. Therefore a global adjustment to the present level of western industrial nations is impossible. Adjustment to another lower level is unavoidable. The present energy-price crisis is a harbinger of coming challenges.

2. Human labor has a clear appointment, to provide the necessities for persons, neighbors and the whole society. Cooperating in creating prosperity and social wealth is charged to every Christian. The biblical tradition emphasizes that every person should have the chance to contribute the gifts and talents given by God to the development of social prosperity. This may not lead to overstraining people or a one-sided preferential treatment of a special group.

Work has a great importance in the Christian tradition. Martin Luther and John Paul II underscored the high rank of work. “Work belongs to the person as flying belongs to the bird.” For the sake of this high rank, work must be organized so everybody has a share in it, even low-performance persons. Limits are set to work by Sunday and other regulations for the well being of people. The economy should involve everyone. The inequality that goes along with the organization of the economy giving more to those more capable and ready for performance may only be so great that a dignified life is possible and a full share in society is opened up to weaker persons through the increased productivity.

On this biblical foundation, justice is understood as empowerment and participatory justice. A society in which as many people are afflicted by unemployment as in Germany today has an elementary justice problem.

The society of the social market economy is based on the conviction that resolution of these and other justice problems and social balance indispensable from a Christian view is in the hands of the state. The counter-model of a pure trust in individuals’ readiness for assistance misjudges the structural dimensions of the task.

3. A fundamental reform of the tax law is imperative. While different opinions on particular questions are defended for good ethical reasons, an agreement should be possible on several basic principles.

From an ethical perspective, taxes represent an important institution since they supply the financial resources necessary for the state’s functions. Taxes should be organized so individuals can understand them. The special situation and special contribution of marriages, families and children must be considered. Finally, taxation according to performance must be guaranteed.

From this perspective, a further shift from direct to indirect taxes is problematic. A simplification of the tax system could prevent such a shift.

An agreeable tax reform concerning church tax revenue is not an expression of an internal church policy. Rather that the churches in the future will be financially equipped for their tasks is in the common interest. A further theft of church taxes would grievously strike particular fields of church action and the core tasks of the church altogether.

4.The world of the Bible and in particular the traditions of Protestant ethics are alien to all forms of extravagance and luxury addiction. Austerity and the calculated goal-oriented use of resources are part of the responsibility of Christians. The frugal handling of resources of all kinds is an act of charity because it enables others to share in these resources. Again and again the biblical texts warn against accumulation of riches as an end-in-itself.

Dealing with profit is the basic problem stressed in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospel of Luke, not the profit orientation as such. Biblical statements are marked by the idea that money, wealth and earthly possessions should be dealt with intrinsically so something can be accomplished for neighbors and common advantages. Wealth should be used for the well being of everyone. That property is under a social obligation is inscribed in the German constitution and is one of the basic convictions of the whole Christian tradition.

5. Economic conduct in the sense of efficiency and instrumental rationality is both justified and obligatory from the Christian faith. Such conduct is not opposed to humaneness. Humaneness is its presupposition and goal. However socially recognized and culturally valuable ends must also guide economic conduct. Neither the economy nor money is an intrinsic value. Tendencies spreading economic thinking to all areas of life, particularly to the areas of culture and values, should be resisted from the perspective of Christian anthropology.

Finance capital circling anonymously around the globe without regard for the afflicted people and seeking only short-term profit must expect the resistance of the afflicted and of the church that turns to the afflicted. The question is who really profits from the globalization of the finance world and at what point the concentration of wealth and creative possibilities in the hands of a few becomes ethically problematic endangering the social peace.

6. People must deal frugally with the goods of this world and not succumb to the economic rationality calculus. Persons created by God and appointed to be God’s image have their own dignity that “has no equivalent” according to Immanuel Kant’s important saying. Monetary compensation is not everything. Therefore the economy must serve people and not vice versa. Modifying a saying of Jesus about the Sabbath, the economy should exist for people. The person should not exist for the economy.

From this idea, the church must oppose all tendencies of sacrificing cultural goods to economic calculations, for instance canceling holidays for a trifling increase of the gross domestic product. While extending working hours may be necessary for specific branches and not generally, more sensible and intelligent ways can be sought than the general abolition of holidays. The discussion about Sunday can be understood this way. From a biblical view, Sunday symbolizes the limit of the economic and therefore must be preserved for the sake of the human nature of people.

7. The challenges of the present offer a reason for joining value orientations and economic thinking as the founders of the social market economy did. The development of the world economy is one of these challenges. Is the European and in particular the German model of a socially responsible economy antiquated? Or does globalization also include a chance of asserting standards of international social responsibility more strongly than was possible in the past?

Under present economic conditions, there is a strong tendency to evade personal responsibility. This largely defines the public conception of the economy today. This is unjust in relation to the middle class, businesses and to the conduct of many people in large corporations. However this is not unfounded. The question cannot be avoided whether economic conduct is more and more dependent on the mammoth finance capital circling the world. With all globalization, the economy must obviously maintain a real relation to the persons, land, spaces and times in which it exists. We face the question whether the standards of the generational contract and sustainability are only demands on politics or are also important in economic conduct.
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