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Beyond Private Gain:

How Religions Can Enrich Our Understanding of Global Economics

By Chandra Muzaffar,

President, the International Movement for a Just World

Excerpted from the Conclusion to

Subverting Greed: Religious Perspectives on the Global Economy

 

Values, Principles, and Ideals

The question we should now ask is this: do the religions offer an alternative to the present global economy? If by an alternative one means a complete economic system with a guiding philosophy, structures, modalities and goals, no scripture has the answer. Some of our authors make this salient point.

However, all religions do propound values, principles and ideals that one should uphold which have a direct or indirect bearing upon the economy. The basic needs of everyone -- food, clothing, shelter, education, health, and one should perhaps add, sexual fulfillment and human security -- should be taken care of. There should be equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities. Indeed, distributive justice, part and parcel of religions' larger commitment to justice, is emphasized by each and every writer in this collection of essays.

Public welfare or the public good also figures prominently in this book. There is no need to point out that it takes precedence over private gain or individual self-interest. The importance accorded to the public good is a reflection of yet another related concept found in certain religious traditions: that the community is an organism characterized by an intimate internal unity.

This is linked to the idea that the economy is God's 'household' -- as our Christian contributor, Sallie McFague, describes it. And the household is not just made up of human beings but of the whole of creation. It finds resonance in the notion of all encompassing, all-embracing unity of all that exists rooted in the oneness of God. It is significant that religions which appear to be so different from one another such as Hinduism and Islam embody this philosophical principle of unity.

It is this principle of unity which demands that the human being maintains that delicate ecological balance upon which all life on our planet depends. What this means is that economic growth and development, from a religious point of view, should not threaten the sustainability of the planet. On the contrary, developmental planning which is conscious of environmental ethics will enhance the harmonious relations between the human being and her environment.

Underlying this consciousness -- and indeed the principle of unity itself -- is a profound recognition of the interdependence and interconnectedness of not just all life forms but of all things. The Buddhist insight into this is captured by the religion's interlocutor David Loy and it parallels similar ideas found in numerous indigenous traditions, including Igbo.

An economy that recognizes interdependence and interconnectedness as guiding principles will have to function on a basis that is very different from the present global system. It will have to seek inspiration from the Confucian maxim: "In order to establish ourselves, we must help others to establish themselves; in order to enlarge ourselves, we have to help others to enlarge themselves." This is explicit acknowledgement of the importance of assisting others. Indeed, assisting others becomes the prerequisite for ensuring one's own well-being. It shows how we are all connected to, and dependent upon, one another.

Applied to the global economy, it means that the rich should help the poor, the strong should extend a hand to the weak, for the sake of the former. Self-interest, narrowly conceived, and private gain, pursued without any consideration for the well-being of others -- essential attributes of neo-liberalism -- would have no place in the Confucian moral ethic. What is remarkable about this ethic is that it is 'other serving' without denying the importance of serving oneself.

In a sense, this maxim of helping others in order to help oneself, is integral to that Golden Rule of Life found in all the spiritual traditions: Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you. Expressed positively, it asks us to do to others what we want others to do to us. It is a rule that should be applied not only to the global economy but also to global politics and global society in general.

The quintessence of this rule is reciprocity. Reciprocity is a deeply cherished value in not just Confucianism but also in a number of other religions, cultures and indigenous traditions. Our author points out that in Igbo and African traditions reciprocity is expressed in numerous proverbs and sayings.

Like reciprocity, restraint is another value embodied in all the religions and moral philosophies discussed in this book. It has tremendous significance for the global economy. One can argue for restraint and moderation in the consumption patterns and even in the lifestyles of the elites in both 'developed' and 'developing' countries. This is bound to have a salutary effect upon the allocation of resources and the production of goods and services in society. Restraint in one's attitude towards the environment will almost certainly result in less ecological damage. This in turn will impact upon the economy. This is why the philosophies of Buddhism and Christianity, like those of Hinduism and Islam, have always recognized restraint as a great virtue which is sometimes mirrored in their religious practices such as fasting.

There are of course other values which our interlocutors have elaborated upon in their essays. Caring, sharing and giving which we have referred to in another context are fundamental to all our religions. The pivotal significance of justice in the value system of most traditions is worth stressing over and over again. Likewise, compassion is a defining characteristic of Jewish thought as it is of Buddhist philosophy -- and indeed, other religions.

It is apparent that there is a comprehensive spectrum of values, principles, and ideals, ranging from restraint and moderation, on the one hand, to justice and compassion, on the other, at the sanctum sanctorum (the holy of holies) of all our traditions. It is these values which should constitute the ethical core of the global economy. For most of our traditions, though not all, the ultimate source of these values is God. It is because these values are founded in God, they acquire a certain transcendent power and potency. They are perceived as absolute and sacrosanct. For the believer, faith in God therefore becomes an essential condition for sustaining her commitment to these values.

The role of the human being is to translate these divine values into living values. This is part of the human being's mission as God's trustee in Christianity or God's vicegerent in Islam. Transforming the global economy in accordance with spiritual and moral values rooted in God consciousness becomes the human being's special responsibility at this critical juncture in history.

In working towards this transformation, the human being is advised to choose 'the middle way' or 'the middle path'. The middle path avoids the extremes -- the extremes of puritanical asceticism and opulent extravagance. It is significant that the idea of the middle path exists in one form or another in most of the religious and philosophical traditions. In Confucianism, establishing an equilibrium is equivalent to seeking a middle path. For Buddhism, "the Middle Way discovered by the Tathgata (the Buddha) avoids both extremes, giving vision, giving knowledge, it leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana." (1) A Judaic tradition says, "The divine religion does not urge us to lead an ascetic life, but guides us in the middle path, equidistant from the extremes of too much and too little." (2) In Islam, it is the middle nation 'justly balanced' which is worthy of emulation. As stated in the Holy Quran, "Thus have We made you an Ummah [community] justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Apostle a witness over yourselves" (Al Baqarah: 143).

Universal Spiritual and Moral Ethic

We have shown that the different religions and philosophies have so much in common in the values, principles and ideals that they espouse especially in relation to the global economy and the challenges it poses. Indeed, the similarities in their positions are so overwhelming that one can talk with some confidence about the religions evolving a shared universal spiritual and moral ethic vis-à-vis the global economy.

However, for such an ethic to evolve, we have to go beyond our present endeavor. What we have done so far is to encourage each tradition to critique the global economy. But these traditions have not, as yet, really dialogued with one another. It is this inter-religious dialogue that should now start in earnest. A serious, sincere, sustained dialogue among the religious and moral philosophies represented in this study focusing upon the global economy and specific aspects of it, is undoubtedly one of the most urgent tasks facing us today.

In the dialogue we envisage, the shared spiritual and moral values we have discovered will be subjected to in-depth scrutiny. For instance, while justice for the marginalized and downtrodden is our common goal, what exactly does Buddhism or Christianity or Islam mean by justice? Are there shades of difference in the way in which Judaism and Hinduism view compassion? Is interconnectedness in Igbo the same as interconnectedness in Buddhism? Will a Confucian with his understanding of moderation be able to empathize with a Muslim with her understanding of moderation?

By analyzing and exploring the meaning of values and principles that they uphold in common, it is quite conceivable that the followers of the various traditions will realize that while there are many similarities, there may also be subtle, nuanced differences in the way in which certain ideas are understood. This should not worry us. Such differences, put in their proper perspective, could deepen our understanding of the religion of our dialogue partner and even contribute towards strengthening our shared universal spiritual and moral ethic.

30 November 2001

NOTES

1. Thompson, Mel, compiler. 2000. The Wisdom of Buddhism. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, p. 88.

2. Cohn-Sherbock, compiler. 2000. The Wisdom of Judaism. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, p. 155.

 

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