Social Justice

A full theological appreciation of wealth, however, must see it as a shared human asset and not just as a matter of individual possessions and how they are to be used responsibly. The steady Christian tradition, stemming from the theology of creation, views the world's resources as brought into existence to meet and satisfy the needs of all God's human creatures. Hence a consideration of the responsibilities which wealth brings cannot ignore the economic structures of capitalism and the market economy which are now most common in modern society, and which have proved most effective as contrasted with socialist models and the command economies which until recently characterized Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The importance of shared human well-being as the ultimate goal of wealth is highlighted for Christians by one insight which all their beliefs have in common: the fact and the challenge of human solidarity. God's enterprise of creation, salvation and completion is viewed as one which encompasses humanity as a whole. The divine moral commandment to be found in Judaism and singled out by Jesus, to love one's neighbour, places no conditions on who among one's fellows is to qualify as neighbour—unless it be those particularly who are most in need (cf. Luke 10:25-37). Christianity as a whole thus finds itself at odds with any view of society which depends on or leads to any form of elitism, adversarialism or alienation, whether of ethnic origin, sex, class, or geographical location or wealth.

It is thus incumbent on Christianity to scrutinize and where necessary to de-absolutize all worldly structures, whether of a political, social, or economic nature, against this criterion of a shared human destiny for all the earth's present and future inhabitants. One consequence which follows from this is the duty incumbent on society to ensure that various economic instruments are not regarded ideologically as ends in themselves, and to contrive that whatever economic success they produce is not gained for some of its members to the ultimate social detriment of their fellows.

For all their evident economic success in history, particularly as compared with alternative systems, capitalism and the market economy arouse misgivings for many Christians which can be summed up as their relying for their success on human self-interest and on competition. Such reliance appears tantamount to accepting, on the one hand, individual acquisitiveness and greed as the engine of wealth creation, and, on the other, a zero-sum game, which inevitably creates losers as well as winners, sometimes with dire economic consequences for the loser and his or her dependants and for whole countries, and frequently also with resulting loss in self-esteem or in the perception of one's social worth. It is not clear, however, that the arguments adduced against competitiveness among humans, namely that it creates losers and that by accepting inequalities it undermines human dignity, are as compelling as some would maintain. For human equality takes a variety of forms. Within a religious context it is a commonly held belief that all human creatures without exception are equal in the sight of God, and are thus as his creatures entitled to equal respect and treatment simply as human beings, a belief which provides the religious basis for the popular and increasingly important idea of universal human rights. Another expression or form of equality concerns not just equality of treatment but equality of access to various resources within society, and equality of opportunity to engage in social activities, whether as individuals, or as groups within society, or as nations on the international scene. Here there appears little scope for disagreement and much to be done to promote such fairness of access and of opportunities, by creating and building upon various forms of human cooperation in society, rather than relying simply on impersonal factors of supply and demand.

Where, however, matters may become more problematic is in a third form of equality advocated by some in society on almost ideological grounds, namely, equality of outcome or of results. For this seeks to eliminate or to prevent disparities in the achievements of individuals on the ground that this diminishes the worth of those who turn out to be less successful. But there is a difficulty in arguing for such a view of equality of outcome as essential to maintaining respect for individuals. For the argument itself presupposes that human worth is dependent on achievements or on merits, rather than being an inherent quality which belongs as a matter of human right to all individuals, regardless of their performance in any human or social arena.

However, what the stress on equality, including equality of outcome, does serve to highlight is that in society no-one should suffer unduly from economic failure or from the lack of material resources or welfare as a result of the workings of a free market. And that safeguarding against such consequences is a social duty which falls upon all in society, including businesses, as a matter of distributive justice and taxation policy. It does not necessarily invalidate the principle of the market economy, although it clearly sets some limits to its wider consequences in society. For the free market is simply at best an economic instrument which may be given its place in society, provided that place is limited, and provided that the economic values of efficiency and profitability are not considered to be the be-all and end-all of social living. The ethically important point is to ensure that lack of success in the creation of wealth does not lead to human impoverishment and diminishment; to accept that capitalism is a good servant, but a bad master; that it has its rightful place in modern society, but that that place needs to be carefully identified and continually monitored, and its economic consequences to be remedied by positive social measures at national, continental and international levels. Concern for the victims of competition, whether as individuals in the labour market or as less developed nations in the global market, requires society to create structures, from individual and family welfare provision to World Bank programmes, which will satisfy the claims of social justice and, while respecting the inherent dignity of individual persons and peoples, will contribute in some degree to distributing the wealth created within a society by business. Hence also the requirement on society to monitor and regulate the conduct of business in its enterprise of wealth-creation, and to encourage business to fulfil its primary ethical purpose of providing a service of value to society and of making its profit in the process.

This reference to profit recalls the other major misgiving with which many Christians regard the entire enterprise of business, that it is motivated by self-interest and acquisitiveness, which appear scarcely honourable reasons for engaging in the creation or possessing of wealth. There is no doubt that many abuses of the power of business are the result of greed, whether on a petty individual or on a colossal international scale. Nevertheless, there can be a legitimate and even desirable place for a measure of self-concern and self-interest in one's conduct. It seems an unduly ascetical approach, even bordering on the Jansenist, which would require individuals to be entirely other-regarding in their behaviour.

A healthy spiritual theology takes into account the proper flourishing of the human self uniquely created by God, while it does not concentrate exclusively on cultivating one's own spiritual well-being. The entire enterprise of Christian medical ethics has as one of its pillars the duty of individuals to safeguard and protect the life and health with which God has endowed them, while not necessarily making physical well-being their top priority in life. Likewise, there seems to be no Christian reason why of all the spheres of human existence and activity one's material well-being should be matter for disapproval or suspicion. That having been said, however, and a legitimate place accorded to a certain measure of concern for self in all one's activities, there remains here also, as in the spiritual and the health-care areas of life, the possibility of concentrating exclusively on one's own material or financial interests, frequently involving in business the pursuit of a competitive advantage over others. What this possibility of excessive concern for the profit motive perhaps exemplifies is the perennial tension to be found between regard for the self and regard for others in society and the need to seek continually to balance the two.

For the Christian belief in the solidarity of humanity in its creation and destiny which we have earlier considered does not absorb in anonymous collectivism the value, worth and interests of individuals, any more than its belief in the dignity and vocation unique to each human being fragments society into solitary adversarial individualism. Indeed, contemporary Christianity proposes two ways in which the relationship between the individual and society can be more positively expressed and advanced, with consequences for social conduct, including the conduct of business. One is to take up and develop the biblical idea of covenant as a model for all truly human relationships and for the mutual respect and regard which should characterize them. The divine bonding initiated by God with Adam, Noah, Abraham and the people of Israel and, as Christians believe, renewed with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, goes far beyond contractual rights and responsibilities, to inculcate a view of human existence in the world as a gift to be received from God in gratitude, to be held in mutual promise and trust, and to be administered and developed in stewardship.

In this approach the Christian Church can be viewed as the community of the new covenant, called to exercise towards and among its own members the covenant qualities identified above, but also called to epitomize for society the promise and even now the possibility of forming a truly human community characterized by such qualities. Historically, it must be confessed, the absorption with wealth and riches from which the Church has suffered at various periods, and the abuses of power to which this gave rise, have been frequently more a scandal than an inspiration to society. Yet the Christian belief in the Church as at least capable of providing a living instance and exemplar of covenant relationships can indicate how relationships between men and women throughout society as part of the universal creative, incarnational and fulfilling work of God can also be viewed as ideally covenantal. As such they do not constitute an arena for convenience, self-interest and destructive rivalry, but rather provide a partnership of solidarity and mutuality based on a shared pledge and commitment to a common purpose, within which place can still be found for self-interest and individual enterprise and success.

Freely entering into, or willingly acknowledging, such a covenant with one's fellows is the supreme exercise of individual choice and of moral responsibility; whereas disrupting or repudiating a covenantal relationship is an act of irresponsibility and self-seeking more than it is the genuine expression of individual freedom. The consequence of such an approach to business relationships in society is to invest them with a quality and a texture much richer than the requirements of purely contractual or legal compliance, and to introduce into the consideration of business decisions human and relational factors of which the terminology of stakeholders can be only a pale expression.

The other Christian approach in recent times to identifying and promoting a positive relationship between the community and the individual is to explore the nature of human personhood as offering a bridge between the two. In this view, Western philosophical theories and popular traditions which have stressed the radical distinction between human individuals have usefully done so in order to vindicate and enhance the identity, autonomy and the social, political and economic independence of all human beings. In so doing, however, they have worked in a vacuum which takes no account of the inherently social disposition of humanity, and of the possibility of relationships which express not just human dependence or independence, but the richer quality of human interdependence.

This human characteristic of individuals interacting in community is what the concept of person attempts to express, as, for instance, when it views life in community not just as providing individuals with the occasion to claim various human rights, but also regards living responsibly in community as providing a balancing context for moderating the claim and exercise of such rights. It acknowledges the importance of community support and structures for the development and flourishing of individuals, while at the same time it recognizes the worth and significance of individuals in contributing to the maintenance and prospering of their fellows and of the community which they share. The implication of such an understanding of the human person for ethical behaviour in all human activities, including business, is to view not only collectivism but also individualism as depriving both individuals and communities of the respective strengths which they contribute to, and derive from, each other. In particular it includes the challenge to the necessarily collective nature of much modern business activity to recognize and encourage, rather than suppress, the contributions which individuals can uniquely and valuably make, including their moral insights, when all are engaged in a shared communal enterprise.

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