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Global Crises are Spiritual: A Time for Awakening
In modern economic thinking, greed and selfishness are upheld as guiding the ‘invisible hand’ of the market and are therefore exempt from moral consideration. It is time for us to redefine our values and build a just economy for the common good
Many sages, philosophers and theologians throughout history have reminded us that there are two forces at work in society, the material and the spiritual. If either of these two is neglected or ignored they will appear to be at odds with one another: society will inevitably becomes fragmented, divisions and rifts will manifest themselves with increasing force and frequency.
It is clear that this is exactly what has happened today. We have a situation of disequilibrium and disharmony. Only the reawakening of the human spirit will save us from our own worst extremes. Physical wealth must go hand in hand with spiritual, moral and ethical wealth.
Since the collapse of the financial, banking and economic sectors, many articles, papers and books have been written on why such scandals took place, on what went wrong. However, these analyses, by and large, are mostly on the economics of the crisis and in turn suggest economic- only- solutions. But as we can most clearly see, the more economic tools are employed, the deeper the crisis becomes.
Those with a more spiritual disposition, with an eye on common sense, all agree on the role of one vital element in all these crises: dishonesty fuelled by greed. We forget at our own peril that honesty and greed are essentially spiritual and moral issues. Furthermore, they know that no part of human life can operate without these values, not least the sphere of business, commerce, media and government.
The greed-motivated neo-liberal capitalist world is out of control. Perhaps it is time for us to redefine our values by acknowledging that the marketplace is not just an economic sphere, ‘it is a region of the human spirit’.
Although self-interest and economic considerations are 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 dimension, because each decision we make affects not only ourselves but others too.
Spiritual Crisis: What is to be done?
Living happily is “the desire of us all, but our minds are blinded to a clear vision of just what it is that makes life happy”. The root of happiness is ethical behaviour, and thus the ancient idea of moral education and cultivation, is essential to the ideal of joyfulness.
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 recognised and much valued. A necessary step in this journey of self-discovery 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 realise their potential.
In order to arrive at such understanding, my first recommendation is for us to 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.
In all, the focus of economics should be on the benefit and bounty that the economy produces, on how to let this bounty increase, and how to share the benefits justly among the people for the common good, removing the obstacles that hinder this process. Above all else the purpose of the economy is to provide basic human needs as well as the means of establishing, maintaining, and nurturing human relationships while dealing justly with future generations (sustainability) and ethically with all life on earth (ecological balance).
Here we should 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, and his belief that a ‘divine Being’ gives us ‘the greatest quantity of happiness’.
We are taught that the free market as a ‘way of life’ appealed to Adam Smith but not that he distrusted the morality of the market as a 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.
In summary, with each passing day, it is also increasingly evident in every corner of our world that great change is upon us and that by standing together in mutual respect, honour and dignity for one another, we will answer this call with creative, viable and sustainable solutions.
We must take the necessary steps now to reach out to our fellow humans and extend our hand in forgiveness, acceptance and genuine friendship. Our choices will be made from compassion while embracing the richness of our amazing diversity. The love and acceptance we have for ourselves will be the source of our strength to assist others. Together we can and will make a difference through dialogue of civilisations and consideration of the common good.
Look around you; do you see an alternative path? In the wise words of the Persian sage and poet, Rumi, “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.”