I would be prepared to bet that most followers of any of the main faiths, including Christianity, would be comfortable with the notion that their faith led to moral behaviour. When it comes to revealing our ethical principles as they show up in economics and social policy there should be a little more uncertainty because of the operation of what the economists like to call the Pareto Principle. In broad terms the Pareto Principle says that as conditions are altered to advantage an individual, group or even a nation there is always the risk that the alteration disadvantages others.
In its simplest form when resources are finite, giving a larger share to one group, means less for others. Ethical behaviour is normally expected to ensure that harm to others is minimised but this is rather easier to ensure if the total group affected is very small. As a group grows in size and diversity it is uncomfortably easy to lose sight of what happens to the vulnerable. Because human groups operate most closely at the family or community level, it is easy for religious groups such as congregations or denominations to become insulated from seeing potential harm from actions when the harm is often far removed from those involved in the action. The consequent metaphorical sleepwalking (or even the walking dead) through such developing situations clinging tenaciously to failed theories is what causes some economists like Brian Easton to favour the term zombienomics.
Historically it is easy to find examples of developing imposed disadvantages. At a state or nation level we have the example of colonialism. The colonial action is predictably designed to further the interests of the colonial power. All too often that has resulted in the shifting of control of resources and land to the colonists and their sponsors, and as a consequence the erosion of rights of the indigenous people thus colonised. A second common example at the international level arises because each state or nation has to give some priority to looking after the interests of its own people. Trade is all too often arranged with little regard for the interests of trading partners. Barriers to competition, asset stripping, high interest loans under the guise of trade, and a callous disregard for the plight of refugees or victims of environmental disaster, many of them caused by unwise practices of those trying to exploit natural resources, combine to give some of the world’s people distinctly unequal opportunities. A focus on what happens at local level can blind us to what our policies are doing elsewhere.
At a more local level another common problem is caused through tax changes. Politicians naturally wish to safeguard the interests of those they represent and who give them support. A right wing government would traditionally shift the burden of taxation so that the wealthy had more preferential treatment. While they would intend to provide opportunity and incentive for the economically vulnerable, and might normally argue that this form of tax break encourages business owners to employ more people in their businesses, historically this can and often does mean a spike in child poverty. Another area that often escapes attention is the callous disregard for traditional culture and family structure and values. For example forcing a mother out to work when she comes from a culture that places high value on the mother’s place in homemaking may create other problems. The assumption that the poor family possess no other form of wealth or value other than that decided as important by the imposed policy makers might be unwarranted. The replacement of mixed subsistence farming with single crop mega farms with chemical support has done immense environmental damage in some parts of the world and sometimes proved totally destructive to the survival of local people.
Realistically we cannot expect such serious situations to be readily resolved, but it maybe that if those who do claim the moral high ground as Christians or members of some other mainstream faith, they should be sufficiently alert and self aware to know whether or not their actions do actually show awareness and a willingness to respond when policy changes create the problems.
On the positive side it is intriguing that certain religious groups eventually become recognised for specific moral responses. For example the Jehovah’s witnesses are known to be conscientious objectors, the Quakers are known to be pacifists and peace makers, the Salvation Army to be concerned with those at the bottom end of society, the Roman Catholics for their Liberation Theology in South America, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the Anglicans and Methodists for their City missions and so forth.
Nevertheless there is a notable lack of concern for the plight of the world’s refugees, a lack of insistence that the current imbalance between arms and food be addressed and little sign of a genuine interest in legislation that addresses the needs of those affected by the unequal struggle for resources. It is common for a nation to become a reluctant giver to United Nations programmes and without watchdog activity from groups claiming moral concern there is little effective pressure to change the status quo.Even in the unusual circumstances whereby a rich country is allowing up to 1% of GDP to be spent on overseas aid, there would be few examples of aid whereby the donor country does not see that it is to their advantage to give at least part of that aid. For example all too often development loans are required to be repaid, and often aid is given to stabilise a neighbouring region with the real agenda being more a focus on the reduction of potential future threats to the donor country. In any event looking to the genuine well-being of the less well off is rather more than the creation of development capital. The trouble is that economics traditionally focuses on material wellbeing and material wealth, whereas cultural factors, feelings of security, happiness and freedom from worry are still concerns if we claim a genuine interest in those we profess to care for. These all require much more than a casual interest and token aid. Engagement at people-level rather than statistical review is called for.
The faith response is sometimes quite muted in response to situations of extreme need. Whereas a group of Churches may be persuaded to give immediate relief to a spectacular disaster in a nearby region, the long term relief which is often what is really needed tends to disappear under a growing tide of competing interest groups and general apathy as the disaster is supplanted by that which is more recent elsewhere. A classic example is what happened in Haiti where the long term recovery from an earthquake was hampered by unseemly competition between various church and aid groups vying for kudos and apparently lacking in interest in the long term welfare of the victims. Public prayers for the victims may be a poor substitute for remedial policy action.
The implied warning of the term Zombienomics is that unless we are fully awake these worsening situations are exacerbated. We can hardly claim to be interested in taking an ethical position unless we are first prepared to look closely at what is happening. Since Christians traditionally point to the need to focus on issues of justice, poverty and inequality, it may be high time that some of the major Churches did a reality check to see if they are serious about such issues. The success of moral decisions has a prerequisite that first the potential problem areas are closely monitored. A minimum question is to ask to what extent such monitoring procedures have been put in place? Are the statistics for points of potential inequality collected and part of policy formation? Remember this has to include social indicators like identifying inequalities of income, employment, crime, punishment, immigration, refugee resettlement, and even potential causes of unhappiness like occurrence of prejudice. Have, for example, the churches contracted trained economists, sociologists, peacemakers and international lawyers to keep them informed on problems as they arise. Since the call for response to disaster is a regular occurrence, surely the moral requirement is to be prepared. Are the minimal requirements for disaster relief being set in place? Are there for example, professional aid teams trained and ready to go to a disaster situation? Are the emergency kits assembled, the field hospitals ready to go, and the required and available personnel identified in advance.
The question is not whether or not Christians should have interest in questions of social justice. The real question is whether or not the followers of the faith are serious about wishing those questions to be answered with appropriate action, or by default whether the comfortable past practices are intended to be the basis for a further round of zombienomics.