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Leading Brisbane bioethicist discusses what would make a moral economy after COVID-19

Dr David Kirchhoffer: “The economy, unlike those other goods that are good in themselves, is not an end in itself.”

By Dr David Kirchhoffer

I WAS recently asked by a group of seminarians at Holy Spirit Seminary in Banyo, about, ‘What kind of economy we ought to have from a Christian ethical perspective?’

I am not an economist and I won’t answer this question as an economist.

Instead, I shall focus on the ethical perspective, that is, “What kind of economy ought we to create?”

As a theological ethicist, I do so from a perspective that is theological.

That is, I begin from a number of assumptions about what kind of world we live in, about what is good, and what is meaningful and valuable.

So, my theological ethical perspective is coloured, if you will, by the rational belief that the universe is a meaningful and purposeful place.

It is meaningful and purposeful precisely because this universe is willed by a loving God.

God wants it to exist and this God has been revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The core meaning of this incarnation is that God cares about human beings—every individual human being— and that God cares about all of God’s creation.

God deepest desire is the establishment of a reign that is characterized by justice, peace, and joy (Rom 14:17).

Justice, peace, and joy are good things.

They are values in and of themselves, and the things created by God, the human beings and all the natural world, are also good things in and of themselves.

Why is this important? Because it means we can say, very clearly, something about the economy.

The economy, unlike those other goods that are good in themselves, is not an end in itself.

‘The Economy’ is not an intrinsically good thing.

Rather, the economy is merely an instrumental good.

The economy is good because it serves the purposes of human beings.

Economies exist to serve some other good that must be good in itself.

From a Christian perspective, that good is God, the reign of God, the realm of justice, peace, and joy.

So, every human being and all of creation are the goods that the economy is meant to serve.

These are the things that have intrinsic value.

They are willed by God.

Neither money, nor the economy, nor in fact any human institution can be said to be willed by God in the same kind of way.

Work issues

Working morally: So, every human being and all of creation are the goods that the economy is meant to serve. Photo: CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters

So, no kind of human institution can be said to have that same kind of intrinsic value, that intrinsic worth for which we use the word dignity.

We can speak of the dignity of human beings or the dignity of creation, but it makes no sense to speak of the dignity of the economy.

Pope Saint John Paul II said in Laborem Exercens (1981), that we can say the economy was made for human beings, not human beings for the economy.

An economy that necessarily excludes some people from participation or that necessarily means some people have no choice but to engage in degrading working conditions cannot be said to be a morally good economy.

It is definitely a morally problematic economy, and it certainly does not seem to serve the end of the intrinsic worth of every human being.

The good news is that there are other ways of conceiving of the economy that better correspond to the kinds of worth and value that we are interested in.

One way derives from the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, an economist and a philosopher respectively, who talk about human capabilities.

The idea is to build an economy in which these fundamental human capabilities can really find expression.

These capabilities include our freedom, our rationality, but also our capacity to love, to play, to laugh, to create, and to strive.

These capabilities together are the kind of capacities that we want our economy to facilitate, to provide opportunities for.

Through the expression of these capabilities, human beings flourish.

There are three big philosophical or economical movements that help us to see that such an economy is not simply a pipe dream.

There are workable solutions where we can really build economies that attend to human beings and to creation in a way that acknowledges their dignity and fosters their flourishing.

I shall address these briefly, but they obviously deserve much more than I can offer here.

The first example is Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus.

Yunus’s microfinance model makes small loans, primarily to women, to start their own businesses.

They are very short-term loans.

Let us say there is an identified need for a sewing business.

A woman is provided money to buy the sewing machine necessary to begin that business in the village and pays that loan back very quickly.

What is important about this model is that, unlike the standard models of lending that we are all familiar with, this kind of lending does not see a poor person with no income as a high risk.

Typically, people with no income are judged high risk for a lender.

If lenders do give them money, the lender tends to charge a much higher interest rate than they would charge someone who has a high income.

So, a person is penalized for being poor.

In the Grameen model, the opposite is the case.

This person is treated as a person who is sincere in their attempt to bring themselves out of poverty by starting a small business to meet an identified need.

They are treated as a person of authenticity and integrity who will pay back a loan.

So instead of charging a higher loan, the recognition that this person has less money means that the bank charges the lowest possible interest rate.

This is a very successful model, but at its core, from an ethical perspective, is the fascinating change in the assumption about the person who is actually borrowing the money.


Reaching out: New models of economics that prioritise dignity could be the way out of poverty for millions.

The second example is the Basic Income Grant or Universal Basic Income movement.

Basic Income Grants are interesting in that they start on the underlining assumption that what people really need is to freely exercise choice in how, when, and where they work, and the kinds of work they do.

In other words, in our current economy, a lot of the work we do is not by choice: it’s work we have to do.

If we were to remove the economic incentive, the monetary incentive for work, what would you do? It’s a fascinating question to contemplate.

What would you do if money was not an issue, if you didn’t need money in the first place?

If the money you needed to live was not linked to the work that you needed to do.

So, the idea in the basic income grant is that everybody gets provided with a basic income and that frees people up to do what they truly believe to be meaningful.

That may mean they go and do work in order precisely to earn money so that they can go and buy a better television.

It also means a large amount of unpaid work that is now, at the moment, not monetised in any way in our economy is really given the opportunity to flourish.

One thinks of artists and creative works, one thinks of child care, one thinks of all the volunteer work in the care of elderly people, and other things which people would now be free to do because they wouldn’t have to find work in order to earn money and so have to give their childcare over to someone else; they will be able to look after the kids themselves, as an example.

The third movement emphasises not so much freedom, but meaning.

So here the idea is, it’s not enough merely to say that human beings should be free to choose, but rather that we want to focus on how people engage in work that is truly meaningful.

So that it is about creating a correspondence between the kind of work I do and my deepest values, my deepest convictions.

The opposite of which is a sense of alienation: I work because I need the money but I’m not really in any way, as a human being, attached to that work.

I’m alienated from myself through the action of working.

So, in the meaningful work paradigm, my work becomes true to who I am.

It is similar to the idea of a dignity of work, and there are models that exist that help to explain this.

One of these is labour-owned companies, i.e., giving labour, the workers in a company, a share in ownership of the company.

That is not merely an economic incentive but also engages them in the decision making of the company.

They can see that their work is part of a bigger picture to which they commit themselves because they agree with the mission, goals, and purpose of the company and the product that it makes.

It is a much richer conception of how you engage labour in the decision-making processes of companies.

My colleague, Stewart Braun, in the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy at ACU has done a lot of work in this area and it is worth finding out more about it.


Not just money: Dr Kirchhoffer says models like labour-owned companies could create industries where work is more fulfilling because employees are included in decision-making.

In a time of crisis, like this one, where COVID-19 has put a huge dent in the economy, as in times of war and post war, there is an opportunity to reset the economy and to see where opportunities exist to create better economies, i.e., economies that really serve the goods of human beings.

The Old Testament is full of ideas like this, such as the idea of the sabbatical year or the Jubilee year.

At the end of the last century, the Jubilee 2000 Campaign advocated for the cancellation of debts for developing countries.

The current crisis similarly presents an opportunity for us to reset and to ask, where can we cancel the debts (not merely financial, but circumstantial and socio-demographic) so that people are able to begin again?

Put another way, where are we able to remove the imbalances, the privilege, that puts some people way ahead of others so that people are forced into an economy where they don’t have real choices, where they are forced to accept work that is demeaning or where they find themselves in situations where they cannot even get work and actively participate in an economy?

The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, pushed many people into social isolation, and in that social distancing we have turned to technology to be able to communicate.

Many people have worked from home and discovered that, in fact, that’s not such a bad idea.

Working from home has a number of advantages.

Many people have become more productive.

They have actually been in more contact with people by virtue of the technology that is available than they might have otherwise been because the circle of people they come into contact with in a way is now bigger not smaller by virtue of what the technology can do.

They have become more productive because there are fewer distractions.

They have cut out the two-hour commute to work, which means they have more time to spend with their families.

That is one example of how we could really ask, how do we integrate this better into our existing economy?

We take cars off the road, we have more time to spend with families, we have increased productivity, and people can take ownership of how and when they work so there is more freedom in their engagement.

That is one example, I think, of where there is a real opportunity for us now to think about how we can make a more humane economy.

This brings me now to my final point, because it is not only for human beings that Jesus was incarnated, but for the whole world, for all of creation.

Scripture is full of references to creation and how creation is also part of God’s plan for salvation.

So, in the spirit of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ (his encyclical on creation and the environment) we might expand on what Pope John Paul II said and say not only that the economy must serve man not man the economy, but also that all of creation was not made for the economy and that the economy must therefore serve the good of creation.

One thing is clear, our present economy does not do this.

The outbreak of a disease like COVID-19, which is a so-called zoonotic disease (a disease that is transmitted from animals to human beings) has been linked to our disregard for ecology.

As human beings have pressed always further and further into the few wild spaces left, we come into contact with new animals and new diseases.

We upset the ecology that is at play in those environments and this exposes us in turn; it has an effect.

Pandemic: As human beings have pressed always further and further into the few wild spaces left, we come into contact with new animals and new diseases. Photo: CNS

As we affect the ecology, so the ecology affects us.

There are numerous examples in the scientific literature of this.

One very simple example of this is when farmers poisoned eagles in an effort to protect their lambs from predatory birds.

But because the eagles were no longer there, their normal prey populations exploded and ate much of the grazing and so a vicious cycle ensued.

So, there is a whole new movement to bring the eagles back and leopards and wolves and other things into a productive co-existence with pastoralists around the world.

It really is a fascinating work.

The point of this is that there really are ways in which we can co-operate with creation, with nature, rather than to always seek to overpower it, to dominate it.

This is what lies behind the philosophy of One Health which is driving much of the work of World Health Organisation.

One Health is a collaboration between scientists and philosophers to work on how we can understand health from a broader perspective.

Animal health and environmental health are of course linked to human health and if we hold those things together, we can far more effectively deal with the threats of these kinds of diseases in the future.

So, in the post-COVID economy, there is a real opportunity to make a positive impact on the non-human natural environment and it starts with our economy and how we engage in that economy.

It starts with not having to do the two-hour commute, not having to drive to work every day.

It starts with being able to buy local products; during COVID we haven’t been able to access all the foreign products that we might have otherwise accessed.

In short, we have the opportunity to recalibrate the economy by living simply so we have more time to live a fully human life by achieving fully meaningful things, by focusing on the things that really matter.

Dr David Kirchhoffer is the director at the Queensland Bioethics Centre at the Australian Catholic University.

Written by: Guest Contributor
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