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Covid-19, the Economy and the Global Common Good: Ethical Reflections One Year into the Crisis

Issues asking for in depth ethical reflection abound these days, whereby social ethics are top on the agenda. Thus, the choice on what to write this blog on has not been easy. A wide range of ecological topics, after by far too long a period of neglect in the Catholic Church have taken up tremendous momentum after the publication of Laudato si’ 2015. They should be high on the agenda, climate change being a global threat that will be harder to fight than even the pandemic. Questions of redistributive justice. i. e. on how to deal with political evils of the colonial (and other) pasts call for profound ethical reflections, not to speak of the wide range of human rights issues. In a “run-away” world, as Anthony Giddens once termed the globalized age, social ethics are thus in high demand. In the end I decided to write on the initial core issue of Catholic Social Thought (CST): economic ethics. My reflections will be fragmentary at best, but can perhaps serve as an impulse for further thought in this theoretically as well as politically highly contested field.

There can be no doubt: The Corona epidemic which struck us totally unexpectedly one year ago also exposed central weaknesses of the global economic system. During the past decades, globalization has pressed ahead at high speed. Its driving force were and are ever more sophisticated technologies starting with the internet in the 1980’s and including a new wave of digitalization, artificial intelligence and robotics in more recent years. The implosion of state communism in Eastern Europe and the subsequent triumph of unbridled (or untamed) market liberalism made for an age in which economic theory and economic actors seemed the new heroes.[1]They were to create wealth and well-being for all on this planet, whereas politics were to humbly follow so as not to hinder their success. The degree of economic interconnectedness that built up during this time is stunning and unprecedented in human history. It has been accompanied by an equally unprecedented growth of the world population from 4,45 billion in 1980 to 7,8 billion in 2020. Each of these humans is an icon of God with human potential and a right to a dignified life. But this also means: Each of these world citizens needs to be provided with the material and immaterial goods for his/her well-being. Thus, the question of economic development and the just distribution of goods constitutes a burning ethical issue. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – as is to be remembered after an age centring exclusively on freedom rights – contains an extensive catalogue of social rights (Art. 22-28). Framing this second part of the seminal document it is stated twice that there exists a political responsibility to guarantee these rights “through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State” (Art 22). And at the end again: “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized” (Art. 28). It has been, I would say, the original sin of the past decades to halve this programme of the world community.[2] Human rights are not a liberalistic instrument. Freedom rights which are to guarantee non-arbitrary treatment by state organs stand on an equal footing with social human rights which require programmatic action by states and the international community. CST has insisted on this from its very beginnings in the 19th century arguing for the common good and against a laissez-faire state, which later had been supplemented by argument for an effective international community. The SDG’s (Sustainable Development Goals) adopted by the General Assembly of the UN in September 2015 in the presence of Pope Francis, who also delivered a speech at this occasion, constitute a concretization of these rights for the 21st century on a global scale.[3]

The grave economic troubles in the wake of the corona pandemic at present lead to a situation in which the positive developments of the past decade, particularly the reduction of absolute poverty as Goal number 1 of the SDG’s, are wiped out and worse is probably to come. As moral philosophers know, one of the most difficult ethical questions is how to strike a balance between two evils. In this case an uncontrolled spread of the pandemic and subsequent deaths and debilitations are to be weighed against slumps in economic production that gravely effect particularly the poor. Information on their lot rarely hits the headlines of international news agencies. What happened to the millions of migrant workers, e. g. in India, who at the outbreak of Covid-19 lost their jobs and were left stranded between their place of employment and their homes to which they were forced to return? Besides this immense plight of individuals, the interconnectedness of the global economic system leads to a breaking of supply chains and thus creates problems in delivery of goods and unemployment on a large scale. These economic effects of the pandemic will probably last for some time to come and we do not know yet, what they will lead to. They may, however, also be an opportunity to think about how to construct the global economy in more humane and ecologically sound ways.

The basic idea of the modern economic system is that wealth is generated through a division of work, originally at the national and in this age at a global scale. The outsourcing of activities to places where production is cheapest led to increases in production. At the same time, it enhanced social inequality, workers receiving scandalously low wages in many countries. Ecologically transport requires an immense quantity of energy when goods are being shipped around the globe damaging unrenewable resources and the climate. Moreover, its results are large and often unknown risks such as the spreading of epidemics, the use of atomic energy and the concentration of production, e. g. of pharmaceuticals, in other parts of the world. Thus, according to announcements the production for the raw material of antibiotics takes place in one production site only in China. If supply chains are impaired, as is presently the case, or if supplies are hijacked by those governments who can pay most or in whose country the production takes place, this shows not only monopolistic dysfunctionalities in the global economic system, it also threatens peace because of rising conflicts of national interest and leads to the worsening of international relations.

In his latest book Let Us Dream Pope Francis also calls for a vision of a new economy after the pandemic. Albeit his views have frequently been discredited as naïve and leftist, we have in a publication tried to show that his intuitions and observations, even if not spelled out in detail, are worth further exploration by economists and ethicists.[4]

One main specificity of the modern economic system is its dynamism. It is driven by technological inventions, division of labour and organizational innovations that are to generate growth. The discovery of the laws of this modern economy often termed capitalism dates from the 18th century. Their famous ancestor was the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) who after his renowned work The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) in which he expounded the idea that humans are guided by sympathy towards their fellow men, in his second work “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (1776) adds as second central principle economic self-interest. This, according to his insights, leads to the welcome result of predictability and efficiency in trade and consumption. His work has been a source of inspiration for economists to this day.[5] The self-regulation of the economy is expressed by the metaphor of the “invisible hand”, which though it appears only thrice in his work has become a catchword for the modern view of economics. In a time when machines started to replace human toil this mechanistic imagery was an indication of hope. “The invisible hand” was equated even with God’s providence for the human race. The technically driven optimism of the age as part of Enlightenment philosophy and ethics constitutes till today the anthropological basis of economic theory, which however afterwards tended to exclude the ethical dimension. Thus, despite impressive discoveries about the functioning of the economy it turned more ideological step by step. The triumph of so called neoliberalism in the aftermath of 1989 was – similar to trends in the 19th century – a climax of these developments, as Centesimus annus (15, 33 et passim) warns. A number of crises, most prominent the financial crisis of 2008/09, showed the cracks in the economic edifice which have become even more apparent in the wake of the Corona crisis.

Renowned economists, many of whom won the Nobel prize, pleaded for a more differentiated view. The line starts with the Indian-American Amartya Sen (1998), for whom economic progress is not an aim in itself but must serve the freedom and development of each and every individual. In his works ethics therefore play a central role. He inspired among other things the Human Development Index (HDI) of the United Nations Development Programme (together with the Pakistani economist Mahbub ul-Haq): a more representative measure of countrywide development than gross national income, that also takes account of life expectancy and years of schooling. Joseph Stieglitz (Nobel Prize 2001) showed that economic imbalances are not automatically equalled out by market forces because of differences in facilities and information. Last but not least to be mentioned are Esther Duflo and Abhijit V. Banerjee who received the Nobel Prize in 2019 for their microanalysis of the lives of the poor and their economic behaviour. To these names many other researchers, such as Jeffrey Sachs, must be added, who pleaded for a reform of the world economic system and an overarching political and ecological global framework. Even the liberal journal The Economist already in 2012 demanded “True Progressivism”, the essence of which must be greater social equality and the taking into account of ecological damage. Calls for solidarity and the care of the common good have thus become definitely more frequent during the past decades also from inside economic science. The weak spots of economic liberalism as the lack of a global rule system that not only regulates trade but also corrects social and ecological externalities through global treaties are recognized today much more widely. It is also understood that rules must be based on an ethos of solidarity, sufficiency and gratitude since the economy is based on human relations in a wider sense, as recently has been the plea of economists like Elena Lasida.[6]

Many of these findings and positions are not so far from the economic ethics of CST as expounded in Rerum novarum (1891) and later documents which stress the ethical importance of individual morality and an attitude of compassion and sympathy. Other elements are the acknowledgment of competition as a double-edged sword and the inability of the market to correct social and ecological imbalances (externalities). All this requires a political order responsible for the common good and an effective and just rule system. In an age of globalization this has to encompass a global legal framework based on universal social rights. This in a way banal insight has been stressed by CST ever since Pacem in terris (1963) and Gaudium et spes (1965), whereby the remarkable Bishops’ Synod of 1971 is particularly to be mentioned which in its final document De iustitia in mundo predicted the dilemmas caused by environmental damage. So there have been prophetic voices last but not least from the magisterium, which are worth studying today.

This short outline ekes out some of the cornerstones of CST. It also obliges us to resist rather powerful economic and political ideologies based on a market fundamentalism, which may be summed up in the creed: Markets are and were always right! They create wealth and the common good is their automatic outcome. State interventions, according to this position, are therefore counterproductive (whereby it remains open whether the proponents of those views also opt against the exorbitant subsidies to enterprises already prior to and particularly during the Corona crisis). The somewhat simplistic view that social justice is brought about by the market is thereby less and less anchored in the academic economic mainstream. It is, however, promoted, by institutions with a libertarian agenda, often sponsored by large scale industry, which also tend towards a denial or playing down of climate change. This mindset  is often found to go hand in hand with right wing political positions. What is most surprising is that such views, which are at loggerheads with CST and the magisterium of the present pope (cf. Evangelii gaudium 50-60; 176-183; Laudato si’; Fratelli tutti), are also well established in Catholic institutions, mainly in the US.[7] It is disconcerting when such a libertarian view opting for deregulation bands together with nationalist positions rejecting any rule based economic multilateralism following the creed: My country first! One need not be a pessimist to foresee that such contradictory views could cause global havoc.

An economic world regime may be harder to accomplish now than was the case 30 years ago. The neglect of social human rights and the marginalization of CST (also in the Catholic Church) thus came and comes at a high price in human lives as well as in political cooperation on the global level.[8] The famous phrase of Paul VI, that development is the new name for peace, is still valid (Populorum progressio 76f). It should be at the centre of reflections that are to inspire the development of better instruments and attitudes to realize the global common good. In this sense the document presented at the World Day of Peace for 2021 by Pope Francis takes up some old demands, such as that of a Global Fund supplied with money not spent on arms (Art. 8), and formulates new ones.[9]

The Corona crisis is a shock. It can, however, also be understood as a small window of opportunity to pose questions about the common destiny of humanity and institute a more just order. Ethical questions, on how to distribute vaccines should lead to a wider debate on how to distribute goods in general. The call of the World Health Organisation for a just worldwide distribution is being taken up by the Catholic Church. It can, however, only be effective if the international regime is able to efficiently distribute vaccines (the problems are shown by the meagre success in coordinating the states of the EU) and keep states from using it as a political tool.

The present pontificate has put CST high on its agenda and the Catholic Church could thus win back some terrain and credibility in the social and ecological field.  Pope Francis’ courageous and clear sighted outcry about human misery and the need of global and national just distribution of goods are morally and theologically of primary importance. They can help to create bridges not only to the secular world but also to many religious actors.

To develop new visions of a more socially equal, less violent, a greener and a more humane economy remains an encompassing project for Corona and post-Corona-times: Justice at a world level underpinned by empathy and solidarity, the belief in the worth of the person and his/her abilities to creatively steer their lives, a sense of measure, of sharing and renunciation with regard to material goods, an ecologically valid lifestyle and the care for the common good of all are not easy to be had. They require a serious interest for the further development of economics as well as ethical discernments. These lines cannot be more than a short mapping out of this terrain too rarely treated in Catholic academia be it because of its complexity or uneasiness because of its ideological baggage.

In this sense I want to close with a hope-giving citation from Laudato si’ and an inspiring notice that shows its validity:

We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile (LS 212).

I thought of this when I read in the introduction to Poor Economics, Esther Duflo’s Nobel Prize winning work, that it was a word from Mother Teresa which she read as a child at the age of six that steered her interest in fighting poverty and set her on her path of economic research.[10]

[1] Thereby it remains somewhat astonishing that the triumph of economic liberalism forgot about the fact that China and other East Asian countries such as Vietnam continue to abide by an adapted Communist Marxist ideology.

[2] In detail Ingeborg G. Gabriel: Ethik des Politischen (Echter: Würzburg 2020).

[3] For implementation see; (accessed 21.2.21).

[4] Ingeborg Gabriel with Peter G. Kirchschläger/Richard Sturn:, Eine Wirtschaft, die Leben fördert. Wirtschafts- und unternehmensethische Reflexionen im Anschluss an Papst Franziskus (Grünewald: Ostfildern 2017), particularly 9-22.

[5] Adam Smith’s “architectonic principles” still give guidance to the development of economics: Heinz D. Kurz/ Richard Sturn; Die größten Ökonomen: Adam Smith (UVK Konstanz 2013), p. 6; Cf also Lisa Herzog: Inventing the Market. Smith, Hegel and Political Theory (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2013).

[6] Elena Lasida: Le gout de l’autre (Albin Michel : Paris 2018)

[7] For an overview cf. Daniel Saudek: Preferential Option for the Rich: (accessed 22.02.21): with regard to foundations Christopher Lamb, The Outsider. Pope Francis and his battle to reform the church (Orbis books: Maryknoll 2020). For earlier attempts to politically misuse CST for the neoliberal agenda cf. Jesse Russell, The Catholic Neoconservative Misreading of John Paul’s Centesimus Annus Revisited: Political Theology 21 (2020), 172-191.

[8] For an excellent historic overview see Samuel Moyn: Not Enough. Human Rights in an Unequal World (Harvard University Press: Harvard 2018).

[9] Cf. (accessed 23.02.21)

[10] Abhijit V. Banerjee/Esther Duflo: Poor Economics. A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (Penguin: London 2012).