Well-known people such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Pope Leo VIII, Bismarck and Professors Röpke and Böckenförde claim that a market only works in a society of moral subjects because all human beings carry an impartial onlooker within themselves who makes itself felt when s/he does something unethical. With the advent of digitalisation, globalisation, automation, the use of algorithms, big data, industry 4.0, digital twins, avatars and robots, more and more technologies and objects are participating in a market which do not have any ethics of their own accord. If ethics are so important to the market and ethics is needed for the market to function, how do we preserve ethics? Will our future (still) be ethical?
In her latest Duet interview, Dr Caldarola, author of Big Data and Law, and noted pastor Prof. Dr Zeilinger discuss the connection between market and ethics.
Prof. Wilhelm Röpke, a liberal social economist, has made two important statements: (a) The ethical dimension is more important than all economic laws and (b) the market consumes ethics but cannot produce them.1 In a similar vein, the legal philosopher Prof. Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde has also pointed that the state cannot produce the ethics that it uses itself. Ethics is defined as the wisdom of life in accordance with Jewish-Christian sources (e.g., the 10 commandments) or if we consider the Greek wisdom of life, then ethics means do no harm, treat equals equally, protect human dignity, solidarity, compensate for unequal’s, maintain a moderate stance- among other values. What are we to expect when the source of ethics that gives us our life force is dwindling? Or, in other words, do we face economic implosion, strife, or even war with rising lucre?
Prof. Dr Thomas Zeilinger: In your question you mention the rising power of Mammon which brings to mind a quote by the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin: „Where there is danger, rescue grows as well. “ In Hölderlin’s poem, the line refers to the question of God’s presence and/or absence.
So yes, I am convinced that there is a context for what we do which is instructive and formative for our work – and particularly for the economy at large. Whenever an economy seeks to find its ultimate goals in itself, it will be doomed to decay. Money is not an end in itself. We can see that when we consider the history of economy. The trading of goods is right at the beginning of the history of the market. So already the history of the market can instruct us that the purpose of business is not business per se (profit as a formal goal) but business for the sake of a better idea (a welcome or helpful product or service).
If you go back to the etymological roots of the term “economy”, you find the Greek word “oikos”, which means house or household. So, the term economy or economics itself already refers to its primordial goal: to sustain the life of the “oikos”. This may not be the popular understanding of economy prevalent in our present time, but there are more and more economists who see an interdependence between the laws of the market and the larger frame it resides within. This larger frame is set by norms and traditions humans share together – and agree to adhere to for the sake of the common good.
In that regard, the New Testament provides us with another meaningful term from the same Greek roots: “oikumene” – the sum of the places where households come together, which was an expression for Christianity at large. For us today, it also serves as a reminder that we all live together in one big household, that we all have to live together in order to provide a sustainable future for coming generations on this planet as well.
That’s where I come back to Hölderlin: Interestingly, he kept working on the exact wording of his poem during the time of its composition. So, the first line is sometimes different. Originally, the beginning was: “The god is near, and hard to grasp. But where there is danger, rescue grows as well.”
A later version goes: “Full of Mercy. Nobody grasps God alone. But where …” Hölderlin was increasingly convinced that we need each other to understand the world – and that religions need each other to understand God. Life and Purpose are in jeopardy when they only refer to themselves. This then gives us the meaning that danger also includes a perspective for rescue: the insight that we need one another and build up solidarity from there. This is where new ideas can arise and impact economical thinking and entrepreneurial actions.
The Church was basically in charge of ethics until the Renaissance. Then people resisted against the Church’s domination of this issue so that in the 16th and 17th centuries, the idea that the economy should become autonomous became more and more influential, as reflected in the phrase “laissez faire, laissez passer”. Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch doctor and social theorist, wrote a fable on the bee and included this thought: “Pride, luxury and deceit must be there for a people to prosper”. Has that idea been successful? What examples of the consumption of ethics can be identified in the field of digitalisation? The economy sees its future in digitalisation: collecting data, attaching sensors to things (Internet of Things), training algorithms and neuronal networks, using artificial intelligence and big data, to name a few examples. Are we consuming ethics there as well? Or do we require and thus consume ethics solely through the use of these technologies? Are there technical or economic alternatives to ethics?
The collection of data strongly draws from ethical resources, in particular, trust. This is where one danger resides: If you find more and more examples where trust is being breached (as was and is the case with the confidentiality of conversations in the use of voice assistant services like Alexa, Google Now or Siri) then trust is eroded and mistrust settles in. When we trust in technology, we ultimately trust that they were built for the common good (or at least for the personal well-being of the individual). Think of the (implicit) trust you show when you partake in traffic, e.g., crossing a bridge: You trust that the construction of the bridge is stable. It is trust which is fragile, when humans stop believing that technological developments serve a just balance of interests. Looking at the current situation, this lack of faith doesn’t seem to be so much the case with specific companies per se but with the democratic and free-market system in general. Political polarisation and a surge in right-wing movements in North America and in Europa point to a rise in mistrust.
My favourite citation:
“Do not treat prophecies with contempt
but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.“1 Thessalonians 5, 20 – 22
For this reason, it has become crucial for democratic societies, such as the E.U., for example, to discuss and shape a legislative framework for the ways in which (Big) data should legitimately be used. Legal regulation is a significant element in this discussion. On the other hand, it is equally important to work with companies and their employees on the relevance of values like trust, reliability, and accountability to ensure the long-term success of their business.
It must be made clear that there is no either or in the relationship between ethics and technology or ethics and economics: The creation of digital twins or the use of robots can serve ethical ends – and can also be economically sound. The High-Level Group of Experts of the EU-Taskforce on the Use of Artificial Intelligence coined the term “trustworthy AI” to describe this connection. If we do not want to end up in an authoritarian or totalitarian system, societal as well as economic success depends on technology being used in an ethically responsible way.
If ethics is so crucial, are we investing in the right place? I see investments in technology and in new business models. The questions we need to ask ourselves are: What role do humans and machines play? What principles should we be using to steer the digitalisation market? How do we deal with the different types of ethics in the world when these various technologies are being used all over the world? How do we deal with hate speech, bullying, misinformation, violence…? These are all ethical matters and not technical or economic questions. In view of this, shouldn’t we put more resources into ethics? Are we investing in the right places?
Indeed, we do need digital literacy not only regarding “how to” questions of technological functions and economic parameters. We also need a holistic approach to the education needed in the digital age.
Before taking decisions and actions, we should always be asking ourselves the question: “Who do we want to be?” (A question we implicitly always answer with our actions and deeds.) In in these digitalised times, education is facing the challenging task of developing suitable formats which address specific challenges. It should be obvious that we need to put forward the task of an ethically informed digital literacy beginning with children and young adults.
The term lifelong learning, however, applies here too. Continuing education for the employed and in-house training at companies as well as adult education in general, such as for senior citizens, to name one example, all need to play their part in a joined effort to cultivate the digital realm. There are encouraging examples from software engineers and their fields who own up to their ethical responsibilities ‑as the work of the electrical engineer’s association IEEE has shown, an organisation which considers itself to be the world’s largest technical professional body dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity (see www.ieee.org).
The ethical concept of a social market economy was working until the advent of globalisation, as there was an understanding of mandatory social standards at the national but not at the international level. Therefore, we now need a new combination of market and ethics. What will this new mix look like in the age of globalisation and digitalisation? Don’t we need a society that acts in an ethically responsible manner regarding its own part in an economic process – be it as a consumer, as a manager or as an investor? Do we have to accept and agree that certain things – like the environment, human rights… – are non-negotiable? Do we need an ecological tax reform, a tax on damages and not on profits, a technologisation in the context of bionics, etc.?
In terms of an ethically as well as economically sound perspective on the questions you ask, I still recommend the “triple bottom line”-an approach which was derived from the findings of the Brundtland Commission, named after its first head, the then former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Back in the 1980s, the idea of sustainable development was introduced by the United Nations. In the early 1990s, John Elkington and others set up a framework for accounting which not only put forward accountability for economic success (prosperity), but also for social responsibility (people) and for an ecological footprint (planet). I’m not suggesting that the questions of accountability are answered by this approach – as a lot of criticism has shown. But I do think that the underlying idea – in conjunction with the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations still provides the framework – and therefore helps us to develop answers to these political and economic issues.
Should we be developing digitalisation technologies in accordance with bionics, meaning by following natural laws? If so, how does that prerequisite agree with the well-known saying from the Bible: “Subdue the earth and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle and all living things…“ This is how we have God’s commission to us humans from Genesis 1:28”. Isn’t this divine command, as it were, unethical – lacking as it does, an orientation towards human proportions”, which we so urgently need, so that markets function? Or will we subdue the world through digitalisation?
Your questions remind us of an important – and indeed often misunderstood biblical statement. Gen 1:28 has long been understood as a divine mandate for humans to subjugate nature and animals.
Theological discussions following early ecological debates in the 1970s have shed another light on this troublesome quote as well: The so-called “Dominium Terrae” (“subdue…”) would be wrongly interpreted, if humans were seen as sovereigns over nature. In the biblical story of creation, the interwovenness of creation is emphasised in the first sentence, therefore an “independent” understanding of the role of human beings would have to be judged more as a sin than an expression of faith: What humans are asked to see as their role is not to be exempt from natural (biblical: creational) laws and links but to see themselves as responsible for the well-being of creation as a whole: As God’s “delegates” on earth they are called on “to build and to preserve”. This includes the wisdom to respect nature’s laws and limitations. A responsibly administered use of this biblical mandate would mean reconciling nature and technology, not exhausting the one at the expense of the other.
With regard to the idea of bionics, I do not see why the rational reasoning of the mind always needs to be limited by what already exists in nature. Therefore, I expect digitalisation to be potentially able to provide answers for the future of humanity and the planet. We need only think of the possible uses for Big Data analyses for ecological aspects, for example – even if I do not necessarily see the underlying mathematical principle of 0 and 1 as a principle derived from nature. In other words, the human dimension must always be responsibly and reasonably explored in harmony with nature and the (Holy) Spirit.
Prof. Zeilinger, thank you for sharing your insights on the connection between market and ethics.
Thank you, Dr Caldarola, and I look forward to reading your upcoming interviews with recognized experts, delving even deeper into this fascinating topic.
1 Grundtexte zur Sozialen Marktwirtschaft 1, page 439 – 450, citation 448