Is the mar­ket val­ue of ethics on the rise?

Prof. Dr Thomas Zeilinger

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

About me and my guest

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola, LL.M., MBA is the host of “Duet Interviews”, co-founder and CEO of CU³IC UG, a consultancy specialising in systematic approaches to innovation, such as algorithmic IP data analysis and cross-industry search for innovation solutions.

Cristina is a well-regarded legal expert in licensing, patents, trademarks, domains, software, data protection, cloud, big data, digital eco-systems and industry 4.0.

A TRIUM MBA, Cristina is also a frequent keynote speaker, a lecturer at St. Gallen, and the co-author of the recently published Big Data and Law now available in English, German and Mandarin editions.

Prof. Dr Thomas Zeilinger

Prof. Dr. Thomas Zeilinger is a representative of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Munich Bavaria for ethics in dialogue with technology and natural science. From 2002 to 2017 he worked at the Institute "personality+ethics" on topics concerning ethical orientation in professional contexts. Prof. Zeilinger received his doctorate in 1998 on the interpretation of trans-individual phenomena (“Between spaces. Theology of powers and forces”). From 2002 to 2005 he supported the project "Networked Church" of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Thomas Zeilinger has been a visiting lecturer at Friedrich-Alexander University since 2007. In 2010 the noted pastor was awarded the study “netz.macht.kirche: Conditions, possibilities and tasks of institutional communication of faith on the Internet” and appointed a private lecturer in 2011. In March 2018, Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg appointed him adjunct professor for media and digital ethics.

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola

Dr Maria Cristina Caldarola, LL.M., MBA is the host of “Duet Interviews”, co-founder and CEO of CU³IC UG, a consultancy specialising in systematic approaches to innovation, such as algorithmic IP data analysis and cross-industry search for innovation solutions.

Cristina is a well-regarded legal expert in licensing, patents, trademarks, domains, software, data protection, cloud, big data, digital eco-systems and industry 4.0.

A TRIUM MBA, Cristina is also a frequent keynote speaker, a lecturer at St. Gallen, and the co-author of the recently published Big Data and Law now available in English, German and Mandarin editions.