Sunday, 15 March 2009

“This was not just about greed”: Rowan Williams on trust, risk, and the material order

The Archbishop of Canterbury in a lecture on Ethics, Economics and Global Justice, takes a polite swipe at too-easy criticisms of contemporary capital, and ventures one or two criticisms of his own. Here he is on time and trust:
The loss of a sense of appropriate time is a major cultural development, which necessarily changes how we think about trust and relationship. Trust is learned gradually, rather than being automatically deliverable according to a set of static conditions laid down. It involves a degree of human judgement, which in turn involves a level of awareness of one's own human character and that of others – a degree of literacy about the signals of trustworthiness; a shared culture of understanding what is said and done in a human society. And this learning entails unavoidable insecurity... And the further away I get from these areas of learning by trial and error, the further away I get from the inevitable risks of living in a material and limited world, the more easily can I persuade myself that I am after all in control.

Although people have spoken of greed as the source of our current problems, I suspect that it goes deeper...
On risk and capitalism:
Ethical behaviour is behaviour that respects what is at risk in the life of another and works on behalf of the other's need. To be an ethical agent is thus to be aware of human frailty, material and mental; and so, by extension, it is to be aware of your own frailty. And for a specifically Christian ethic, the duty of care for the neighbour as for oneself is bound up with the injunction to forgive as one hopes to be forgiven; basic to this whole perspective is the recognition both that I may fail or be wounded and that I may be guilty of error and damage to another.

It's a bit of a paradox, then, to realise that aspects of capitalism are in their origin very profoundly ethical in the sense I've just outlined. The venture capitalism of the early modern period expressed something of the sense of risk by limiting liability and sharing profit ...
and on embodiment:
One of the things most fatal to the sustaining of an ethical perspective on any area of human life, not just economics, is the fantasy that we are not really part of a material order – that we are essentially will or craving, for which the body is a useful organ for fulfilling the purposes of the all-powerful will, rather than being the organ of our connection with the rest of the world. It's been said often enough but it bears repeating, that in some ways – so far from being a materialist culture, we are a culture that is resentful about material reality, hungry for anything and everything that distances us from the constraints of being a physical animal subject to temporal processes, to uncontrollable changes and to sheer accident.

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