Daniel K Finn speaks tonight on "The Moral Ecology of Markets"

 An Outline of Remarks by Daniel K Finn PhD. speaking opposite John McDonnell MP at Christians on the Left event "The Tawney Dialogue 2016" on Wednesday 13th April 2016. Follow the event on Twitter using #Tawney16 and @ChrLeft. Also see this great interview and article with Daniel and CotL Officer Stephen Beer on Christian Today.

Visit www.christiansontheleft.org.uk after the event for a full write up and media.


Outline of Remarks by Daniel K Finn PhD
“The Moral Ecology of Markets”

I.    Introduction

A.   Two characteristics of Catholic social thought

1.    Internally, Catholic social thought is “symphonic”: there are many interacting principles/values at play and there is no simple hierarchical relation among them. For example, neither “human dignity” nor “the common good” is ranked as more important than the other; the two are fundamental and deeply interrelated.

2.    Externally, Catholic social thought takes a comprehensive view of life and does not speak of the justice or injustice of economic life without relating it to all dimensions of our life together.

II.  First, an exercise in descriptive ethics

A.   Looking at the debates about economic justice from left to right on the political spectrum, there are four questions or issues that everyone addresses, at least implicitly.

1.    What should be the rules that structure how markets operate?

2.    What goods or services are so essential that everyone should have them and the community should supply gratis to those unable to provide for themselves?

3.    What should be the character of morality of individuals and organizations?

4.    What should be the character of civil society?

B.   That is, almost no one addresses the morality of markets in isolation. Always included, at least implicitly, are assumptions about how the moral context (or “moral ecology”) of markets should be structured.

III.        Second, a brief review of some principles of Catholic social thought

A.   What is the appropriate relation of humans to the physical world?

1.    The limited character of property ownership, from the Hebrew Scriptures to the present.

a)    The traditional teaching: God has created the material world to ensure that the needs of all are met. Human laws establishing property ownership are wise, but ought never to contradict this fundamental intention of creation.

2.    The natural world has a relation with God, and thus inherent dignity, independent of humanity.

a)    Neither Christians nor others thought much about environmental destruction prior to the 20th century, but Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ illustrates the recovery of traditional insights about nature to address our ecological problems today

3.    Economic life, including life in markets in the contemporary world, should be structured so that these fundamental values are embodied there.

B.   What is the appropriate character of human institutions?

1.    Rejection of the “market/state binary” (Pope Benedict XVI)

a)    Catholic social thought speaks instead of society, government, and market. All three must play a role in addressing the problems we face.

(1)  Society: Pope St. John Paul II spoke of the vibrant interaction of civil society organizations as “the subjectivity of society,” the way in which society “thinks” about its problems.

(2)  Government: The Catholic church took centuries to endorse democracy, but has come to see it as appropriate self-government, and never in an “us against them” framework.

(3)   Markets: Catholic social thought understands markets as highly efficient and effective mechanisms for the allocation of goods and services, but also recognizes the many ways in which markets generate unjust outcomes.

(a)   Business firms can be quite moral, but as John Paul II taught, the moral legitimacy of a business rests on whether “it serves useful work.” (CA 43) This, of course, is heresy for those who endorse nearly absolute property rights and “free” markets.

C.   What goods and services are so essential that no one should go without them, even if one is too poor to buy them.

1.    Papal teaching has endorsed a significant list of “rights.” Pope St. John XXIII identified these on April 11th, 50 years ago this week

a)    the right to bodily integrity, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest.

b)    the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; workplace disability; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood

c)    natural right to be respected, to freedom in investigating the truth, to freedom of speech and publication, to be accurately informed about public events

d)    to share in the benefits of culture, and hence to receive a good general education

e)    being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience

f)     inherent right not only to be given the opportunity to work within decent working conditions, but also to be allowed the exercise of personal initiative in the work he does.

g)    A just wage: “The amount a worker receives must be sufficient, in proportion to available funds, to allow him and his family a standard of living consistent with human dignity.”

h)    the right to the private ownership of property, including that of productive goods.

i)     have the right to meet together and to form associations with their fellows

j)     freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own State. “When there are just reasons in favor of it, he must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.”

k)    “the right to take an active part in public life, and to make his own contribution to the common welfare of his fellow citizens”

l)     Duties: “rights and duties derive their origin, their sustenance, and their indestructibility from the natural law, which in conferring the one imposes the other.”

IV. Summary

A.   In sum, Catholic social thought provides both a general framework and some more specific teachings, such as the list of rights above. Yet being directed to people around the world in different political, economic, social, and cultural situations, it leaves to local prudential judgment a vast array of concrete decisions.

1.    On the one hand, this leaves room for honest disagreement among those committed to a Catholic vision of life.

2.    On the other hand it is specific enough to undercut the claims to Catholic orthodoxy of those (in recent years most frequently on the right) who abuse the tradition’s symphonic character by “cherry picking” from that tradition, proposing that Catholic social thought is all about the second violins while ignoring the rest of the orchestra.


Audio from the event can be found here:

Images and more information on the event can be found here:


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commented 2016-05-09 12:52:08 +0100 · Flag
Full Tawney Audio Available here: http://www.christiansontheleft.org.uk/tawney2016_audio