Money – What attitude to take to it?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

Morocco is a country where a lot of people live on the bread line. It is common for a picture of the king and his wife to be hung in people’s homes and from some outsider’s viewpoint it would appear that the royal family is often idolized.  Yet, we cannot help noticing the way the rulers of this and some other Arab states like Qatar and Kuwait — not to mention Saudi Arabia — have been amassing money for themselves. Mohammed VI of Morocco has been said to amass a fortune of $2.5 bn from the phosphates found in the Western Sahara which account for half of world reserves. Other rulers have based their wealth on oil.  Are such rich people happy and contented with the opulence they can afford?

moneyDo we feel indignation or perhaps a secret envy towards them? What attitude should we take to money?

Dreaming of money

When one is hard up, buying a lottery ticket and thus dreaming of untold wealth has its attractions, even if in one’s heart of hearts one knows there is virtually no chance of winning. A bit of harmless fun. Or is having a pleasing fantasy any different from coming out all guns blazing to make money and lots of it?

It is widely thought that the current economic recession in the United Kingdom — at least in part — has been brought on by reckless bankers still enjoying bumper bonuses. It may be just ‘childish foot-stamping’ but these say they want to move abroad because of the 50% top rate of tax they are paying.  Money seems to be a more powerful lure for them than the attraction of living near family and friends and one’s own community let alone the notion of banking integrity. Perhaps this is why they were attracted to working in the financial industry in the first place.

One could ask provided one earns enough money for one’s basic needs, why should it bother one if another person happens to be earning more?

Money and social status

I, for one, feel uncomfortable where the private affluence of the few is flaunted in the publicly seen poverty of the many. Can this not be seen in the ostentation of the ‘nouveau riche’ compared with poorer housing, medical and educational facilities available in the public services?

On the other hand, arguably unless they had a profit motif where would our entrepreneurs come from; where would our start-up businesses develop?  Just how money orientated can one be without it amounting to grasping opportunism? For how many of us is the amount of wealth we have of more significance than the use to which it could be put or by what means it was acquired in the first place?

Love of money

You do tend to get a lack of human warmth where people are too busy making money to make themselves agreeable. How could such people accept the notion of heaven which is one of sharing and doing things for the sake of others? This could never be comprehended by those who love themselves more than others and who are greedy for gain.

Swedenborg describes a group of people who had died. They had expected the happiness of the heavenly paradise to consist of magnificence, splendour and boundless wealth. They were allowed to experience exactly what they had imagined heaven to be like until they were sick of it and begged to leave!

How much better if people were prepared to be untroubled by any lack of possessions. The tradition of those from isolated rural areas can be to restore their energies by spending time living simply without expensive modern conveniences close to nature and far from the maddening crowd.

Often people say that it is a fallacy that the way to happiness is the acquisition of more and more money. Money itself may be a good thing, but no wonder we remember that the love of money is said to be the root of all evil.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

30th March 2011Categories Ethics, Private EthicsTags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , Leave a comment

Is free-market capitalism unethical?

Spiritual Questions & Answers

Discovering inner health and transformation

Free-market capitalism
Rana Plaza building

When things go badly wrong in the world of commerce, we ask about the ethics of free-market capitalism.

Dangerous cracks had been spotted in the walls of the Rana Plaza building — a factory complex in Bangladesh — but the staff had been ordered to continue working, making clothes for lucrative export to the West. Now over 900 people are dead in the ruins of the building which has collapsed. In the last eight years alone, more than 1,000 workers had died in similar incidents, owing to the negligence of factory owners.  The Bangladesh Government has failed to regulate the garment industry by enforcing proper safety standards.

Given this tragedy, we might wonder whether unregulated free-market capitalism is a good thing. How can its advocates be correct when they say that the profit motive, property rights, divisions of labour, and competition, actually lead to prosperity for all? Is it really the case that market regulation reduces the entrepreneurial spirit?

For free-market capitalism

Those in favour of free-market capitalism maintain that self-interested individuals would mostly engage in win-win transactions: self-interest is natural and beneficial in making untrammelled free markets work well.

“The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.”
(Milton Friedman)

The pursuing of profits by self-interested companies competing in the market economy is said to cause trickle down benefits even to the poorest: thus an unintended consequence of individual gain is prosperity for all. And competitive markets are said to drive down prices and increase business efficiency.

Against free-market capitalism

If the biblical message about the love of money being the root of all evil is true, then perhaps maximising profits is undesirable. One can get carried away with free-market competition for the sake of making money. In 19th century America, a lot of people were against outlawing child labour, because to do so would be against the very foundations of a free market economy.

Free-market capitalism results in huge differences in wealth. For example according to Ha-Joon Chang:

“The top 10 per cent of the US population appropriated 91 per cent of income growth between 1989 and 2006, while the top 1 per cent took 59 per cent.”

One of the obvious recent social trends in Britain has been the huge and still widening gap between the poor and the rich. One can wonder whether even if free-market capitalism reduces the absolute level of poverty in a country, the gross inequality of relative poverty might lead to a divided rather than cohesive society.

Maximising profits

Writing nearly three centuries ago before the growth of free-market capitalism as we know it today, spiritual philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg, suggests it is not ethically wrong to make profits. How else can one provide for oneself, and one’s family?  Today, like the past, any business that focuses on turnover without profits does not survive.

However, Swedenborg says there is an important difference between on the one hand gaining profit through providing a commercial service and on the other hand exploiting customers to maximize profits.

For example the ethical cobbler charges customers what he thinks is fair and reasonable for his skill and labour and not necessarily the higher price that the market would bear. He needs to cover his costs and provide for the needs of himself and his family but his focus is on being of help to his community.

There is a central spiritual principle here. It is that all spiritual  life is the life of wanting what is useful. In other words the inner experience of deep happiness and contentment comes not from material gain but rather from being of service to others and enjoying their fellowship.

Working for oneself, one can adopt one’s own rules. However, economies of scale in production mean that large companies operate in large markets which are impersonal and traders operate anonymously. For instance, one might wonder about a manager’s attitude towards sales staff who fail to get the best price by only charging what they feel is a fair price rather than the highest possible price they can get away with. Companies have codes of ethics but we might ask whether the ethical issue of non-exploitation — something that  perhaps transcends common commercial practice — could be defined by companies whose investors expect the maximisation of profit.

In some parts of the world it is thought that capturing limited resources by greedy exploitation of the weak and uneducated means that many remain hungry and homeless.

‘There is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed’, (Gandhi)

Moderating free-market capitalism

Here are a few suggestions that come to mind.

Curtailing privatisation of natural monopolies (e.g. water supplies) encouraging ownership by the population being served or strengthening the powers of regulators such as in Britain Ofgas, Ofgen etc.

Ensuring free competition by restricting the hike in prices that comes about as companies try to corner the market by forming cartels and restricting the company take-overs (e.g. in Britain by its Monopoly Commission)

Reducing the size and thus locality of savings banks along the lines of the previous mutual building societies before they were allowed to become private banks.

Encouraging local markets where business people draw income from activities in which they have some vestige of personal involvement. Admittedly, in the modern global, interconnected world, the ability to do this is limited.

Further developing markets in “Fair Trade” products.

Creating opportunities for share-ownership of companies. For example the John Lewis Partnership, which owns a chain of department stores and supermarkets, seems to have a good scheme; the company is owned by a trust on behalf of all its employees — known as Partners — who have a say in the running of the business and receive a share of annual profits, which is usually a significant addition to their salary.


Whilst the desires reflected in markets remain predominantly materialistic, I believe that an alternative economic pattern will be hard to grow. Therefore, it seems that the best ethical solution is for government not to de-regulate the markets but continue to exercise close control of health and safety, prevention of monopolies and ensuring there is fair competition.

Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

Posted on9th May 2013CategoriesEthics, Ethics & PoliticsTags, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,  Leave a comment