Friday, September 25, 2009

Morality or Authority?

Having suggested yesterday that the G20 is both irrelevant and incompetent (the latter not being a major problem because of the former), at least where facilitating recovery from the current economic crisis is concerned, I took great interest in a dispatch just filed from Seoul by BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent Saul Landau. Here are the lead paragraphs that piqued my attention:

The worlds of economics and religion may seem far apart - but a meeting in South Korea has been attempting to narrow the gap between the two.

Religious and political leaders gathered in Seoul for a conference on interfaith co-operation.

They concluded their three-day meeting with a call for religious perspectives to be taken into account by governments tackling issues like the financial crisis.

While my usual reaction to religion stories is for my eyes to roll upwards (in the direction of a deity that does not exist?), I decided that, in this case, such a reaction would be an unfair prejudgment. After all, why should confidence in decisions made by religious leaders who have taken the trouble to attend an interfaith gathering be either lesser or greater than confidence in the attendees of the G20 summit? At the very least I wanted to learn more about what was said at the meeting in Seoul and about the sorts of conclusions (if any) that were reached.

One prevailing opinion in Seoul seems to have been that the financial crisis has more to do with morality than with economic theory. At the very least this could indicate that the conferees in Seoul had a better appreciation of Immanuel Kant than those in Pittsburgh. Kant was, after all, one of the first to codify the distinction between "pure reason," concerned with the objective lawfulness of the physical properties of nature (such as space and time), and "applied reason," concerned with the purposiveness of human behavior and its relation to a moral code. Kant saw these two forms of reason as being driven by different faculties of mind: cognition for pure reason and desire for applied reason. Between these two he postulated the mind's capacity to feel pleasure and displeasure, and that capacity enabled the mind to make decisions of judgment. While Kant did not explore judgmental decisions concerned with resources (such as personal wealth), it is hard to doubt that much of the current crisis can be attributed to a major failure of judgment. Since most of those who currently live by economic theory either cannot or will not get beyond the boundaries of pure reason, it may be desirable, if not necessary, to cede the field to the religious community if the conversation is to proceed beyond econometric models to more fundamental questions of humanity. Those questions necessarily address how the objectivity of those models can be reconciled with a capacity to feel pleasure and displeasure that, in turn, seeks a balance between the pleasure of having resources and the satisfaction one gains from a sense of fairness.

Most important, however, is that a departure from the formalisms of the objective world is accompanied by a diversity of opinions and values. This raises the question of whether an interfaith gathering of religious leaders can deal with that diversity. The indications from Seoul seem to have been that the participants were more willing to assign understanding of that diversity a higher priority than the promotion of the dogmas of their respective faiths. Perhaps those religious leaders have recognized that they are all in the same boat; and, whatever dogmas they espouse, they all care about whether or not that boat sinks. Those who persist in rejecting any premises that are not purely objective, on the other hand, do not (as an article of their particular "faith" in that objectivity) care what happens to the boat one way or another! Once you understand how significant this difference in underlying premises actually is, who (as they say in Ghostbusters) you gonna call?

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