Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Opium still works

For those of our readers who don’t live in North America one of the news lines on major media outlets including CNN or The New York Times last weekend will sound rather quaint. Last Saturday (21 May), based on the predictions of the American Radio Broadcaster Harold Camping thousands of people on this side of the Atlantic were expecting the ‘rapture’, i.e. the disappearance of all ‘true’ Christians to heaven and the judgement day for all the rest of us.

The absurdity of what sounds like a weird hallucination of a 89-year old zealot however did not stop a remarkable number of followers to take his, allegedly, biblical calculations dead seriously. People dropped their university education and their jobs in the face of the world’s imminent end, or invested all their retirement savings into alerting the world to this event. As we know by now, it was of course all a big hoax.

Now we refer to this not so much as to dissect the insanity or validity of religious beliefs (though that’s a discussion worth having). The more amazing thing seems to be how powerful and pervasive religious beliefs still are. While Karl Marx’s famous quote of religion being ‘the opium of the people’ insinuated that a more liberated, developed and economically empowered humanity would no longer need this sedatitive we are still living on a planet where at least two thirds of the population confesses adherence to some form of religion. And the numbers are still rising.

It could be interesting to speculate about the reasons. Keith Bauer, a Maryland tractor-trailer driver who last week drove his family cross-country to witness the ‘rapture’ in Camping's California headquarters, told one newspaper: “I was hoping for it because I think heaven would be a lot better than this earth”. This all points to Marx: the ‘sigh of the oppressed’ is still loud and clear because by and large, the enormous social, economic and technological achievements of the last two centuries have still left the majority of people in the world where Marx saw them in the 19th century.

That would be one claim. We are aware that there are of course other contenders for explaining the unbroken popularity of religion. For us the prevailing relevance of religion has been interesting from a professional point of view. Initially, when we started writing the first edition of ‘Business Ethics’ in the early 2000s we were rather curt on the topic. This had to do, among other things, with the fact that the project of ‘ethics’ is in some ways the exact opposite of religion.

The central starting point of ethical reasoning is the assumption that human beings, by dint of experience and rational reflection, are indeed able to delineate morally right and wrong behaviour. Religion, most notably the monotheistic ones, however start from the assumption that human beings are not able to do this - in some religions even are considered intrinsically ‘fallen’ and corrupted. Man rather needs to be told about right and wrong by some ‘celestial dictator’ (as Christopher Hitchens would put it), who incentivizes his rules by the reward of heaven or hell - ultimately.

Consequently, we did not see too much space for religion in a book on ethics. However, it is remarkable how much research there has been on the effect of religious beliefs on business ethics in the last three decades. Just to talk a bit more from the Crane&Matten shopfloor, we are currently working on a four volume anthology on New Directions in Business Ethics – and lo and behold!: articles on religion and business ethics in the academic journals form a chunky part of it.

This reflects of course the fact that for many societies religion is still a major force in questions about the right or wrong of human behaviour. Over the years, we discovered this force of religion also among the readers of our textbook – hence we felt encouraged give it a bit more airtime in the latest edition. We are still, though, kind of puzzled about the conclusion from this research. After all, the imperatives of most of the world religions on business behaviour amount to some form of common sense, which does not necessarily need some superior authority to pull this out of the hat: fairness, honesty, respect of property, long term orientation, concern for the poor, and many other nice things. All these are strikingly similar to what secular ethicists would suggest.

Admittedly, some religions gave rise to specific tools (e.g. Islamic Finance) or elaborate conceptual frames (e.g. Catholic Social Thought) or pretty unique companies (e.g. Zoroastrianism and the TATA companies in India). More interesting is the research on whether religious business people act more ‘ethical’ (in the sense of morally more desirable) than others. Here, it strikes us that the beauty is often in the eye of the beholder (i.e. the person who conducts the research). But that’s probably a subject for yet another blog post.

Photo by Chris Yarzab, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.


  1. I thought this article may be of particular interest to you and your readers. Prof Costa is a man with a strong Christian faith and whose moral compass is in fine working order…inspite of the considerable evidence that his peers are, at least, morally and ethically corrupt:

    THE moral investment banker: A true story


  2. In "The Future of an Illusion" (1927) and "Civilization and Its Discontents" (1929), Freud suggests that religion is a necessary tool for some to mediate the ongoing and persistent tension within all of us between love and hate, death and life. Such mediation is required, he postulates, in order that we may enter into 'civilized' communities. I wonder that if we did not have to live with each other, if businesses could profit without each other, if we would worry about acting ethically at all.


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