God-Washing Davos

Can religion save the soul of the world’s economic system? What does religion have to do with ethics? In particular, what does religion have to do with business ethics? There’s certainly no necessary connection. You’ll notice an utter lack of theological arguments in this blog, for instance. But many people see a connection, and perhaps a necessary one.

For example, see this piece by Dan Gilgoff, for CNN’s “Belief” Blog: How Davos found God

…Since the banking crisis shook global markets more than two years ago and contributed to a worldwide economic slump, the annual Davos summit has invited dozens of religious and spiritual leaders to hash out issues like business ethics and the morality of markets in the company of presidents and corporate titans….

This worries me for two reasons.

First is that religious leaders have no particular expertise in the questions at hand. One clergyman quoted in the story says the key question is “how do you embed values in the culture of companies in a way that would change behaviors?” Good question, but it’s not one about which most religious leaders are likely to have any real insight. Most, for example, won’t know much about the workings of corporations, or about corporate culture, or about (for example) what the criminological literature says about the real causes of wrongdoing. Sure, talking about values can be a good thing. But there’s no good evidence that religious values, or organized religion as a way of inculcating values, does anything in particular to make people more ethical. And certainly there’s no reason to believe that “40 minutes of guided meditation” is going to play any role at all in fixing the problems faced by the world’s economy.

My second worry is that the inclusion of religious leaders is a distraction, a way of deflecting criticism by including a few dozen people who a large portion of the public are likely to associate with the idea of being a good person. It’s symbolic. It’s a way of signalling to the public that the business world really is concerned about doing the right thing — without engaging anyone who actually has the relevant expertise. It’s a feel-good move. It’s like greenwashing, but with religion rather than environmentalism as the focal distraction.

19 comments so far

  1. Randy Grein on

    Excellent post Chris! Some few with religious convictions insist that morality or ethics can only come from religion – specifically, their religion. This assertion is, of course invalid. Insertion of religion in a multinational business organization is indeed a distraction. Thanks for the clear thinking.

  2. Scot Smith on

    Companies are inherently sociopathic placing money and profit over everything. Can religion help correct this problem? I believe so. Now when the board decides to liquidate an entire plant they’ll say short prayer first.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I don’t see any convincing evidence that companies are, in general, any more sociopathic than are other institutions (e.g., churches).


  3. Randy Grein on

    While an interesting and useful point, I believe this is a red herring. The nature of corporations was at issue, not specifically churches or other institutions.

    There is some emotional baggage to the term sociopath, but unfortunately it describes the condition rather well. A sociopath does not fit in well with society primarily because it ignores the assumed social contract that other members adhere to. More, a sociopath tends to take advantage of those rules adhered to by others for it’s own benefit. A tiger in the wild could be termed a sociopath without thinking it ‘evil’, merely a dangerous element to protect against. The analogy is weak because we do not ascribe morality to animals, but the solution is still the same – we guard against the powerful that can take our property and lives in a reasoned fashion.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      But as a generalization, it simply doesn’t work. Counter-examples are easy to produce. Corporations are competitive entities, and their competitive behaviour (including profit-seeking), if properly constrained by the rules of the game, are socially beneficial.

      But anyway, all of that is rather far from the point of the blog entry above.

      If anyone is interested, though, in the question of socially-beneficial competitive behaviour, take a look at this new blog:

  4. Jim Sabin on

    Hi Chris –

    As always, you raise excellent questions in an incisively clear way.

    I agree that theologians are not likely to have distinctive insight into corporate ethics or the dynamics of organizational behavior. But my observations in the health sector lead me to a somewhat different view than yours. Here’s my sequence of thoughts:

    1. As the phenomenon of “holy war” and all the prejudices of fundamentalism show, every religion has, in significant part, a sorry track record for ethical behavior.

    2. And, you’re right that theological sophistication and pastoral experience don’t, in themselves, create insight into organizational behavior or skill at leading organizational change.

    3. But in the health sector, faith-based organizations have a largely admirable history. In most religions, the revered historical figures have almost always included acts of healing among their admired deeds. And, in my observation, faith-based hospitals, clinics, and NGOs, have been among the most dedicated programs I’ve known. Although I don’t personally hold to any “theological” beliefs, I’ve had great solidarity with many fellow health professionals whose “calling” is based on their religious practices.

    4. The recent clash between St. Joseph’s Hospital and the Catholic Bishop of Phoenix is a powerful example of a faith-based institution defying the heirarchy of the religion it draws on, and, in the eyes of many observers, putting the heirarchy to shame.

    5. I don’t know about the performance of “faith-based” organizations in other economic sectors. But while I don’t have any quantitative data on this, my strong hunch is that in the health, religious motivation has been a positive force.



    • Chris MacDonald on


      I agree with you about the admirable role religious institutions have played in healthcare — absolutely! In general, I take it that that has been the result of the focus on doing good deeds. And certainly, there are (for example) Christian-led companies that, for that reason, see themselves as needing to play a positive role socially. But I just don’t see how inviting a bunch of religious leaders to Davos helps. I mean, I can see the value of a certain kind of cheerleading (or, in more technical and less glib terms, exhortation). But when the questions on the table are “how do we achieve x?” I think you need to bring a different skill-set to bear.


  5. Maureen Gill on

    Thank you for the excellent article. I’m a bit surprised, however, that you didn’t state the obvious, which is that ethics operate outside of the world of religious belief which, in my opinion and from my own training in ethics, is foundational to understanding ethics. The problem with incorporating the language of faith-based values into the sort of overly broad disussion of ethics (such as Davos) is that ethical theory quickly becomes subsumed to theological ideas about morality and then what? Well, then you’re right back to where you started from and wanted to get away from: that arguments for a moral way of life can be found oustide of faith and having no faith whatsoever does not mean one has no morals. Of course, there are ethical theories grounded in theology, something we see most often played out in medical ethics and which are an excellent platform for ethical reasoning, but the point is not that theology cannot inform and shape ethical theory (which of course it does) but that good ethical theory can also be constructed without a tie to religious theory and belief. When I see religious leaders flood into the terrain of ethics it disturbs me because it has the tendency to co-opt the discussion and guide it back to that point where ethics departs and should stand alone — unencumbered by theology.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I agree — I only left that out so that someone else (like you) could pick that fight! You’re absolutely right that most (alas, not all) people who study ethics seriously agree that religion is not just unnecessary for ethics, but actually amounts to a poor foundation for it. Some people are “stuck” with that foundation (just as we’re all stuck with certain foundations) and we need to find ways to talk about ethics that get beyond that.


  6. Paul Gourgai on

    It might make sense to refer to Max Weber`s „The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism“
    who writes ,„when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.“

  7. duncan cameron on

    Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. This is an ethical principle widely accepted ( though not “agreed”, nor widely observed). It also is part of every major religion. By what criteria would it be excluded from a discussion of any aspect of society, health, business, education? Because it is faith based?
    I don’t think ethical principles are more or less convincing because of their links to religion. Unlike Chris I see no problem with a dialogue that includes theologians. Excluding them because of a lack of “expertise” seems to me a form of disciplinary chauvinism. Only philosophers understand ethics. This reminds me of economists who say only they understand economics. Since they do not study ethics, it then must have no part of economics. Absurdly this is where that line of ahistorical thinking ends up.
    Do we not start from the idea that human beings are moral creatures and that notions or right and wrong (following Plato) are innate. In this our starting point is much like generative grammarians discussing our capacity for language.
    Ethics is then socially generated, and can and should be widely discussed and debated. Trying to exclude theology from debates where they play an important social role seems to me to be doubtful. A little intellectual competition never hurts, when it comes to ethics, right?

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I never said to exclude The Golden Rule. Nor did I suggest excluding theologians. I just expressed doubt about their qualifications as the *main* representatives of the world of ethics-and-values at an important international meeting.


  8. jawbone on

    I thought Calvin had this issue covered: If you’re rich it’s a sign God is pleased with you and you are among the elect.

    Just change “elect” to “elite” and away we go for the 21st Century!

    Oh, and the “God” part isn’t all that necessary, but the accumulation of big bucks is.

  9. duncan cameron on

    The important international meetings convened at Davos require a training in sociology to understand, which I do not have. However, I hardly expect people to be invited on their merits as academics would understand that term. Rather this is more in the nature of the world capitalist class working out their ideas about what makes the world go around, and how they can profit from it. Theologians have all the qualifications needed to address part one, how the world works.
    Interestingly, there are some substantive critiques of the goings on made by super mainstream economists notably Simon Johnson at the Baseline Scenario http://baselinescenario.com/2011/01/29/davos-two-worlds-ready-or-not/.
    He seems to be saying that not only bankers should have access to public goods, and that the issues being discussed on the margins of Davos such as growing inequalities world wide are ignored by the main players, the CEOs. He speaks about “intellectual capture.” I would hope that political philosophers schooled in ethics could join the substantive, and not just the procedural (who gets to speak) debates.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      I don’t see what special insight theologians have into the relevant parts of “how the world works.” Their training tells them nothing about the workings of markets, or interest rates, or corporate culture, or what causes wrongdoing in corporate settings, or the advantages and dangers of financial speculation. I just don’t see that they have such useful insight that they, as a group, bring something especially useful to the table.

      Note that this is not intended as slander; many theologians and clergymen are smart people, and some may have relevant specialized knowledge. But if they do it doesn’t come from their theological or religious training.


  10. duncan cameron on

    If you look at the Davos programme (all fifty pages) you see sessions on happiness, values and norms, etc, featuring business profs, and economists, whom you would not have thought of as having much to offer on those subjects. Very few of the Davos sessions actually touch on markets, interest rates, or financial economics; none of these include outsiders.
    Business takes place in a world where what you eat, buy, make, and the way you live are influenced by religion. Islam comes to mind, but all religions have an influence on what people will do or not, and what happens next in the world. Resort to violence has an effect on business, and not just for the arms industry.
    The parish priest usually has a better idea of the economic situation than the local MP, since people without means come to the church for help.
    Many years ago when looking at India’s development prospects, specialists thought that religion would play a role in its future, because it had played such an important role in its past.
    Perhaps I should have mentioned at the outset that I once co-authored a book with a Catholic theologian called Ethics and Economics. I was struck by how “in” the world and “of” the world was Catholic social thought with its “preferential option for the poor” for instance. It compared favourably in this respect with the text book diagrams of neo-classical economics as a way of understanding unemployment and employment versus inflation for instance.
    Discussion of world debt by church leaders has made an important contribution to understanding public policy towards the Third World. What happened and is happening in Haiti is more than a natural disaster, or a problem of efficient allocation of resources. It is rooted in debt relationships with France, and then other Western countries. According to the Catholic thinkers, debt is an ethical issue, and needs empathy to be resolved; it is not a technical problem to be dealt with by an algorithm. I suspect bankers understand the human dimension of debt but resist strenuously other criteria than their own being introduced to discussions about how to resolve a debt crisis.
    I guess my point is that as philosophers, economists, or political scientists we need to make a place for non-secular sources of understanding and wisdom, and not dismiss them because of the religious source or connotation. I speak as someone who is secular and has no religious affiliation, or inclination.

  11. Brian Moriarty on

    Thanks for the interesting discussion. I would offer the following observations:

    1. It was religious colleges and universities that initiated the discipline of Business Ethics.

    2. The global trend is not increasing secularism, but rather, the growth of religion. How are businesses supposed to operate in this world effectively if they fail to understand and engage religion?

    3. Many religious leaders concerned with social issues recognize that business is an institution that creates unique value. Some theologians I know hold multiple doctorates, some in economics. They don’t try to turn business into religion, but to respect and understand both.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      I’m not sure how #1 is relevant.

      #2 is a good question, but as far as I’ve heard that’s not what the religious leaders at Davos were invited there for.

      As for #3, well, a priest who is also an economist should be invited as an economist, not as a priest.

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