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The Ethics-Boom as Ideology

"Ideology on the collective plane is what is called rationalization in the psychology of the individual,, The present ethics-boom almost always involves individual ethics. P{roblems of decisions and values are seen from the perspective of individual actors. The great emergency ideology is: Everyone can only change him or herself..This half-truth becomes a justification- and diversion ideology..: Translated from the German
The Ethics-Boom as Ideology

By Johannes Heinrichs

[This chapter is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.uni-ulm.de/uni/intgruppen/memosys/tkreis06.htm. Johannes Heinrich's most recent book is: "Sprung aus dem Teufelskreis" (Exodus from the Vicious Circle), Logic of Social and National Economics has an epilogue by Rudolf Bahro.]

"The devil is the best theologian"
(Wilhelm Klein, SJ (Society of Jesus), 1889-1995)

4.0.1 On the Term "Ideology"

Ideology on the collective plane is what is called "rationalization" in the psychology of the individual. Good reasons are presented to divert from the emotional reality and justify an attitude or action that avoids the reality of other persons or one's self. Rationalization is a misuse of the intelligence to conceal the true and deeper reasons for an attitude or behavior. Colloquially one speaks simply of "persuading". Everyone can find examples in his or her life. Seeking and shifting the reasons is very obvious to us by nature. The true reasons remain hidden to the affected themselves. This is part of the term psychological rationalization where a different reality is imagined. Rationalization is a form of psychological defense. Through fear of discovering true motives, one doesn't have to change oneself.

"Ideology" in the collective sense is described by Marx and others as "false consciousness" (32). The collective psyche rationalizes, in other words disguising, glossing over or covering up, nursing prejudices and justifying something secretly or unconsciously. This disguising is central, not the falseness of an opinion or teaching or the objective falseness of a dominant doctrine. Though different, justification- and diversion ideologies amount to the same thing. An existing practice or status quo is justified because one doesn't want to change this status quo or admit a prejudice (practical ideology or justification ideology). High and complicated theories are excellently suited for justifying an existing practice. Through these theories, people can be diverted from actual conditions and problems (theoretical ideology or diversion ideology). The distinction between these two forms lies only in the greater expense of theory and noble or sublime educational goals in diversion ideology. Thus the conditions to be justified don't come to consciousness and aren't discussed. These conditions are like base realities that are not even considered with the high leaps of the imagination.

4.0.2 The Example of Money and Interest

Readers familiar with alternative money systems immediately know the most striking example. Who dares to put in question the elementary nonsense of "working money" as an argument for interest when highly trained economic- and monetary theoreticians can justify it with the best knowledge and conscience? This is the achievement of the justification ideology: offering the best knowledge and a quiet conscience as evasions. Diversion from very simple elementary conduct occurs. A well-functioning ideology must force children's questions to be forgotten.

A large part of our current science urges forgetting simple questions that are hard to answer. In philosophy and disciplines dependent on philosophy including theology, one escapes into the boundlessness of historical scholarship leading to the historicism dominant today. This is a form of ideology that allows unanswered basic questions to be forgotten or abandoned as unanswerable. Only very creative persons like Silvio Gesell in the area of money history are able to remember the elementary questions under all the ideological knowledge rubbish and find new answers.

4.0.3 Autobiographical Note

In my philosophical-theological studies, I heard a series of lectures on money theory (from Prof. Hermann-Josef Wallraft, SJ, Frankfurt) in the context of "catholic social doctrine" and tried to discuss some basic questions about interest with him and Oswald von Nell-Breuning (33). I recall how I had to put aside my big probing questions unanswered. These questions were repressed by scholarly historical explanations and by the whole climate of aesthetic, social-theological diversion from simple questions: How can the multiplication of money without work be explained and justified? I could understand the miraculous multiplication of bread in the Bible as a real symbol for the increase of exchanged meaning (in word and love) between people but not the astonishing increase of capital which is not only an accumulated saved labor output but also makes possible work for others and arises seemingly from itself.

What was left to me other than to simply put aside these questions regarding complex social system theory until they could be made alive together with clear convincing answers in Gesell's economic theory. This is a personal example for the character of ideology lulling to sleep, killing questions, justifying the status quo and diverting from the real hushed-up problems. The so-called "laborism" in modern catholic social teaching that defends a certain priority of labor before capital represents a typical and toothless compound ideology. The wondrous self-multiplication character of capital is not put in question on principle. Mild compound ideologies fulfill a diversion function.

4.1 The Thesis on the Ethics Boom

These remarks about ideology in general and in relation to money in particular should pave the way for understanding the framework and function of the vast boom in ethics and economic ethics in the last ten years. In the retail book trade, there are dozens of titles under ethics of the economy, ethics of management and much more. No management journal is without extensive possibilities in ethics for managers. No large firm manages without ethics courses in its training. Ecological ethics now flourishes even more than the interpersonal and economic ethics of business. Ecology represents the ethical pole against an economic calculation free of ethics. Special ethics appear of politics, genetic engineering, animal experiments, medicine and all natural science research areas!

Is this ethics-boom a joyful sign of our times? The ethics-boom is a sign of crisis consciousness.. This crisis theory announces the absence of a self-evident ethos. Admitting such absence in our complex environment is certainly not a mistake.

The hook is only that a large part of this ethicizing or moralizing is very ideological, justifying and diverting. This ethicizing, according to the thesis, is ideological diversion from basic structural problems burdening the completely overstrained individual actors.

The money problem is the very first among the basic problems of the economy as the base plane of the social system. In an overall social perspective, the deficient differentiation of the planes of the economy, politics, culture and basic values as equally important should be considered. Appeals to individuals and casuistic conscience formation (practiced in individual cases) can be effective. The status quo is maintained through improvement in the ethical sense. However nothing essential changes. Gradual improvement would occur automatically. That all improvement must begin with individuals is part of the repertoire of the edification jargon. If only this were spiritually and psychologically true for the thinking individual! The transition to social structures lies in the thinking of individuals (including its top form, intuitive thinking). In return, feeling that one likes to oppose today to the alleged rationality of our life should not be devalued. If feeling is limited to the private sphere, structural innovations are impossible. The strength of creative thinking should not be confused with calculating and mere "rational" administration of the status quo.

4.1.1 Ethics and Ethos

What does "ethics" mean in these connections? Firstly, ethics is only the teaching or preaching of good conduct, not the lived good conduct, the ethos itself. The distinction is important. How often does teaching and reflection replace conduct? When doing the right or the good is almost systemically impossible (cf. Bert Brecht's "The Good Man of Sezuan"), this can be blurred and veiled by distracting ethics-ideology. The ethics invoked in seminars usually represents the ideology of the unsuccessful ethos! Ethics today is what Marx says about religion as a super-structure for humanly unworthy conditions: "the spirit of vapid conditions" (34) (No atheism, the furious reaction of some bold minds in the times of a narrow-minded theism, follows).

In a philosophical regard, ethics without structural knowledge is a knowledge-avoidance strategy, an ideological replacement for structural knowledge that is supposedly so hard in social matters. The greatest German social philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, justified monarchy and produced wayward students of the kind of Karl Marx. Hegel's achievement - standing on the shoulders of Rousseau, Kant, Fichte and many others - is making philosophical thought "social", in other words emphasizing systemic social connections.

Instead of thinking critically-productively on the comparative level, expert circles confine themselves to the philosophical and historical (as with the Bible) or to specialist social sciences in which "only the spiritual bond" is lacking or with special predilection for the ethics that Hegel moves to its subordinate place as "morality". Hegel anticipated the problematic of the ethics-boom through his opposition of "abstract morality" and "concrete morals" in which he understood morals as a collective "ethos" (in the Greek sense of "insiders, effective morals"), as the structural and legal composition of a community. (35)

4.1.2 Mere Individual Ethics

If ethics were social ethics developed from the standpoint of the social totality, it would be the same as structural social theory.

Structures in society must be recognized in discussing the question about imperatives. Imperatives can easily be jumped over for the individual since one thinks one knows what an individual person is. This leap cannot be carried out for the society. There is little social ethics in the good old Christian social doctrines because most attempts of the system theory of society hardly illumine their basic structures.

The present ethics-boom almost always involves individual ethics. Problems of decisions and values are seen from the perspective of individual actors. The great emergency ideology is: Everyone can only change him or herself. Everyone must begin (and perhaps remain) with him or herself. In a certain sense, beginning with oneself is obviously right and appeals to every ethically- and spiritually-minded person. Nevertheless this half-truth becomes a justification- and diversion ideology to bid farewell to structural social theory and reform.

Every individual must think for him or herself in order not to become a mere nominal member. The individual is certainly indispensable if change should occur. However the individual is only a necessary and in no way sufficient condition for change. Thinking makes possible the indispensable insight in structures and is the first necessary step to their change. If these structures are not changed, all appeals to individuals are really cynical diversion ideology.

4.1.3 System Pressures Experienced Daily

The money system offers the best example and spares us from identifying other, more hidden social system pressures. It would be absurd to move individual savers or owners of property to renounce on interest as long as the whole system is based on interests. Similarly all economic appeals to individuals (to "moderation", saving or some other individual economic conduct) are only signs that some control measures are no longer effective. Nevertheless there is a constant appeal to individuals in individual ethics. Guilt-feelings are instilled for misuses that necessarily result from the system. Guilt-feelings were always the most tried and tested means of rulers or profiteers in intimidating: making those dependent tow the line. To remain in the economic area, a seller who is unable to ruthlessly persuade his customers because he approaches potential buyers with natural spontaneous ethical reflections (e.g. whether he really needs a new larger car) is a poor seller in the existing system. He needs another ethic with corresponding training.

This daily conflict dominates the whole sales branch and can be garnished ideologically through "ethical" sales seminars. The garnishment or glossing over succeeds much better in more complex "cleaner" economic processes. However as we said before management cannot survive today without economic ethics. Still economic ethics is only pursued in an individualizing and system-immanent way, never as system-critical structural social ethics.

4.2 Truth-Ethos instead of Ethics-Ideology

Defenders of Silvio Gesell's economic theory often insist that the interest system represents the greatest conceivable economic crime. Compared to this crime, the little daily thefts and cheating frauds are trifles.

Where does one hear the insight expressed in the present ethics-boom that ethical fussiness represents an unconscious diversion ideology from the basic structural problems like money and interest? Nothing is said here against ethical conduct or against a lived ethos. However the ethics fashion largely has the ideological function of shifting those deficits ascribed as structural deficiencies of our economic and social system to individuals (36). This insight doesn't give individuals any privilege, excuse or charter but emphasizes that energies provoked by insight and love of truth can change the world, not the current opportunism (even when it acts fashionably ethically). Love of truth is the foundation of all spirituality and ethics. The question "What must I change?" is repressed if the deep rooting of action of the knowledge of truth jumps over the "historical-materialistic" element of consciousness in the rational sense. Then cheap theories are developed and ethical principles are invoked. Then everything is ideologically corrupt.

The ethos of the love of truth must pass to systemic criticism and creative reconstruction and cannot stop with moralizing. A non-opportunistic courage to follow what is discovered with an eye for the possible is vital. Under changed conditions, economic ethics is more than a sophistic evasion, namely the description of an almost self-evident ethos of just sharing worldwide between the North and the South.

Several Aphorisms

No ethic is more radical than love of truth.
Therefore there are many special ethics today.
Ideology intends diversion from the truth without anyone noticing, particularly not the diverted.
The best ideologies are the intelligent and scientific.
This doesn't speak against intelligence but for the testing of the simple fundamentals.
"The devil is the best theologian" and certainly the most differentiated ethicist. Nevertheless - remaining logical - all good theologians and ethicists need not be devils.
A person without the courage to truth is a caricature of himself.
In the affluent capitalist society, the self-caricatures of people seem to be the majority.
Otherwise simple truths would have more chances.


32) Affirming Marx does not mean accepting his whole approach. His understanding of ideology as false distorted consciousness supported by Hegel is more effective than the capitalist-relativist understanding of ideology where truth and falseness, disfigurement and un-disfigurement of ideas are indistinguishable. "Anything goes". The main thing is that the cash register rings and well-rounded harmonious life joyfully continues. Even Marx' "historical materialism" crassly distorted by his followers is tr4uer than the current ethics fashion. "What does the history of ideas prove but that intellectual production is redesigned with the material production? The ruling ideas of an age were always only the ideas of the ruling class" (Early Writings II). The difficult question of praxis and knowledge of truth (theory and praxis) cannot be differentiated enough here. All theoretical knowledge is rooted in practical interests. Still there is also an unreserved open interest in truth.
33) Oswald von Nell-Breuning emphasized the many means of "capitalism". Still he nowhere mentioned the simple and precise definition of "capitalism" as the system built on the interest earnings of money.
34) K. Marx, Introduction to Criticism of Hegelian Legal Philosophy, in: Early Writings I.
35) G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Law, vol. 7, 1821.
36) The systemic is inescapable, necessary and life-supportive both in thought and reality. Every organism represents a self-regulating system. Systemic ordering structures existed in the primal chaos as chaos research shows. Dynamic circulation and quasi-cybernetic feedback of a system on the social plane characterize the term "system" more than the term "order". Finally, the "basic error of modern persons" is the specialistic unconnectedness of thought that cuts itself off in little mini-systems.

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