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Science, People & Politics

Science, People and Politics. Issue five, September - October, 2009, volume i, Volume II.

Voices of Authority, a book review.

by Helen Gavaghan

Hidden Wealth: The contribution of science to service sector innovation.
The Royal Society. July 2009
Caritas in Vertitate (Charity in Truth). By Benedict XVI. Alive Publishing. Price £1.95.


Those not interested in a spiritual life might want to skip the first chapter of Caritas in Veritate and move to the main themes of the encyclical on social teaching, which are:

Human development;
Fraternity, economic development and civil society;
The development of people, rights and duties and the environment;
Co-operation; and
The development of people and technology.

Taking human development first. Benedict XVI reprises the need, highlighted by Paul VI, for educated societies and the consolidation of democratic regimes. The current Pope argues that the Church was correct to be concerned that without those twin societal advances the capacity of technological societies to generate wealth would be compromised.

Sadly the Pope does not enlarge on the ways in which people grant mandates to leaders, leaving the reader with the sense that co-operative social behaviour is exercised only via the ballot box. There are more subtle ways in which the instinct to co-operation and support of leaders can be developed, and they might be necessary for a particular time and place.

Inevitably Benedict XVI looks at current human development in the context of the factors that have contributed to the overwhelming financial crisis that has swept the globe. He writes that man cannot prescind from his nature(p 34). I wonder if that is what he meant, and which language he was thinking in when he wrote that sentence. For that matter in which language was he writing originally?

The online Merriam Webster dictionary gives the word a Latin root, from 1650, and a meaning as an intransitive verb of "to withdraw one's attention". As an transitive verb the word means "to withdraw for purposes of thought". It does not make sense to me that a theologian developing a Christian thesis would write that man cannot prescind from his nature. I can understand those words from a priest, but not from an academic theologian.

And the Pope does not make clear that it is potentially a very good thing for human development if Man cannot prescind from his nature. If there are human beings with the inclination to do good that is what one would like them to do.

Nor is it always human nature that holds people back. Sometimes it is the structures and regulations we create with good intent that stifle creativity and wealth creation. If others in the UK have come up against the regulatory blocks I have met in how I can earn money working as a sole trader and working the hours allowed within the EU working-time directive and declaring all of that income and business expenditure then we in the UK have actually created our own internal pay imbalances and made our wealth gap wider than it need be.

I, for example, have been on both sides of life as a cleaner, both being paid myself for that activity and paying someone else to do the cleaning. I was happy to see my disposable income lowered by paying a cleaner because it improved the quality of my life given the job I was doing at the time. Currently someone pays me to do cleaning and seems happy with the voluntary redistribution of her wealth in the same way that I had been. In other words cleaning is an activity that enhances the quality of life for the person who wants the cleaning to be done.

But I have also, and primarily, a professional business going through a tough time. I may not by regulation use any profit from cleaning to pay for anything that keeps my professional business afloat or generates more income in my professional setting. I may not, by regulation, advertise to grow the cleaning side of things because I am primarily a publisher/writer/journalist. Stalemate. At least so far for me in the British Court system.

I have one more shot at breaking this stalemate by existing law, but the judge in civil Court said I needed to make an argument that he was wrong in law. How, I asked him, and I am representing myself, am I supposed to know whether he has got the law wrong?

This is a fine point of national regulatory policy and law in practice that one cannot expect a Pope setting a global ethical framework for business to have been aware of, but it is one that integrates with at least two of the causative factors he and others have highlighted as being behind the current financial crisis. These being speculative financial dealing and mass migration.

Arguably, with more flexibility in how those claiming various State benefits in the UK can earn money the banks would have had to do less speculating to generate profit because a lot more lower earners would have been banking cash as well as keeping more money in circulation on personal expenditure and as tax deductible expenditure. The food and housing sectors would likely have faired best, thus leveraging bigger business, as well as raising the base income and tipping some people off benefits rather than leaving them trapped by law and regulation.

In turn, in the globalised World of today that might have left more profit from the multinational conglomerates to pay workers in developing countries. The possible result for the UK, and it still could be, would have been/could be a virtuous circle of wealth redistribution based on voluntary demand. Two things would need to change for this to happen. One would have to stop assuming everyone with money is greedy and needs to be forced by the State to part with some of their wealth. And, two, one would have to stop thinking of people claiming benefits as wastrels and scroungers.

The other factor fingered by Benedict XVI as causative of today's economic crisis is the unregulated exploitation of the World's resources, something which this publication has drawn attention to in earlier editorials and which, sensibly, the Pope notes and leaves, one hopes, to the World's politicians.

The agenda the second chapter of Benedict XVI's encyclical opens is not one that argues that the movement of chunks of capital around the globe - virtual and/or shipped as bullion and paper -, chaperoned by exchange rate mechanisms, is doomed to failure. Rather he is writing that profit from such activity and others is pointless if one does not have a purpose for making money that extends beyond generation of the profit. His point being that without purpose guiding the generation of needed profit there is the danger that the World's economic structures could again implode.

Rightly His Holiness draws attention to the illegality and corruption that all politics needs to guard against. He writes of excessive zeal by rich countries to protect intellectual property in the healthcare field. I am not sure from what he has written whether he think this is a totally bad thing or not. It is certainly one that many intergovernmental organisations are addressing, but, and this is not a popular view among many I know, I think strict application of intellectual property rights among those seeking to profit from pharmaceutical development is a good thing. With the right to profit comes legal responsibility.

Where he might have made a profit-related argument relevant to big pharma would have been had he argued there is a case that big pharma carve out some of their profit for diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries. Since the words of a Pope might sway global markets I imagine this is a mine field the Church tiptoed through with great care.

To address such issues science will be needed, and is already being applied.

His Holiness writes,
"The excessive segmentation of knowledge, the rejection of metaphysics by the human sciences, the difficulties encountered by dialogue between science and theology are damaging not only to the development of knowledge, but also to the development of peoples, because these things make it harder to see the integral good of man in its (sic) various dimensions."

This is an analysis with which the magazine Science, People & Politics has a lot of sympathy. I would broaden the thought to say that in the UK at least, having fought for a long time to escape a cultural corner, and having gained greater influence in political affairs, science is in danger of alienating a lot of friends by too much certainty that it is the voice of truth.

In his final chapter on the developments of people and technology His Holiness raises the vexed question of bioethics. A useful reference for evaluating his arguments in the place that his subtle intellect probably intended them to be evaluated would be The Stanford Encycopaedia of Philosophy. For a discussion of immanence and transcendence go to: plato.stanford.edu/entries/causation-metaphysics (removed http on 14.12.2011).

Abortion, in vitro fertilisation, pre-implantation genetic testing and euthanasia: who controls life? There is immanence in sex. Is there transcendence in abortion, IVF, PIG testing and euthanasia, and is it the transcendence of evil, or of good, or of being human? If both mother and baby will die without an abortion, but abortion might save one or both how can abortion be wrong? I would argue it is not. If abortion is because of social stigma or lack of social provision then, yes, I would argue it is wrong. But that in the UK we ought not to repeal fully abortion law. Perhaps IVF is the transcendence of being human. Pre-implantation genetic testing might appeal to the best and worst of human nature. If medical advances mean a woman does not naturally reject a faulty embryo perhaps pre-implantation genetic testing is the right way to aid nature? And euthanasia - well what exactly is it, and where does palliative care fade into a good blow out with your favourite food, knowing that is likely to cause a fatal heart attack? Is such action immanence or transcendence?

By contrast in the report, Hidden Wealth, the Royal Society has no doubts about the value of its intellectual offering for society, and it adopts a hubristic tone. That is not science or The Royal Society at their best. As an undergraduate I was annoyed when the crosses on my graphs did not always go where they were supposed to go. It was quite discouraging, and I had in mind the old saw that a poor workman always blames his tools. Never allowing myself to think that my tools might, actually, have been faulty. We now know they probably were, and in rather a lot of Universities in the 1970s and 1980s. If I had been one hundred per cent sure that my observations were reflective of truth then I dread to think what damage I could have done to the laws of physics.

Like the Pope, the Royal Society offers an analysis of its organisational purpose in relationship to the current global financial crisis. What worries me is that by concentrating on derivatives and the information and communication technology that speeds money on its travels round the world the Royal Society is not thinking speculatively outside the box - which is one of the things its members and Fellows do well - and questioning the psychology and purpose of bankers and banking and their employees.

Always supposing you are not reeking of alcohol, where else in the UK other than in a bank can any human being go to the counter and be spoken to politely and apologised to if there is a delay, irrespective of how much money you are paying over the counter?

Those are the customers the banks were and are serving. There really is quite a lot of social equality in a High Street Bank. The Royal Society's chapter on innovation in the banking sector does not ask what, other than making a profit, the banks thought they were doing when they applied, presumably, such tools as differential calculus, to the question of how to make money in seconds from the buying and selling of risk, interest rates and variations in exchange rate.

Re-enter immanence and transcendence.

Corrected within 24 hours of posting. Text corrected again 12.9.09. HTML mark up and design code altered 14.12.2011 by GC. No change in meaning.

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