The Reverend Canon Dr Peter Sills

 Maybe things have changed, but the economics that I went to Nottingham University to study did not make much sense to me, so I switched to law. My problem with economic theory was that it was based on the so-called ‘perfect state’, which all agreed did not exist, and never could exist! Later, I came to realise that an equally basic part of the problem was the way in which the theory ignored anything that could not be assigned a monetary value. Faith, altruism, love and common concern simply don’t figure in economic reckoning. People are regarded as consumers; economically we are defined by our appetites, but in truth we are spiritual beings, defined by our values and our hopes. In recent years a new approach to economics, called Behavioural Economics, has appeared which seeks to base theory on the way people actually behave – an approach that is long overdue, and which I anticipated in my Audenshaw Paper (March 1966), ‘The Effect of Economics on Ethics’. It is reprinted below.

After graduating I stayed on for a couple of years to do a Master’s degree, and then began work as an academic lawyer teaching constitutional and administrative law at Kingston Polytechnic, now Kingston University. While there I was generously given partial leave of absence to read for the Bar and to undertake a pupillage. In 1977 I was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple, and had the good fortune to be pupil to Harry Woolf, then Junior Counsel the Crown in Common Law matters (aka ‘the Treasury Devil’), and who later became the Lord Chief Justice. The Treasury Devil handled the common law aspects of the government’s litigation. Our staple diet was planning and immigration, but I also recall a fascinating case about passports and another about Kruger rands. I was lucky too, as a pupil, to be involved in a three-week case in the House of Lords (the predecessor of the Supreme Court). It was a dream pupillage for a public lawyer, and although tempted to continue in that work, another calling was becoming more insistent.

In the late 1970s I was accepted as a candidate for ordination, and, after training on the Southwark Ordination Course, I was ordained Deacon in Southwark Cathedral on St Francis’ Day, 4 October 1981, and priest a year later. After serving in three parishes – West Wimbledon, Barnes and Purley – in the south London Diocese of Southwark, in May 2000 I was appointed a Residentiary Canon at Ely Cathedral, where I was Vice-Dean, responsible, among other things, for the events, communications and marketing aspects of the cathedral’s ministry, and also for its corps of volunteer guides – a responsibility that brought a particular pleasure.

During my time in parish ministry, economic theory assumed a new importance in British life, particularly under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and this reawakened my interest in economics, eventually leading to a study of the ethics of the privatisation of three natural monopoly industries (gas, water and electricity) from the perspective of Christian social teaching, for which I was awarded a PhD by the University of Kent at Canterbury in 2000. Not surprisingly, the Christian critique of economic orthodoxy is one of the main themes of my speaking and writing (for example, chapters 2 & 3 of my book Light in the Darkness). Another theme is the spirituality of St Benedict. Like countless others, my interest in St Benedict was awakened by the writing of Esther de Waal, in particular Seeking God (Fount, 1984). It is remarkable that, although Benedict lived and taught over 1500 years ago, his wisdom has a very contemporary relevance, speaking directly to us across the ages. Ely Cathedral, which from the 10th–16th centuries was a Benedictine monastery, provided the right environment to develop this aspect of my ministry. Among other things I attended a course of seminars at Douai Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Newbury, on Spirituality in the Workplace, led by Fr Dermot Tredget. This led to the formation of the Ely Business Ethics Forum, which morphed into the Ely Cathedral Business Group. In 2007 and 2011 I was delighted to be invited to lead two courses at the Anglican Centre in Rome, the first on Benedictine Spirituality and the second on Leadership in the Benedictine Tradition. In 2009 I was equally delighted to be appointed the first Kerley Foundation Lecturer at St Paul’s United Methodist Church, Houston, Texas and also Parker Preacher by Corpus Christi College, Cambridge; the following year I was appointed an Archbishop’s Assessor.

In the Church, as at the Polytechnic, I have seen myself principally as a teacher. As I trained for ordination, learning new things about the faith that I had professed for many years, a constant refrain in my mind was ‘Why haven’t I heard this before?’ I am distressed by the lack of opportunity in many parishes for ordinary people to learn about their faith – the annual Lent course is simply not enough – and in my ministry I have tried to redress this situation, passing on what I have learned to others. I believe this needs three elements: Knowledge, so that faith is rooted in firm foundations; Experience, so that we learn with the heart and not just the mind; and Reflection, so that we are able to relate our faith to everyday life. I have sought to do this through creative liturgy, study courses, and leading pilgrimages, retreats and quiet days. This continues to be the basis of my ministry, for example, my recent book, Six Steps Into The Bible. After I retired my wife, Helen, and I moved to Sussex and I now assist in the Beacon Parish of Ditchling, Streat & Westmeston.

Retirement has given me time to write, and, as you will see on the books page, I have written (or contributed to) twenty-five books and booklets. Writing is something I felt called to do quite early in my ministry, and I began with one or two short booklets: collections of sermons and pilgrimage talks that were printed privately. The response was encouraging and I felt drawn to write a Lent Book. The Gospel of Mark has always spoken to me, and I was very grateful to Seán O Boyle of Columba Press for publishing my first book, The Time Has Come : A Lenten Journey with Saint Mark. Other booklets followed and also my second book Médard’s Journey, based on the talks given on two pilgrimages along the route to Santiago de Compostela. Médard’s Journey was a private publication. Christian publishing is challenging, and It’s not easy to get material published by mainstream Christian publishers if you are not a known ‘name’ and if you don’t fit the publisher’s list, so I was very pleased when Sacristy Press agreed to publish my third book, Light in the Darkness : Exploring the Path of Christian Hope. Since then, encouraged by the very positive response to my books, I decided to set up my own imprint Peter Sills Books, a not-for-profit, private publishing venture, which I have used to publish most of my recent writing.

The Audenshaw Papers

MARCH 1996


Peter Sills
Vicar of St Mark’s Woodcote, Purley

Responding to the Scott Report [on arms sales to Iraq, 1966] Richard Needham M.P., Minister of Trade 1992-95, maintained that greater openness and accountability about the arms trade should be resisted because it would have an adverse effect on jobs: ‘prospects for British companies manufacturing sensitive products will be significantly reduced.’ (The Independent, 16.2.96) An appeal to economic common sense thus rules out all discussion of what sort of Parliamentary democracy we wish to be governed by, and also of the morality of the arms trade itself. It is as clear an example as one could wish for of the way we have come to accept that economic considerations are paramount in determining ethical questions. So firm a hold has this view obtained that many people would not regard the matter as raising an ethical question at all. Trade is trade, subject to its own rules, and we interfere with it at our peril. It is the argument of this paper that such thinking is profoundly wrong. And an important corollary is that it is precisely because we have allowed economic criteria to determine so many of the basic moral questions that there are such widespread feelings of frustration and apathy in both public and private life today.

Our modern culture is economic culture. The language of economics is the language through which the world is understood, social problems defined, and solutions expressed. Our lives are dominated by the rituals of getting and spending. The main reason why economics has such a pervasive influence today is quite simply that we have come to believe that material possessions are the mark of both happiness and worth. The sins of avarice, envy and gluttony have been legitimised. This pervasive influence also owes much to the success of economists in presenting their discipline as a science, a body of knowledge which is value free. Quite simply, this claim is false. It is increasingly understood to be false about natural science; it is certainly false about economics. The profound differences between economists today, e.g. between the Keynesians and the Monetarists, are not simply arguments about the interpretation of agreed data, but represent profoundly different political and social ideas about the way human society should be organised. But even Keynesians and Monetarists have certain basic tenets in common which imply value judgements about the motivation of human behaviour. These tenets are treated as axiomatic, and they form the foundation of economic theory.

One basic economic axiom is that people act in a rational way to maximise their utility. Economic theory assumes, therefore, that we know what we want, and that we know how to achieve it from all the possible alternatives. Of course, the real world is not like this! We all know the effect of fashion, advertising, peer pressure, and vanity in the choices we make, not to mention the altruistic motives like love and charity, and the needs of family or friends. But the fact remains that the modern world is largely constructed upon the assumptions of economic theory, and it is this disjunction between theory and reality which is at the heart of our moral confusion and apathy. We experience a kind of moral schizophrenia: we live in our private lives by one set of values, but at work and in public life we are forced to live by the economic ‘common sense’ of Mr Needham.

This ‘common sense’ has a very clear view about the basis upon which choices should be made. Economic values are unashamedly utilitarian, and, like other aspects of economic theory, this view is taken to be axiomatic. Many features of modern life flow from this, perhaps the most insidious being the view that happiness comes through consumption: the more the better, be it money, consumer goods, clothes, food, or sex. Utilitarianism has contributed powerfully to the ecological crisis because it encourages the view that the environment is to be exploited for gain, rather than to be conserved; we all see the effects of this in the ever increasing use of the private car. It has contributed to the crisis in personal morality because it places the individual firmly at the centre of concern; my happiness is what counts, and the ethics of marriage and divorce, procreation and abortion, death and dying, are shaped accordingly. It has also contributed to the moral re- evaluation of work. Utilitarian thinking leads ineluctably to the view that we work in order to consume; the Biblical view that work is something given because it is intrinsic to human nature and to the development of our personality is driven out. Work is thus reduced to being a means to an end, and its very nature is thereby devalued. Economic man sees work as ultimately about getting and spending; shopping becomes a leisure pursuit, and the motto of the age is Tesco ergo sum: ‘I shop therefore I am.’ This view of work inevitably affects the view taken of the workers, who become merely part of the process of production, to be taken up or laid aside as required like so much raw material, bringing with it the erosion of job security and the consequent increase in unemployment, social dislocation, apathy, drug abuse and crime.

These social and ethical changes have not ‘just happened’, but are the result of a deliberate change in economic thinking dating from around1979. The hallmark of this change is the emphasis placed on seeking ‘market’ solutions to social problems. The deliberate nature of this change is evident from a remark of Lady Thatcher at the time: “Economics is the method; the aim is to change the soul.’ There is, of course, nothing new about markets, they have been around for almost as long as there have been people; what is new is the willingness to let the market decide the outcome of important social and ethical questions. This willingness points up the basic point at issue. The question today is not whether there is an alternative to the market as a mechanism for determining the distribution of scarce resources, it is rather the ethical framework within which the market functions, and the areas of life in which it should be allowed to operate. There is a widespread belief today that the market is part of the ‘natural order’. It follows from this belief that the market should be given unfettered operation, and that the values which drive it should be extended to other areas of life. However, this merely serves to make a god out of the market. It is, of course, a false god which, like all false gods, enslaves rather than liberates. This enslavement derives from a limited view which is, nevertheless, believed to be the total picture. A few examples will make the point.

1. Market calculations concentrate on the transaction between buyer and seller and factors external to this relationship are ignored (economists call them ‘externalities’), in particular the environmental and social costs involved. So when, for example, a tanker carrying crude oil into Milford Haven runs aground and spills its cargo, the market view of the loss is limited to the value of the lost oil. That is a very limited view of the loss. It ignores the cost of clearing up the pollution on the beaches of Tenby, the loss of income to the local people because of the decine in the tourist trade, and the consequent detrimental effect on health and happiness.

2. Market models have been introduced into the health service with the aim of securing better efficiency, by which is meant better value for money. Few would disagree with that as an objective, but its single-minded pursuit has brought in train new values opposed to those which more usually characterise the caring professions. In particular decisions about the allocation of scarce resources tend to be made on financial rather than medical criteria. For example, it was reported recently that some GPs are striking patients off their lists because they prevent target payments being achieved, or because they drain a prescribing or hospital referral budget too much.

3. Fairness is a central concept in all moral systems, but economists find it very difficult to incorporate it into their assessments. This is because economics has no way of distinguishing needs from wants. The market responds to demands, and it is both blind and deaf to the character of those demands. Economic interpretations of welfare assume it has increased as long as one person is better off and no-one is worse off – ‘welfare’ meaning, of course, ‘material welfare’. This aggregating approach is a crude measure of welfare, and one of its effects is to blunt our sensitivity to the poor. It ignores the inequality in the increase in welfare between different sections of society (e.g. the recent experience of privatization), and between different parts of the world (e.g. the Third World poverty trap). So today when we have the widest gap between the rich and the poor for fifty years, economically welfare has increased, but morally it has declined.

4. Individualism has become the dominant moral attitude. Lady Thatcher summed it up in her dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals and families.’ Market individualism has gone hand in hand with the growth of a restricted understanding of human rights. Since the second world war the concept of human rights has developed from the basic civil rights (e.g. life, liberty and property) to include social and economic rights (e.g. work, education and health care). The basic civil rights are usually described as negative rights because to secure them other people have to refrain from action. By contrast social and economic rights are positive rights because positive action has to be taken to secure them. They depend for their realisation on communal action, usually through the political process, and require a re-distribution of resources from the rich to the poor. In other words they depend on the view that there is such a thing as society. Market individualism militates against the extension of rights into the social and economic sphere: the debate over the Social Chapter of the Maastrict Treaty is one example; another is the gradual reduction of social security benefits. Market freedom is property based and creates a corresponding unfreedom for non-owners.

5. Alongside this restricted view of rights is a similarly restricted view of justice. Individualism sees justice as distributive only, i.e. fair procedure, rejecting the idea of justice as substantive, i.e. fair outcomes. The Christian standard of both rights and justice is shalom. Shalom describes the nature of the society which God purposes to establish on earth; it is about right relationships; it emphasises mutuality and inter-dependence; it is very much concerned with outcomes.

In these five examples we see a deep moral confusion. The values which we have to live by in the so-called ‘real’ world are generally at variance with those which appeal to us as fair and right. The environment is not to be viewed simply as a source of raw material awaiting exploitation; and we know that the losses following a major environmental disaster amount to much more than the cost of the lost product. We want more from the health service than to be assured that more patients are being treated more quickly at less cost per person; and we do not really believe that either the level or the quality of care can be improved by being more competitive. Competition in caring is a moral absurdity. We do not have an easy conscience about the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the world, nor can we remain sanguine about assurances that wealth will trickle down from the rich to the poor; and although we know that the poor will always be with us, we know also that there is nothing God-given or inevitable about their plight. We know we live in society with others and we daily experience its pressures and constraints upon our choices. We long for a world in which there is peace with justice, and we know that this is not just a matter of getting the procedure right! In all these cases economics takes a more restricted view than the general social view. This means that there is a large gap between the economic model of society and the more basic social model. This gap gives the lie to claims that economics is value free; to the contrary it shows that economic ideas are all too value laden, and are the expression of particular social and political views. The gap between the social and economic models of society is essentially a moral gap; how should Christians respond? There are three options.

The first option is to ignore the gap and concentrate on the traditional moral agenda: marriage and divorce, abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and so on. These are important moral issues, but, as we have seen, they too are influenced by economic ideas. Ignoring this influence means that we fail to engage fully with the traditional agenda. The second option is to swallow the gap and shape the Church accordingly. This way lie all the seductions of the Church growth school: success measured in terms of growth (the bottom line being numerical growth), congregations composed of the like-minded, worship debased into entertainment, and the Gospel without the Cross. Swallowing the gap simply eradicates anything which can authentically be called Church, and adds a veneer of piety to moral debasement. The only viable option is to engage with the gap. In practical terms this means accepting the market – there is no viable alternative – and working to strengthen the ethical framework within which it operates. It is not necessary to possess a technical knowledge of economics in order to do this; ordinary Christian understandings are enough. Love is all you need.

The ethics of love, understood as self-giving, stand in sharp contrast to the ethics of utility. Like God’s love, self-giving reaches out to others in mercy and compassion. Its application to the market may be illustrated by the the saying ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ When the lawyer asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in reply. Utilitarians might interpret the parable restrictively as an example of private benevolence, but in its context it is a radical challenge to accept as our neighbour anyone in need. Modern theology has extended this duty of love to the whole created order. Where utility sees the goal of life in terms of increasing consumption, love sees it in terms of self-sacrifice; where utility leads to exploitation, love teaches a responsible stewardship; where utility sees the provision of health care in terms of maximising value for money, love bids us go the second mile regardless of cost; where utility looks only to wants, love looks to needs, especially those of the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised; where utility places the individual at the centre of moral concern, love places the koinonia, the individual-in-community. The ethics of love releases humankind from the slavery of self-concern into a responsible freedom; it enables us to see value as intrinsic, not merely as the product of exchange. Love in self-giving is what the real world is really about; it is much closer to the way people actually live their lives than the economic notion of everyone rationally maximising their utility. Economic theory can be technical and abstruse, but at root it follows the choices we make about the kind of world we want to live in. Economic policies and decisions are made by people not machines, and their views about the world and the ends of human life determine the choices they make. Re-shaping the effect of economics on ethics is about influencing those choices. There is more than enough in the concept of love as self-giving to enable Christians to engage powerfully in that debate and to save economics from itself.