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Küng: "The economy needs a certain kind of morality"

The Swiss theologian believes that good ethics improve a company’s bottom line

(Keystone Archive)

The famous Swiss theologian, Hans Küng, has been acclaimed as one of the most brilliant Catholic thinkers of his generation.

He recently spoke to swissinfo's Jonathan Summerton about the role of a global ethic in business and politics.

Küng is the author of several books including "A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics".

swissinfo: What is a global ethic?

Hans Küng: It is not part of a new ideology or a superstructure imposed on certain people. It's also not one religion.

It's a very simple thing: it's the minimum of moral standards needed within a family, a community, or a nation so that people can live together. You need a certain consensus on very basic principles in morality, and you can find these principles in all the great traditions of humankind: in religious and philosophical traditions.

To give you just one example: the golden rule "Don't do to others what you would not wish to have done to yourself" can be found in the teachings of Confucius, in Judaism, in the "Sermon on the Mount", and in the Islamic tradition. It's a very general global norm that can be applied to individuals, nations and other groups in society.

Is that really still true in the 21st century? Don't global ethics or standards somehow become redefined as Western norms?

No, you can find these norms in the old Chinese wisdom, in Indian tradition, or among the Aborigines in Australia. This is precisely the great thing: there is no imposition of a Western concept on other people. It is not a case of Western ethical standards being applied, because you can find the same basic principles everywhere.

Transparency and responsibility are important buzzwords in politics and business. Do they really exist or are they terms used to assuage public and media demands?

There is certainly not enough transparency. And if you look at the most recent scandals we have had on Wall Street, or even in Switzerland, you can see that there is not just only a lack of transparency in the technical sense, but there has also been simple lying, betrayal, stealing. These are very elementary principles.

I think both on Wall Street and in Switzerland a lot of people are realising that the economy needs a certain kind of morality and ethics to avoid disasters such as Swissair, Credit Suisse, Ringier or other cases where there has been a great deal of lying and dishonesty.

Isn't it part of having economic or political power that people look after their own self-interests and will continue to do so as long as they are not going get caught?

Yes, but the most recent developments show that this is not good politics and that it isn't good economics. Of course self-interest is very legitimate, but self-interest has to be combined with certain ethical standards.

Doing business without caring about any kind of ethical norms might be possible in a bubble economy, as we have had up until quite recently.

But as soon as you reach a critical phase - and we are in one now - then the bubble explodes and it becomes clear that the economy was not rooted in good ethical principles.

Even if companies try to show that they are taking responsibility for the environment or social issues, isn't there still much cynicism from anti-globalisation supporters as a reaction to a lack of transparency, responsibility and truth?

Even people such as Dr Horst Köhler, the managing director of the IMF [International Monetary Fund], acknowledge that many protesters are demonstrating justly against certain abuses of globalisation.

Today there is an increasing consensus that globalisation certainly has great advantages we cannot afford to miss. But on the other hand there are many disadvantages: you have winners and you have losers.

We have to remember that in the early years of capitalism we needed certain reforms. Now, in a time of globalisation, we cannot just follow economic principles without looking at those countries and even continents such as Africa that cannot keep up. We have to find a certain balance.

When we're talking about globalisation we're talking about just a handful of countries whose companies wield an awful lot of muscle around the world. Do the heads of those companies have a responsibility to help other countries?

It is good if certain very wealthy people are philanthropists.

But of course that cannot be the solution. We need a new financial structure in the world. We cannot be so dependent on moves in the market where a certain country's stock increases all too rapidly; then when faced with a global crisis all the foreign capital leaves the country and you have a catastrophe. You need certain regulations; but for that to happen you also need some ethical impulse.

If there are not people in government or in the financial hierarchies who are prepared to do and say something, then we will go from crisis to crisis.

The most recent development - the dip in the stock market - is already an indication that we had an irrational exuberance, as the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board said. But why didn't they act against this irrational exuberance? Stocks kept rising, but as always the bubble burst. To avoid this kind of development we have to be much more careful and realise that the financial structure of the world is not satisfactory.

As a matter of fact we need a new kind of Bretton Woods agreement. The first one helped achieve financial stability in the markets over two or three decades. Now I think we need some new kind of agreement and I hope we don't have to wait for another big crash, as in 1929 for example, in order for progress to be made.

In brief

Hans Küng was born in 1928 in Sursee, canton Lucerne.

Küng studied philosophy and theology in Rome and in Paris and was ordained in 1954.

From 1962-1965 he served as an official theological consultant (Peritus) to the Second Vatican Council appointed by Pope John XXIII.

He became the first major Roman Catholic theologian to reject the doctrine of papal infallibility in his book "Infallible? An Inquiry" (1971).

In 1979, he was stripped of his right to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian.

From 1960 until his retirement in 1996, Küng was Professor of Ecumenical Theology and Director of the Institute of Ecumenical Research at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

He is president of the Foundation for a Global Ethic.

On December 18, he was given an honorary doctorate by the University of Miami, the latest of many accolades.

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