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Financial decisions have moral implications, experts say Print E-mail
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

WASHINGTON (ABP)—Even a financial decision as seemingly mundane as where to buy your morning coffee can have profound moral implications.

Luci de la Cruz Benito works with Bridge of Hope Peru. (PHOTO/Courtesy of Partners for Just Trade)

Does the company that produces or sells the coffee collude with corrupt government institutions to exploit the farmers who grow it? Does that company treat its own workers well, with health-care coverage? Do their executives donate to political causes you find morally acceptable? Do their stores undercut community-supporting local merchants, driving them out of business?

And, on a broader level: Is investing one’s retirement funds in the stock of such a company advisable?

Experts in ethics and economics say Christians need to examine their own consciences and views of what practices they believe comport with their understanding of faith to build an ethical framework to factor those values into their economic decisions.

And while the complexities of the global marketplace can make understanding the implications of individual economic decisions a daunting task, resources are available to Christians who want to understand their world better.

Ethical framework

Forming one’s ethical framework regarding financial decision-making is fairly simple, according to William Mounts, an economics professor at Mercer University’s Stetson School of Business in Macon, Ga.

“One: I don’t find anywhere in the Bible that it says you can’t try to make money,” he said. “No. 2, from my perspective, what I believe is I was created by God for God’s pleasure and that what I should do every day is to honor that. So, it seems to me that every question that comes across my desk, no matter what it is—investment questions, a personal-finance question—is that I would answer it so that my answer honors God.”

What does that mean in a concrete example? “Well, if I explore the stocks in my portfolio and I discover that a chemical company is testing on people in the Amazon jungle—well, I ask myself, ‘Does that honor God?’ And I’d say no, so I wouldn’t invest in that stock.”

Likewise, Mounts said, on the consumer level, a Christian who believes that alcohol consumption is wrong may decide not to eat at a restaurant that serves beer.

“We’ve certainly been consumers for longer than we’ve been investors, so I think it’s natural for people to think about the stuff they buy—and if they buy stuff that they believe isn’t consistent with their Christian views, they’ll stop buying it,” he said.

Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen, who teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., would add additional factors—like environmentalism and social justice—into his moral calculus when it comes to financial decisions.

“Jesus confronted the Pharisees, Sadducees and wealthy 37 times in the gospels for injustice, so we should be looking for justice for workers and justice for future generations in terms of our consuming too much and destroying the planet,” he said.

Christians are called to live frugal lives and “not spend more on ourselves than we need to and give God thanks that we have some left over to give to important charities to meet people’s needs,” he added.

Moral investing

When it comes to investing money for retirement, Mounts noted the complexity of modern-day financial instruments—such as mutual funds, each of which places invested dollars in a broad and ever-changing array of stocks and other securities—can prove difficult for the would-be ethical investor to navigate. But resources are available to help steer investors onto the right course.

The roots of socially responsible investing date back to at least the 18th century, when Quaker authorities in Philadelphia decided the slave trade was immoral and church members would be prohibited from participation in slave trafficking.

Fast forward to the late 20th century, when the Vietnam War, the Cold War nuclear-arms race and increasing awareness of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa led many individuals, groups and religious leaders to encourage divestment in certain companies.

Firms and mutual funds began to spring up that specialized in what it sometimes referred to as socially responsible, ethical or sustainable investing.

Today, according to the Social Investment Forum, such funds count for more than $3 trillion out of the $25 trillion tied up in the U.S. investment marketplace.

Such funds might include those designed to appeal to conservative Christians that avoid “sin stocks” like those of companies that produce alcohol, tobacco products or pornography. They also can range to investment in companies that care for their employees well, firms that are good environmental stewards and corporations that spend significant resources investing in underprivileged communities.

A directory of socially responsible financial services is available on the Social Investment Forum’s website at www.socialinvest.org.

Consumer decisions

On the everyday-financial-choices level, other resources are available to those who want to make an economic impact. Besides Mounts’ description of Christians’ simple choices not to patronize businesses they know to engage in activities they believe are immoral, a movement—dubbed “fair trade”—has sprung up in recent years to give consumers concerned with the moral implications of their purchase more tools to make good decisions.

“Fair trade is a trading partnership based on dialogue, transparency and respect that seeks great equality in the international trading system,” said Carmen Iezzi, executive director of the Washington-based Fair Trade Federation.

“What all that means is that our members are organizations that use trade as a tool for social justice—for helping people to help themselves to change their own lives, for respecting the environment and building capacity among the poorest of the poor.”

Iezzi’s association, which includes both for-profit companies and fair-trade advocacy groups, promotes companies selling goods that, from start to finish, are produced in ways that are maximally beneficial not only to the consumer of the end product and the bottom line of the company selling it, but also the originators of the product’s raw materials.

“It’s not about charity; it’s not about handouts,” Iezzi said. “It’s respecting the hard work that people do; it’s about paying fair wages, it’s about respecting the dignity of hard work.”

“It really is about trying to race to the top, to expect more of ourselves and to enable people to reap the benefits of the work that they’ve done. The labor behind a product that we enjoy is considerable—and there’s great honor in that, and I think that’s sometimes overlooked,” she said.

When it comes to the moral bottom line, Fuller Seminary’s Stassen said, financial decisions always come back to the same starting place: Do they line up with Christ’s example? And Jesus participated in a legal, religious and economic system.

“Jesus very much dealt with questions of growing violence, … and he was really concerned about the growing economic injustices,” Stassen said. “So, he criticized the farmer in Luke 12 for putting all his money into his own barns instead of people who have needs.

“I think one of the biggest powers we have in this society is what we do with our money, so let’s use the power we’ve got in ways that follow Jesus.”

 
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