Just Debt: Theology, Ethics, and Neoliberalism
Tracing capitalism’s evolution, particularly its lending and borrowing elements, from its Smithian beginnings to its neoliberal present, North Park University philosopher and ethicist Ilsup Ahn warns that something radically new and deeply troubling is now afoot: “The neoliberal idea of debt is problematic because it is no longer conceived as a morally relevant issue but a morally neutral and thus amoral contractual matter between the creditor and the debtor” (2). This amoral turn is both reductive and damaging, exerting “a high human toll on a global scale” while obscuring how “personal finance is increasingly influenced and affected by such structural factors as the neoliberal global economy, deregulation of the financial market, macroeconomic failure, and so on” (5). Simplistic exhortations toward individual responsibility are insufficient to address the complex structural features involved in contemporary dynamics of debt; in fact, they may end up blaming the economic victims rather than convicting the actual fiscal culprits. Ahn seeks to correct this moral reductionism and to offer a more capacious ethical vision: “In this book, I argue that a more holistic social ethics of debt is established by reintegrating these two essential elements of debt: logic and story” (7). Toward this end—in interdisciplinary conversation with history, anthropology, and economics, as well as the religious ethics of the Abrahamic traditions—Ahn outlines philosophical qualifications that make for “just debt,” promotes a relational approach to justice, and commends the development of virtues among individuals, communities, institutions, corporations, and nations.
The first half of the book engages the humanities and social sciences. Chapter 1 employs history “not only to reconceptualize the problem of debt as a basic social-structural issue in liberal political society but also to demarginalize debtors in the structural hierarchies of both local and global society” (15). Ahn demystifies both the amoralization of debt (due to its abstraction from socio-historical contexts and its pigeonholing solely to economic logic) and its hypermoralization (expressed in abusive patterns of exploitation perpetrated against debtors). Ahn’s core claim is clear: “Debt is not merely a monetary affair; it is also a human and social affair that should not be entirely dominated by the rigid law of exchange and reciprocity” (22). Indeed, the catastrophic effects of hyperbolic assumptions about debt’s a/morality have become global in scale, manifest both within and between societies. For a course correction, Ahn proposes the recovery and reprioritization of a moral economy of gift, which “genealogically precedes the economy of debt” (31).
Chapter 2 extends this analysis and evaluation, exposing the recolonizing patterns inherent in neoliberalism, which conceives debt as an exclusively juridical-economic issue, when it is also a moral-political reality. Ahn sees capitalists and socialists alike sharing this myopia, evidencing the need for a comprehensive remoralizing agenda for the ethics of debt. Given that “not all contracted debts are morally justifiable” (55), Ahn proposes three principles to secure the justness of a debt: serviceability,1 payability,2 and shareability.3
Chapter 3 then applies these principles to real-life contingencies of unpayable debt at the level of individuals (involving promise making, accountability, acknowledgment of reality, and the right to a fresh start), nations (involving the defense of human rights, as well as proper attention to justice in the intertwined relationships among citizens, governments, and creditors), and corporations (involving the pursuit of procedural and participatory justice, rather than shareholder-centered utilitarianism).
The second half of the book incorporates the moral witness and community practices of the three Abrahamic religions. Chapter 4 explores financial features of Islamic law, against its theological backdrop of the oneness of Allah. Ahn draws forth the key moral insight “that the quest for financial justice is a matter of the financial system as a whole, rather than an individual issue, and at the core of the financial system lies the rate of interest” (91). He investigates dynamics of prohibition and permission in Islamic finance, concluding, “We may say, then, while the Islamic injunction on riba [usury] generally helps promote equality between debtors and creditors, the Islamic injunction on gharar [excessive risk] helps enhance fairness within the financial system” (95). He also helpfully explains this distinction: “Equality is more concerned with the outcome of the economic process, fairness with the process itself” (95). Ahn further examines the potential benefits of Islamic forms of risk sharing that benefit the poor, even as he acknowledges a gap between religious intention and institutional practice.
Chapter 5 recommends Judaism’s theologically inflected paradigms of Sabbath and Jubilee in relation to contemporary ethics of debt forgiveness. As a practical appropriation of Jewish thought, Ahn identifies the need for modern people and nations to expand their concern, explaining that the forgiveness of debt is
an ecological and economic necessity because debt destroys ecological sustainability, ultimately resulting in economic disruption … as our world is more capitalized and globalized, we are becoming more closely connected to each other, and the need to care for others, especially foreign strangers and the environment, is increasingly called for. (115)
At the level of nation-states, Ahn argues that wealthier countries forgiving the debts of poorer countries is a matter of reparative and restorative justice, due to the historic exploitation of colonialism and contemporary mechanisms (international trade, multinational corporations, and the global financial system) that maintain an unjust status quo. Constructive examples include the Jubilee 2000 campaign and the current practice of debt-for-nature swaps.
Finally, Chapter 6 complements earlier chapters’ historical-structural analysis with a focus on Christian virtues. In view of the 2008 financial crisis, Ahn discerns a need to “integrate both structural and agential aspects of an ethical reconstruction” (134).4 This agential focus extends beyond individual moral failures to the absence of a crucial primordial narrative: the social ideal of gift exchange. Ahn laments,
By almost completely ignoring the story aspect of debt as well as by separating the realm of debt from the moral domain of gift-giving, neoliberalism and its economy of debt have turned a blind eye to the original plot of humanity’s storied debt: to help each other, keeping social cohesion and solidarity. (143)
Toward the goal of reweaving this torn (inter)communal tapestry, Ahn proposes inculcating moderation, liberality, fortitude, and gratitude, which together comprise “a set of relational virtues: moderation in regard to the internal relation to our nature (greed); liberality in regard to our relation to others; fortitude in regard to our relation to economic structure and system; gratitude in regard to God” (156).
Throughout Just Debt, Ilsup Ahn demonstrates deft interdisciplinary and interreligious skill. His ethical method is similar to that of his earlier work on immigration,5 but in the present monograph it is smoother and more crisply executed. The book offers a helpful introduction to complex issues, and is marked by admirable symmetry within and among its chapters. Furthermore, in his exposition and evaluation, Ahn strikes a tone that is warmly passionate and grounded in Christian conviction, without resorting to illogical hyperbole or ideological shrillness. As a result, scholars from several disciplines (including comparative religion, anthropology, and political philosophy), as well as Christians who simply desire to learn more about economic ethics, will discover in Just Debt a compelling read.
Although careful readers may occasionally disagree with the nuances of Ahn’s arguments,6 I find little to critique outright. However, I am left with a couple of lingering questions. First, Ahn at times fluctuates between a deontological and an aretological approach. Although each may have a salutary function, and the integration of both is possible, might a tension between principles and virtues be present, at least regarding which has the ethical priority for grounding the other? Relatedly, Ahn issues several constructive proposals that are both concrete in their intent and aspirational in their scope; yet he is rather sparse on the details of how these mechanisms might be initiated. How might the constituent actors in the global financial system—particularly if they do not adhere to one of the Abrahamic faiths—be enticed to abide by these principles and cultivate these virtues, especially if they perceive their self-interest to be at stake? These questions are incumbent upon all of us, and we owe Ilsup Ahn a debt of gratitude for leading us this far with his fine book.
Cite this article
- “A debt can be legitimate only when it is used directly or indirectly for the sake of those who will pay back after being served” (55).
- “For a debt to be moral, it is supposed to be payable for the debtor” (56).
- “[T]he principle of shareability ensures the fair distribution of risk and liability on both parties (debtors and creditors) [and] becomes an integral aspect of just debt” (57).
- Ahn notes that these problems can be traced back to capitalism’s early days (for example, ideas developed by Jeremy Bentham in his 1787 Defense of Usury): “We should first realize that the lack of virtue in the financial sector is as much the effect of an ideological and philosophical invention of the late eighteenth century as the cause of the financial crisis in the early twenty-first century” (185).
- Ilsup Ahn, Religious Ethics and Migration: Doing Justice to Undocumented Workers(New York: Routledge, 2014).
- For instance, in his desire in Chapter 2 to uncover financial structures that militate against human agency, Ahn may at times run the risk of underestimating the latter (see, for example, his discussion about farmers’ suicides, 56). Likewise, his laudable attempt in Chapter 5 to promote gender equality (from biblical texts that omit reference to women, 113) requires further development in order to succeed.