THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Bring the Jubilee: The Issue

Over the last couple of weeks one of the participants in the Kelso Binary Economics discussion group has been looking into the problem of overwhelming debt. This is a difficult issue, and not one easily solved, especially by the unilateral solutions that are, more and more frequently, being proposed.

It's not, for example, merely a question of forgiving debt. Debts are owed to somebody. Every debt that is forgiven means, effectively, a loss to whoever lent the money, thereby harming or even destroying that person's property rights.

Nevertheless, the concept of Jubilee could be extremely useful in view of the current world situation — as long as we realize and understand that the push of debt forgiveness for some inevitably means a shove against the human rights of property for others. The question then becomes how we manage the former without undue harm to the latter.

The concept of the "principle of double effect" is useful in this context. Most simply put, the principle of double effect allows us to do something that is not bad in and of itself, but which has bad consequences. In the case of debt forgiveness, writing off debt is hardly bad — but it does have the bad result of harming others' property rights.

The "requirements" of the principle of double effect are pretty straightforward:
• The act is itself good, or at least morally neutral;

• You intend the good effect, and not the bad either as a means to the good, or as an end itself;

• The good effect outweighs the bad effect in circumstances sufficiently serious to justify causing the bad effect, and you do all you can reasonably do to minimize the harm.
There is one more requirement in social justice. That is to organize with others to restructure the relevant institution(s) so that the situation is less likely to reoccur. How to do this is described in the pamphlet by William J. Ferree, S.M., Ph.D., Introduction to Social Justice.

That being said, how do we apply these principles to the issue of debt forgiveness? First, of course, we have to see if what we propose meets the requirements of the principle of double effect:

Is forgiving debt good or morally neutral? Absolutely.

Do we intend to harm others' property rights, or is direct harm to property rights (as opposed to debt forgiveness) our goal? Absolutely not.

Does the good of forgiving debt outweigh the bad of harm to property rights? That's harder to answer. Not all debt is unserviceable, and even debt that is unserviceable may not be entirely unserviceable. That leaves us with the problem of exactly how we might engage in debt forgiveness that is both fair and has a chance of accomplishing the desired goals.