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New study probes principles of banking
3 February 2011
The ethics of spying and the morality of the financial crisis are among research topics a £1.9m endowment will allow Oxford University’s theological experts to pursue.
The money has been granted by Alonzo McDonald in whose name the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics & Public Life was established in 2008.
Initially it will be used to help attract academics to examine the principles, or lack of, behind banks’ activities. The new endowment guarantees the centre’s work indefinitely.
‘It gives us a base and the momentum to go out and look for other funding,’ centre director Professor Nigel Biggar said. ‘It will provide the flexibility and alacrity that would normally be lacking without such high level backing.
‘In the type of work we do, we have to catch the crest of the wave of topical affairs. We have to move quickly to attract the attention of those with an interest in specific issues, including civil servants and journalists, and this gift allows us to do that.’
The original benefaction from Al McDonald, through his McDonald Agape Foundation, was his first to a university outside of the US. With additional money from the John Fell Foundation, it allowed the centre to be established.
‘He wanted to use the resources of Christian traditions of ethics to engage with issues of political concern,’ Professor Biggar said. ‘It was the public orientation of the centre that encouraged him to make the new endowment.’ Next month’s conference on the ethics of spying which MI6 officials will attend is an example of that.
Professor Biggar became Oxford’s Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology in 2007 and proposed a new institution to Al McDonald a month later. He is based at Christ Church and has written several books and media articles on the ethics of global issues.
The McDonald Centre provides busy civil servants and politicians with ‘a stimulus and a retreat’ enabling them to think about what they do ethically, Professor Biggar says. He and Dr John Perry, the McDonald Post-Doctoral Fellow for Christian Ethics and Public Life, are currently the only two academics employed by the centre but the new funding will help pay for another four researchers.
The centre’s work reminds decision-makers of their moral as well as political obligations.The Iraq war is among global concerns Professor Biggar studies and he is keeping a close eye on the progress of the Chilcot Inquiry. ‘I would like to see the Inquiry recognise that even if the invasion was illegal that doesn’t answer the question of whether it was morally wrong or right. Law and morality are not the same thing; a moral case could be made for the war so I’m not certain that it was ethically wrong.’
There are dangers in one or more countries intervening in the running of another, however, Professor Biggar believes. ‘Unscrupulous nations might justify their action in terms of defending a persecuted minority.
’Conversely, the UN Security Council did not authorise intervention to prevent “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo in 1998. ‘The law required us to stand and watch but in that instance breaking the law and intervening was arguably the right thing to do. Action like that is always better taken by a group of nations rather than just one. It is then more likely to be altruistic and for the public good.’
Looking ahead, Professor Biggar says it is impossible to predict how the McDonald Centre will develop but that it is certainly winning national recognition. ‘There has been very little ethical reflection on the financial crisis and the point of creating four new postdoctoral positions is to help develop a new community of scholars with expertise in both ethics and finance. This expertise will be passed on to generations of students to come.
For more information contact Professor Nigel Biggar at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 01865 276219.