Just Debt

Theology, Ethics, and Neoliberalism

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Ilsup Ahn
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     216 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ever since the 2008 financial crisis, the issue of increasing private and public debts has become topical in the field of the humanities and social sciences. Ilsup Ahn’s Just Debt: Theology, Ethics, and Neoliberalism contributes to an already lively debate by situating the discussion on the terrain of religious morality.

Debt’s apparent neutrality is the principal target of Ahn’s critique. Indeed, not only does viewing debt as a mere contractual agreement obfuscate the social and moral nature of credit, it also legitimates immoral practices that proliferate under the guise of economic “convenience.” Ahn traces this skewed conception of debt to Jeremy Bentham’s 18th century utilitarian doctrine, which described credit practices as motivated solely by both lenders and borrowers’ self-interest,thusremoving any overarching moral concerns that could justify their social regulation. This view, says Ahn, still dictates the functioning of the financial system, ensnaring distressed debtors into an unforgiving logic of perpetual repayment.

Herein lies a paradox, however, because whereas amoralism taints the decontextualized logic of the loan contract, debtors are nevertheless subjected to a moralistic “hyperbole” (16), which transforms their formal obligation to pay back into a rigid ethical duty. According to Ahn, the moral guilt that weighs on insolvent borrowers serves to mask the real injustice of the systemic “abuse of debt” (39) that characterizes neoliberal, financialized capitalism, which prospers by exploiting the vulnerability of the needy.

An ethical overhaul of the financial system is thus needed to “detoxify” it (159) and wean banks and other lending institutions off their addiction to profit. The point of such a critique is not to do away with debt altogether. Only certain debts are “toxic” (51), according to Ahn; others can be beneficial. Indeed, without debt, Ahn states, “no ethics seems possible” (15). What matters, then, is to define the criteria of a “just debt.” Ahn delineates three such criteria: loans should only be extended for the actual benefit of the borrowers; the terms of lending and interest rates should facilitate reimbursements; and risks should be equally shared between creditors and debtors.

From this, Ahn deduces the existence of a new “socioeconomic right to just debt” (57) that should be accompanied by another: “the right to a ‘fresh start’” (67) in case of default, which should apply equally to individuals, states, and corporations alike. To morally justify the latter, which runs against a whole tradition of thought predicated on the autonomy and personal responsibility of the borrower, Ahn draws from Martha Nussbaum’s concept of “capabilities” to argue for applying the principles of restorative justice to financial contracts. Unlike other critics of the debt economy, such as David Graeber and Maurizio Lazzarato, who advocate a strategic use of default to fight back against the power of financial institutions, for Ahn, the right to a “fresh start” remains suspended to the “prima facie right” (60) of the creditors to be paid, and thus to the borrowers’ “fundamental ethical duty” (84) to honor their debts.

Although the relationship between law and morality is not made explicit in his account, Ahn later turns to the three monotheistic religions in order to substantiate the ethical underpinnings of the right to a just debt. These religions all share, to varying degrees, a fundamental reservation against usury, or lending at interest. The prohibition of riba in Islam is thoroughly discussed in a chapter that also offers an informative description of the theological arguments surrounding the practices of Islamic finance, which Ahn considers a fine example of shared risks and benefits in lending. From Judaism, Ahn retains the law of Jubilee, which prescribes the periodic cancellation of all debts. An interesting discussion ensues as to whether this concept could make sense when detached from the tribal solidarities that prevailed in Ancient Hebrew society. In Ahn’s view, the Jubilee could indeed be the key to the coming of a “debt-free symbiotic global community” (117), and represents, in any case, a promising avenue to confront the looming ecological crisis.

Whereas the chapters on Islam and Judaism discuss key elements of their respective dogma and history, the one dedicated to Christianity eschews such a genealogical perspective. It rather takes up arguments from contemporary theologians (Kathryn Tanner and Stephen Webb) concerning God’s oblative nature so as to define a number of “virtues” that should inspire the various stakeholders of the debt economy, and palliate the “agential failures” (134) that sowed the seeds of the last financial crisis. Oddly enough, whereas chapter 1 establishes a line of continuity between debt and the gift economy of archaic societies, the human capacity to give and reciprocate is itself presented here as a a gift received from the Christian God. Apart from a very brief passage about the “important role” (114) played by Jean Calvin in legitimating interest-taking, Ahn barely mentions Christianity’s contribution to the historical development of the pseudo-morality of debt that he criticizes.

There is no disputing the “toxic” nature of the dominant financial system. Yet one might wonder how an ethics based on the gift could “detoxify” our globalized capitalist economy, when the gift is itself, as Marcel Mauss noted, a fundamentally ambivalent thing, hence its dual meaning of “poison” in several languages. Since Ahn already takes some cues from Jacques Derrida, he could have explored further the problem of what the French philosopher called “pharmacology,” and the implications of its unremitting ambivalence for reforming the debt economy.

If the relationship between debtors and creditors is one of “unbalanced power” (62), debt is thus as much a political asanethical phenomenon. Indeed, the right to just debt could hardly be conquered without a political fight. Yet despite his acknowledgment of the moral “fortitude” showed by Occupy Wall Street activists (154), for instance, Ahn seems to shy away from the radical implications of their protest. Perhaps this is also why he rejects political marxism in spite of his acquiescence to the theoretical diagnoses of marxist scholars (48-51). Ahn’s intention is indeed to tame the “abuse of debt,” not to challenge the capitalist system as such, even if our deepening indebtedness proceeds from its inherent logic of unlimited accumulation.

Debt is an exploitative power relation. Just like morality perhaps made slavery less cruel in certain cases, Ahn’s “virtue ethics of debt” can surely alleviate the plight of some distressed debtors, but it will change little in the structural logic of debt-bondage as such. To challenge the power of the predatory financial industry, we need more than good sentiments; we need uncompromising, radical politics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jean François Bissonnette is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Université de Montréal.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ilsup Ahn is Carl I. Lindberg Professor of Philosophy at North Park University. He is the author of Position and Responsibility (2009) and Religious Ethics and Migration: Doing Justice to Undocumented Workers (2013). He is also a coeditor of Asian American Christian Ethics: Voices, Methods, Issues (2015).


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