Workshop 8B ethics

Rafael van Damme – Understanding Contemporary Punishment as an Effect of the Desacr(ifici)alization of the State Under the Influence of Christianity. A Politico-theological Interpretation of the History of Criminal Law

René Girard claims Christianity has disrupted the archaic conjunction between violence and the sacred. He proposes to explain the ambivalence of the primitive sacred by social dynamics. In times of crisis and endemic violence a scapegoat mechanism functioned as a safety net for primitive mankind: the violence of all against all was curbed into the violence of all against one, who was deemed to have caused the crisis. Hereby order and peace were reestablished.Since the scapegoat’s life was identified as a source of death and his death as a source of life, benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers were ascribed to him, and collective violence had given birth to the primitive sacred.Christianity on the other hand brought about a disjunction of violence and the sacred. Whereas the sacralized scapegoat was identified as having caused the violent social upheaval, the violence Christ suffered on the cross was entirely human and the image of God is shifting towards a general benevolence. As Christ was portrayed as an innocent victim, the scapegoat mechanism was unveiled and discredited.

We propose to use Girard’s theory to enhance our understanding of long term changes in the history of criminal law. The disjunction of violence and the sacred is apparent in the Church’s  rejection of ordeals and blood punishment in 1215. Ordeals were a way, just as scapegoat mechanisms, to project the responsibility for the violence of the community on the sacred. Blood punishment could be interpreted as a juridified offshoot of sacrificial rites, which were, according to Girard, a controlled re-enactment of the spontaneous scapegoat mechanism in order to reproduce its beneficial effects qua restoration or reinvigoration of order. The church’s stance from 1215 onwards, can therefore be illuminated as a sign that scapegoat dynamics are on the demise in canon law and that the church was mediating a truly Christianized version of the sacred.

The primitive sacred however may have found a second life in the upcoming state. The consanguinity of the state with the primitive sacred is tangible because: 1) The princeps legibus solutus incarnated the primitive ambivalence of the sacred by his extra-legal power to kill and grant mercy; 2) The state exerted dramatic blood punishment with sometimes very sacrificial features (e.g. innocents could easily be convicted by means of tortured confessions) and began to be considered in early modernity as a sacred entity in its own right, mediating the archaic version of the sacred; 3)The(gradually obtained) state monopolyon violence functions as a sponge draining the violence from society, just as the scapegoat-deity did.

From 1750 onwards, criminal law was gradually reformed. Slowly the state began to refrain from public blood and other punishments affiliated with scapegoat dynamics, such as public shaming. Substantial rights and dignity were progressively conferred upon all criminals. Rights of defense became a more solid bulwark preventing innocents taking the hit and sovereign extra-legal interventions could no longer deviate the legal apparatus from due course. The ancien régime’s ambivalent sacred features were filtered out: various benevolent mechanisms of granting mercy were preserved and consolidated, whereas the malevolent sacrificial blood thirst of the state disappeared. Just as the Christian God became generally benevolent and emancipated from the bloody primitive sacred, so did the state. The way contemporary European states inflict punishment, can therefore be interpreted as the consequence of a Christianization or desacr(ifici)alization of state power, implying an overcoming of scapegoat dynamics and the primitive sacrificial mindset.

Bibliographical references:

  1. GIRARD, La violence et le sacré, Paris, 1972.
  2. GIRARD, Des choses cachées depuis la fondation du monde. Recherches avec Jean-Michel Oughourlianet Guy Lefort, Paris, 1987.
  3. SCHMOECKEL, Humanität und Staatsraison.Die Abschaffung der Folter in Europa und die Entwicklung des gemeinen Strafprozeß- und Beweisrechts seit dem hohen Mittelalter, Köln, 2000.

J.Q. WHITMAN, Harshpunishment. CriminalPunishment and the WideningDivideBetweenAmerica and Europe, New York, 2003.

J.Q. WHITMAN, ‘The Transition to Modernity’, art. in The Oxford Handbook of Criminal Law, edited by M.D DUBBER and T. HÖRNLE, Oxford, 2014.

Dr. Johannes Schick – Reflections on Civil Courage

To begin, civil courage is a rare but precious good. Courageous people resist the negations of life and the spirits of indifference and stand up for righteousness, they themselves as citizens and as members of society, as human beings for humanity. Moreover, Bonhoeffer discovered civil courage as “the bold venture of faith”. But what is it? And how can we sketch it as a Christian message contributing to the stability of persons and society?

First, civil courage is public action. The courageous person shows herself with what is most important for her. She is engaged with the decisiveness to intervene, to resist, to stand up for a human society, even to withstand authorities in acts of civil disobedience. Thus she exposes herself to critique and opposition. Essential for civil courage are the willingness to risk something: position, community, liberty, or even life as Hans and Sophie Scholl or Martin Luther King, and the will to let fear not the final say. The commitment to the greater good is stronger. Here we touch the sphere of faith and religion. Showing civil courage someone is a witness, asserting and promoting his hope for a new world without tears, violence and sorrows. He has an undeterred confidence to illuminate life and so gains self-esteem as“light of the world” (Mt 5:14).

In order to act courageously in public space one must have the courage to see. Someone stops looking away, is aware of what is going wrong and gets a vision of how to give meaning to life. The vision has two facets. It implies the courage to be independent and to trust the powers of the own mind and heart (cf. F. Schorlemmer). It is a personal view turning human rights and values into appreciation for the vulnerable. And the vision is concrete, shaped by the situation and realizing the righteousness of the day. Again there is a religious dimension: In civil courage we grasp the “Kairos”, in which Christ’s new righteousness lights up (Mt 5-7).

In the courage to see and to act with their own minds and hearts persons show a strong self. But they don’t begin as first persons but are concerned by an appeal from outside. They realize that they are asked to answer. So, civil courage shows the concrete profile of the homo respondens. We find this profile deeply rooted in Jewish and Christian-Reformational traditions. Here the courage for the vulnerable is the creative answer to God’s promise of eternal Schalom. In the answer the courageous determines himself: Here, I am! He shows his face reflecting God’s face on him. Now we realize that civil courage is free responsibility. It can place someone “even in opposition to the task and his calling”. However it is not arbitrary, but characterized by the deeper loyalty to God’s faithfulness.Therefore civil courage may imply the readiness to become guilty, for it “depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture”(D. Bonhoeffer). The courageous action needs conscience examination but conscience risks smirching hands for the God-for-us.

In conclusion I’d like to sketch the potentials of righteousness, meaning and responsibility which become evident in courageous attitudes and actions. I want to indicate that in civil courage we find the strong moral resources of society and that courage of faith can sustainfragile life with the certitude of eternal promise.

Selected sources:

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1997): Letters and Papers fromPrison (translatedby Reginald H. Fuller and Frank Clark). New York: Touchstone

Darling-Smith (ed., 2002): Courage. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press

Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation (2012): Defending the Rights of Others: Presentations from a Symposium on Civil Courage. Uppsala: Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation

Heschel, Abraham J. (1955): God in Search of Man. A Philosophy of Judaism. New York: Farrar, Straus &Giroux

Schorlemmer, Friedrich (2006): Zivilcourage wagen – nicht schweigen, nie schweigen. In: ders.: Woran du dein Herz hängst … Politisches Handeln und christlicher Glaube. Freiburg i. Br.: Herder Verlag, 161-177

Ron Grace – Towards a Philosophy of Accounting: Insights of Luca Pacioli in Biblical Philosophical Perspective

Relevance (interest) Luca Pacioli is considered the father of accounting. He was also a Renaissance mathematician, philosopher, and best friend of Leonardo da Vinci. His philosophical contributions included proportion, mathematics, and, virtue ethics. His andragogy employed a high degree of paremiology (proverbs).  He claimed to be a Christian, yet paradoxically drew heavily on Aristotle as his favoured philosophical work.

Purpose This hermeneutic study seeks to identify, and analyse, the father of accounting’s philosophy, in relation to accounting, from a Biblical philosophical perspective, with particular reference to a Reformational Philosophical framework.

Hypothesis Pacioli, as a pre-Reformational Christian, may,  on the  one hand have fallen prey to secular philosophy, by according quantification privileged ontological status, at the expense of other ontics. This may account for why accounting prioritises quantification. It may be significant that the first major accounting publication was included in a mathematical work during the High Renaissance. Pacioli may also have adopted a nature/grace duality, and other secular philosophical trends. On the other hand, there may be diamonds in the rough that can be extracted for a Christian accounting philosophical construct, particularly around making philosophy practical for accounting through say (Biblical) virtue ethics.

Value. Two possible levels:

  • Accounting: There remains a contemporary perception of an accounting ethical lacuna in light of decades of accounting scandals. A Christian contribution, particularly a Christian version of virtue ethics, may assist in the development of better accounting ethics.
  • Philosophy: Pacioli’s seminal philosophical contribution De divina proportione, proportion, acts as a theoretical test of the comprehensiveness of the Cosmonomic Law Idea’s ontological framework, including the prominence and implications accorded proportion, as part of the aesthetic ontic.

Originality Pacioli’s accounting philosophy has never been systematically analysed from a Biblical (and Reformational) philosophical perspective.

Key words/themes: Accounting, Christian Philosophy, divine proportion, Pacioli,  paremiology, proverbs, virtue ethics.


Dooyeweerd, H. 1997. A new critique of theoretical thought. Collected works of Herman Dooyeweerd, Series Vols. I-IV. General Editor: D.F.M. Strauss. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen.

Pacioli,  1494. De computis et scripturis. Venice.

Pacioli, L. 1508. Lecture on Euclid’s Fifth Book of the Elements. 11th August, 1508. Venice.

Pacioli, L. 1509. [1496-1498]  De divina proportione. Venice:  Paganinus de Paganinis.

Pacioli, L. 1997. [?] De viribus quantitatis. Milan.