The language of debt and ethics.
Illustration: Thomas Hosmer Shepherd
When E. E. Cummings wrote “i am never without it (anywhere / i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done / by only me is your doing, my darling),” he was talking about a lover, but he may as well have been talking about a debt. For we are wracked with debt, especially with student debt, which last month the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported to be the second largest household debt category after mortgages. It’s also the debt category with the highest delinquency rate—perhaps because its balances are unpayable, given the way the global economy is stacked against the young. But still creditors wonder: How can they make their debtors pay up? The key may be in asking with the right words, and for the right reasons.
In Malaysia, World Bank researchers recently presented the findings of a study showing that a moral prompt can be more effective in getting people to repay than simple reminders, threats, or cash inducements. Over several months last summer, researchers sent text messages to a large Islamic bank’s thousands of credit-card holders. As an Islamic credit card, it’s Sharia compliant, and so for ethical reasons doesn’t charge interest on loans. If the bank hadn’t received payment by the due date, it would allow a grace period before declaring the customer delinquent.
Toward the end of this grace period, the researchers experimented by sending a range of text messages to late-paying customers. One group received a message quoting the ninth-century imam Muhammad al-Bukhari, one of the major sources of Sharia, on the ethics of debt repayment: “The Prophet (Peace and blessings be upon Him) says: ‘non-repayment of debts by someone who is able to repay is an injustice’ (Imam al-Bukhari). Please repay your credit card balance at your earliest convenience. Call [customer-service number].” Two other groups received a message that made the same claim about the ethics of debt, but with no quote from the imam, and substituting the word injustice with a more secular alternative. Two more groups received messages that presented them with either a cash rebate on their next bill if they paid soon or the threat of being reported to the national credit-reference agency if they didn’t. Finally, two groups received a placebo message: a simple reminder or a quotation from the imam with no reference to ethics or debt.
The placebos had no effect at all, and all versions of the moral prompt had exactly the same effect: an 18 percent increase in repayments. The cash rebate offer only increased repayments by 7 percent. The highest repayment rate, 29 percent, came from those who received the threatening message about the credit agency, but these customers tended to make only the minimum payment necessary, while customers who responded to the moral prompts tended to pay their bill in full—and with no further administrative cost to the bank.
If it’s startling that morality turns out to be an effective tool for a financially interested party, the mechanism behind it is even more so. As the researchers explain, the different prompts emphasize various “product attributes”: using a word like injustice “brings morality, which was previously a ‘shrouded’ attribute, to mind.” The prompt didn’t introduce a moral element—it simply brought to light moral aspects that were already there.
This perceptual shift served the Islamic bank in the experiment well because of “the ethical dimension of [its] business model.” If a less ethical lender—or an outright unethical one—tried to prompt a payment with such a stratagem, they would risk drawing attention to the unethical context of the debt. In fact, we can go further: What if the customer used the moral dimension anyway to prompt the business to change its decisions and behavior? After all, just as debts aren’t equal in size or risk, and we recognize this with a range of financial and legal instruments, debts are not equal in their moral features either. Couldn’t we recognize these considerations, too?
As instruments like derivatives—those “financial weapons of mass destruction”—show, we’re capable of articulating and calibrating even the most nebulous “product attributes” if we think that doing so will bring us some kind of gain. If derivatives, why not ethics? All that’s holding us back, it seems, is the limits of our language being the limits of our world. Why delinquent? Why are we wracked with unpaid debt—why not endowed?
In a footnote on the very first page of the World Bank study, the researchers observe that many languages, including German and Hebrew, share a single word for both guilt and debt (Schuld in German, chayev in Hebrew), and that Nietzsche had used this conceptual double meaning to offer, in Genealogy of Morals, a commentary on social norms.
For Nietzsche, there can be debt without guilt because our concept of debt predates our concept of guilt. In older societies, punishment was a straightforward reprisal for an unpaid debt. There was no judgment in it, and the trade-off worked because inflicting suffering on another was an acknowledged source of pleasure: the creditor was compensated for their material loss by the joy of being allowed to be cruel, “this most ancient and most fundamental celebratory human joy.” Only later was punishment yoked to the more recent notion of free will—“ ‘The criminal deserves punishment because he could have acted otherwise,’ this idea is, in fact, an extremely late achievement,” as Nietzsche remarks—and with that bound to the more modern sense of guilt. Those who are not thought to have acted freely aren’t considered guilty, and are not punished. When we create an economy where some have to borrow from predatory lenders to afford a basic public good and human right like health care, are those debtors really acting freely? Which is the delinquent party?
It’s not just guilt that we equate with debt. The classicist and philosopher Bernard Williams drew a distinction between “thin” concepts, which are purely descriptive, and “thick” concepts, which offer the same description but colored with a value judgment. (To kill, for example, describes that act neutrally; to murder or to euthanize describes the same act with a moral evaluation.) When we say that we are wracked with debt, we seem to be conflating debt with phenomena like pain, doubt, sickness, sorrow. And surely delinquent is a thick concept, too: how interesting that the term for nonpayment is so loaded with implications of criminality, immaturity, and civic failure. This subtle thickness prevents us from properly assessing the transaction: we can’t see it clearly because we’re viewing it with the presumption of its wrongness.
And this judgment is applied to all instances of debt. It seems eccentric that we use the same term for a student debt incurred in the pursuit of public good, as for a corporate debt, incurred in the pursuit of private good. Moreover, assuming that all debt is bad suggests that all debt relief is good, a fallacy that can leave highly indebted poor countries worse off. A neutral description of what we now commonly call debt might be something like temporary transfer. One could even choose to describe it with positive implications, as an investment. After all, the transaction itself isn’t intrinsically painful to us. What wracks us, when we’re wracked, is the judgment—and the threats.
The World Bank researchers discovered that not everyone who responded to their moral appeal—those who often paid their bills in full—could afford to keep doing so. Highlighting the moral context of a loan might motivate a debtor to repay it, but that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable. “Non-repayment of debts by someone who is able to repay is an injustice,” the imam said. But is non-repayment an injustice if that someone is not able to repay? Where is the delinquency then?
After the burst of the real-estate bubble in 2008, moral considerations may have induced homeowners to carry on with mortgages whose value exceeded that of the property. Banks urged underwater homeowners to avoid foreclosure so neighborhood property values wouldn’t decline and the housing market wouldn’t crash—an extra-contractual moral burden that the creditors never shouldered, and a moral claim that didn’t look at the context of the loan as a whole.
But perhaps alternatives to this competitive blaming are possible. Although several languages compound guilt and debt, others do not. Amharic, the dominant language of Ethiopia, shows us one way of thinking about debt differently. One of its words for debtor is the same as a word for creditor: balä-əda, the polysemy goes, owner of debts. The concept is ambiguous between debtors and creditors because their fates are conjoined. Balä-əda: you can’t look at one without considering the other. Owner of debts: if there’s to be any judgment in the debt—in the fact of the loan, in the behavior around it—its locus is unclear. It might even be shared.
MG Zimeta is a writer and academic philosopher, and an honorary research associate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL.
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