Ethics@work: Good governance and the luck of the Irish

It is a famous question whether traditional religion makes people more, or less, ethical.

It's always good to get feedback from readers. From the many responses to last week's column I learned that many readers misunderstood my point. So this will I will clarify and expand a little bit. It is a famous question whether traditional religion makes people more, or less, ethical. Not surprisingly, religious people tend to believe that religion reinforces ethics, and many believe that an ethical society is in fact impossible without organized religion. Quite a few non-religious people are skeptical of this claim. But it's hard to find good evidence one way or the other. When the disagreement is over whether something is ethical in the first place, it's pretty easy to discern a correlation. If most religious people think that permitting euthanasia is unethical and most non-religious people think that forbidding it is unethical, then of course each group is more ethical according to their own standard. But when it comes to the everyday no-nos like cheating on your taxes or overcharging your customers, the differences are not obvious and certainly not easy to measure. What I discussed last week is something completely different - that is, whether good governance at the national level is correlated with degree of religious affiliation at the national level. The World Bank ranks countries on six measures of good governance at the national level. The measures are: government accountability to citizens; political stability; government effectiveness; regulatory quality; rule of law; and control of corruption. None of these have any demonstrated connection with the level of individual moral conduct. That is, there is no evidence that countries with weak governance are ones in which individual citizens are inclined to cheat their fellow citizens in private transactions. Independently, the World Values Survey asked people in about 80 countries about their habits and values, including their habits of worship. I put these two data sets together, and what I discovered is that, among developed countries, those with high levels of attendance at places of worship tend to have worse governance, other things being equal. My statement of my results last week was slightly too strong due to some discrepancies in my calculations, which I have meanwhile fixed, but the overall conclusion is unchanged: Among all countries, there is no detectable relationship between worship and governance. But among economically developed countries, the negative correlation between governance and attendance at worship is consistent and significant. The explanation I offered last week is that national governance and local community formation are good substitutes. Everyone wants a stable community and a social and economic safety net. In a poorly governed country, there is an urgent need for people to obtain these through voluntary communities. In well governed countries, people can rely on the government for stability and support. And vice versa: where local communities are well-functioning, there is less urgency for highly efficient government services; people survive without them. But in a society with high levels of individual autonomy, people have nowhere to turn but to the authorities. What country has the "best of both worlds?" The clear winner is Ireland, which is in the top fifth both of best governed countries and those with the highest level of attendance in worship. The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr. org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.