Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Values for New Economic Relationships

Academic journal article The Ecumenical Review

Values for New Economic Relationships

Article excerpt

The topic of this essay is the need for explicit non-economic values in economic analysis and policy-making to guide ethical choices in the trade-offs between growth and the environment. The specific focus is on work issues and the attitudes and values implied in economic and environmental policy affecting work. We shall begin by identifying the values currently underpinning production, consumption, and the role of work and the economic and environmental policies affecting them. Next, we shall point to the moral presumptions of a new economic vision and their implications for work. A third section will present some concrete proposals by some visionary economists for a just and sustainable economic order. The final section will address the kinds of action necessary for the necessary structural transformation.

Values underlying current economic relationships

Capitalist market economic systems dominate global economic relationships today. Since each nation's market capitalism is uniquely shaped by its people's shared history, goals and culture, there is a whole spectrum of market capitalisms differentiated on the basis of the degree of integration between political and economic life. Yet underlying all is a shared set of inter-related assumptions and values.

1. Market capitalism is grounded in utilitarian hedonistic philosophies of human nature. The fundamental assumption is that human beings are motivated primarily by self-interest -- seeking their own good as they define it and avoiding what brings them pain. This self-centred individualism fundamentally determines the relationships between persons in societies with capitalist market economies. Individuals are assumed to enter into contacts with others only to advance their own interests. In the classic formulation of Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our

dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their

humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their

advantages.(1)

Since human wants are basically insatiable, this basic definition of human nature has fostered the consumerist growth ethic which has dominated the 20th century.

2. On the basis of the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and his followers, the good of the individual is equated with his or her desires, and the social good is thus identified with the sum total of the individuals' desires. "The greatest good for the greatest number" becomes the operative definition of the social good to be pursued.(2) Laissez-faire economic doctrines and the policy prescriptions flowing from them have been shaped by this definition.

3. Individuals should be as free as possible to pursue their own interests as they define them. Interference with individual freedom is by definition undesirable, since it will diminish persons' sense of advancing their own good and hence their incentive to perform those actions necessary for the social good. The presumption is always for individual freedom, and the burden of proof is upon anyone who argues for diminishing individual freedom. Leaving individuals (including economic actors such as corporations and nations) free to make their choices in free markets (assumed to mean markets unfettered by government regulations) is seen as the best way to achieve individual and social good. The freedom to make choices, to take risks in expectation of individual gain, is essential to the creativity of the market capitalist systems. The reality of inequality of market rewards is part of the price of motivating risk-takers.

4. If everyone takes care of himself or herself, everyone will be taken care of. Since the goal is satisfaction of individual self-interest and individuals are conceived to know best what their interests are and how they want to achieve them, then individuals are responsible for themselves and their own households. …

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