Economics and Ethics Cannot Be Separated

Cape Times (South Africa), November 30, 2007 | Go to article overview

Economics and Ethics Cannot Be Separated


BYLINE: Joseph Edozien

Margaret Legum, the longtime chairperson of the South African New Economics network who died this month, has left a legacy of important social and economic thought which is of great relevance to the present and future of South Africa.

Legum was in some circles underrated as a thinker because the passion of her activism sometimes obscured the profundity and elegance of the theoretical framework from which it drew. She acted from a theoretical point of view. And that theory was founded in spirituality and ethics, the wellsprings of her social consciousness.

"Society" for her meant "sharing": sharing fairly and sharing kindly.

The bounty, in Legum's mind, was the commons. The idea of "the commons" was central in her social thought.

The commons is not a place. It is the abundance of basic resources which a good society provides to its people as a birthright. The truly normal society is a humane society: a sharing, caring and nurturing one.

This is not some utopian state of being, but simply what is truly normal. The current state of human affairs, with its large-scale unsharing, uncaring and inhumanity, is what is abnormal.

Relations between people are affected by the intermediation of resources and work. People now mostly relate to each other through and around resources and work, including such things as money and jobs. Thus, how the provision of resources and work is organised profoundly affects how people feel about themselves and about each other. It affects how they relate to each other and to themselves.

But this system connecting people, resources and work is precisely the economic system. Therefore, one cannot separate economics from relationships between people, even the most intimate and personal of relationships.

Economic systems shape spiritual, ethical and emotional relationships between people.

Economics is a spiritual science dealing deeply in human values, human ends and human emotions. This may surprise people who think of economics as a cold, abstract and unintelligibly difficult subject.

What is most important in economics is how the organisation of resources and work affects how people feel about themselves and about each other, and thus how they treat themselves and treat each other. How people organise themselves in relation to resources and work affects all areas of society and culture, especially mental health, for good or for ill.

One cannot ever separate the ethical from the economic. One can only pretend to do so.

The view that economics is ethics in extension is genuinely orthodox in the long tradition of theoretical economic thought. It is consistent with Aristotle, who formally founded the subject in the formal Western intellectual tradition. It is consistent with St Thomas Aquinas, who shaped economic thinking in Europe for almost 1 000 years. It is consistent with Adam Smith, who is considered the founder of modern Western economics. It is consistent with early modern European economists. And it is consistent with Karl Marx. More importantly, it is consistent with the economic thought of traditional indigenous peoples. Even more importantly, it is rooted in African cultural thinking.

It is the contemporary dominant paradigm of "dispassionate" economics, with its separation of economics from ethics, that is actually quite heterodox in the long tradition of human economic thinking.

In this sense, and in light of the long tradition of great economic thinkers, the compassionate new economic thinking advocated by Legum and those who think like her is actually more orthodox than today's "orthodoxy."

An economic system should be equitable to be sustainable in the long run. This means it should be sharing, caring and kind. If it is true that evil is unsustainable and good prevails in the long run, an economic system will have to be fair and share the bounty well in order to be sustainable. …

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