Home > Uncategorized > Changing the conceptions of morality and reality associated with economics

Changing the conceptions of morality and reality associated with economics

from Richard Norgaard

Economism has been modern capitalism’s myth system, or in computer parlance, capitalism’s operating system. It has stressed utilitarian moral beliefs compatible with economic assumptions that are critical to neoclassical economic theories. These beliefs include the idea that society is simply the sum of its individuals and their desires, that people can be perfectly, or at least sufficiently, informed to act rationally in markets, that markets balance individual greed for the common good, and that nature can be divided up into parts and owned and managed as property without systemic social and environmental consequences (Norgaard, 2019). Especially after World War II when the industrialized nations globally organized around economic beliefs and set out to spread their economic systems among less industrialized nations, these simple beliefs steadily displaced more complex moral discourses of traditional religions (Cobb, Jr, 2001). Economism has facilitated climate change and other anthropogenic drivers of rapid environmental change. Natural scientists are labeling current times the Anthropocene. I advocate using the term Econocene since our economic beliefs, both moral and those with respect to reality, and the econogenic drivers they facilitated have been critical to the rise of rapid environmental change. Furthermore, the term Econocene alludes to the current social and technological structures and human capital that are sustained by economism.[1] Escaping the Econocene will require dynamically, polycentrically, reconnecting reality and morality writ large.

I have invoked the terms “reality” and “morality” several times and will do so many times again as if people, whether individually or collectively, were able to comprehend reality and morality directly. I have no doubt that reality will remain elusive. I do not imagine people comprehending the changing details and dynamics of natural systems, as well as the combined complexities of natural and social systems interacting. Nor do I imagine people mastering the long and diverse discourses on morality, as if there were no limits on human understanding. Of course, there are limits. We need to be continually humbly aware of our limits (see for example DeCanio, 2013).And so I am advocating that morality and reality need to be actively discussed, not things long lost in economic fables. Morality and reality have long been ignored in the vague units of analyses precisely presented in the mathematics of economists. It is time to listen to scientists and moral philosophers and to have more people entering into informed, reasoned debate.[2] A key point of this paper is that we need to remove the constructed narrow conceptions of morality and reality associated with the economics and economism that have brought humanity and the planet to the brink of disaster and into centuries of rapid change.

Such a dynamic environmental and social future raises a key issue stated most effectively by Yuval Noah Harari (2011, p. 30):  “Any large scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”

Neoliberal economics and its supporting economism is simply a specific belief system, albeit one that has sustained unusually viral, imperial claims. Its demise and replacement with another economic belief system, however, will only briefly suffice. Due to historic and ongoing econogenic drivers, our options for acting within natural, social, and moral systems will keep changing, leading us into less known to totally unknown territory in all three systems. Operating in a world of more rapid and unpredictable change will require frequently changing our provisioning system and supporting culture. The democratic challenge is to acquire a widely shared public myth system that connects moral, social, and natural systems while also continually adapting to rapid change.

My argument unfolds as follows.  ( read more: Post-economics: Reconnecting reality and morality to escape the Econocene)

[1] Many social thinkers have found that the term “Anthropocene” blames people in an inappropriately inclusive yet nondescript way that does not inform action. Capitalocene, Technocene, and other alternatives that have been put forward and the swirl of arguments initiated by Malm and Hornborg (2014) are reviewed by Lopez-Corona and Magallanes-Guijon (2020).

[2] Because modern ways of knowing are fractured, I have long advocated methodological pluralism (Norgaard, 1989). My historic concerns have been updated for the Econocene (Goddard, Kallis, and Norgaard, 2019). With the multiple perspectives on reality and morality that we have, reaching shared understanding through expert discussion and public discourse is the only option. I am concerned that such a process will work, let alone work fast enough to reach shared understandings rapidly enough in a future of rapid change.

  1. metaecongary
    August 19, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    Right on. It is time to bring ethics back into the framework, rather than being opposed to any kind of ethical reflection as in the Neoclassical (esp. Libertarian branch of the Chicago School) frame of mind. Metaeconomics does so, through seeing the role of empathy. Empathy based ethics works to form the shared (with others) interest. The other (shared, yet internalized within own-self)-interest, in turn, works to temper the self-interest, the latter being the only interest in “Economism.” See my Metaeconomics, which puts ethics front and center, as made clear in my new book (see the Metaeconomics Blog accessible at http://www.metaeconomics.info for book information, as well as for applications of dual interest theory which gives the analytical machinery of Metaeconomics). (and, Dick , hello: Gary Lynne here!).

  2. Ken Zimmerman
    August 22, 2021 at 8:17 am

    Ruth Benedict’s ‘Patterns of Culture’ (1934) was translated into fourteen languages and for years, it was published in many editions and used as standard reading material for anthropology courses in American universities. It is still standard reading in first anthropology courses. The essential idea in ‘Patterns of Culture’ is, according to the foreword by Margaret Mead, “her view that human cultures are ‘personality writ large.'” Benedict wrote in that book, “A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action” (46). Each culture, she held, chooses from “the great arc of human potentialities” only a few characteristics which become the leading personality traits of the persons living in that culture. These traits comprise an interdependent constellation of aesthetics and values in each culture which together add up to a unique gestalt. For example, she described the emphasis on restraint in Pueblo cultures of the American southwest, and the emphasis on abandon in the Native American cultures of the Great Plains. She describes how, in ancient Greece, the worshipers of Apollo emphasized order and calm in their celebrations. In contrast, the worshipers of Dionysus, the god of wine, emphasized wildness, abandon, letting go, as did Native Americans. She described in detail the contrasts between rituals, beliefs, personal preferences amongst people of diverse cultures to show how each culture had a “personality” that was encouraged in each individual. Other anthropologists of the culture and personality school also developed these ideas, notably Margaret Mead in her Coming of Age in Samoa (published before “Patterns of Culture”) and Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (published just after Benedict’s book came out). Abram Kardiner was also affected by these ideas, and in time, the concept of “modal personality” was born: the cluster of traits most commonly thought to be observed in people of any given culture. Benedict, in ‘Patterns of Culture,’ expresses her belief in cultural relativism. She desired to show that each culture has its own moral imperatives that can be understood only if one studies that culture as a whole. It was wrong, she felt, to disparage the customs or values of a culture different from one’s own. Those customs had a meaning to the people who lived them which should not be dismissed or trivialized. We should not try to evaluate people by our standards alone. Morality, she argued, was relative to the values of the culture in which one operated.

    Modem Western society is a secularized society in which religion has become the concern, primarily, of the individual. Similarly, community moral beliefs are subordinate to laws which are designed and intended to protect society and all its members. This is the result of the ongoing process of secularization, religion as a social institution has lost much of its societal relevance (Berger 1967; Luchman 1967). Due to processes of differentiation, specialization, and the accompanying process of individualization in particular, religion and private moral beliefs were forced to retreat from many important sectors of social life. Religion has become a highly specialized institution of its own, like other major social institutions such as the family, education, economics, and politics. As a consequence of individualization, individuals are free to choose and practice their own religious convictions, just as they are free to choose their own political ideas, primary relationships, moral beliefs, and so on (Beyer 1990). So long as these do not ‘violate’ societal laws and government standards. There are of course hundreds of other cultural customs and norms that distinguish western cultures. For example, these are American circa 1984. Some things have changed.
    1. PERSONAL CONTROL OVER THE ENVIRONMENT People can/should control nature, their own environment and destiny. The future is not left to fate. Result: An energetic, goal-oriented society.
    2. CHANGE / MOBILITY Change is seen as positive and good. This means progress, improvement and growth. Result: An established transient society geographically, economically and socially.
    3. TIME AND ITS IMPORTANCE Time is valuable – achievement of goals depends on the productive use of time. Result: An efficient and progressive society often at the expense of interpersonal relationships.
    4. EQUALITY / EGALITARIANISM People have equal opportunities; people are important as individuals, for who they are, not from which family they come. Result: A society where little deference is shown or status is acknowledged.
    5. INDIVIDUALISM, INDEPENDENCE AND PRIVACY People are seen as separate individuals (not group members) with individual needs. People need time to be alone and to be themselves. Result: Americans may be seen as self-centered and sometimes isolated and lonely.
    6. SELF-HELP Americans take pride in their own accomplishments. Result: Americans give respect for self achievements not achievements based on rights of birth.
    7. COMPETITION AND FREE ENTERPRISE Americans believe competition brings out the best in people and free enterprise leads to progress and produces success Result: Competition is emphasized over cooperation, sometimes to the detriment of working together.
    8. FUTURE ORIENTATION / OPTIMISM Americans believe that, regardless of past or present, the future will be better and happier. Result: Americans place less value on past events and constantly look ahead to tomorrow.
    9. ACTION AND WORK ORIENTATION Americans believe that work is morally right; that it is immoral to waste time. Result: There is more emphasis on “doing” rather than “being”. This is a no-nonsense attitude toward life a basic aspect of progressive society.
    10. INFORMALITY Americans believe that formality is “un-American” and a show of arrogance and superiority. Result: A casual, egalitarian attitude between people is more accepted.
    11. DIRECTNESS / OPENNESS / HONESTY One can only trust people who “look you in the eye” and “tell it like it is”. Truth is a function of reality not of circumstance. Result: People tend to tell the “truth” and not worry about saving the other person’s “face” or “honor”.
    12. PRACTICALITY / EFFICIENCY Practicality is usually the most important consideration when decisions are to be made. Result: Americans place less emphasis on the subjective, aesthetic, emotional or consensual decisions.
    13. MATERIALISM / ACQUISITIVENESS Material goods are seen as the just rewards of hard-work, the evidence of “God’s favor.” Result: Americans are seen as caring more for things than people or relationships.
    • Adapted from “The Values Americans Live By”, L. Robert Kohls, 1984.

    These laws and standards include a long list of civil rights (voting, private property, equal opportunity, equal standing before the law, religious freedom, education, and so on). They also include standards (mostly judicial) for assessing when and how these rights have been denied or violated. There are no associated duty standards. For example, to ensure that private property is used for the benefit of society as well as individual owners, that religious freedom is not abused, that legal proceedings are not subverted, and so on. Since the beginning of the nation, each of these rights and standards has been at times fought over, vilified, and only protected with law enforcement and the military.

  3. August 22, 2021 at 3:00 pm
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: