Posted in Books

Crisis and Recovery: Ethics, Economics and Justice

I’ve just finished this fascinating collection of essays – particularly fascinating for me because they bring together contributors from different parts of the political spectrum, but with a common concern that economic life needs to (?re)discover an ethical base which goes beyond mere economics. The book has been well reviewed by John Gray in The Guardian. Gray points out that the various articles add up to a compelling judgment that we can’t go on the way we are – and an equally difficult conundrum as to how we start operating differently.

One very practical essay by Andrew Whittaker (General Counsel to the board at the Financial Services Authority) suggests ways in which cultures can be changed within institutions, but other writers point out that what we need is cultural change on the scale of our whole culture. You can change one part of a culture, particularly if its views are out of alignment with everyone else’s – and I think most people agree that the values of the investment banking sector need changing. But what if they only represent a particularly successful version of a common cultural change? Do the rest of us feel real moral indignation at their actions, or resentment that we’re paying for their mistakes? There’s a significant difference.

The Archbishop and several of the other writers suggest that we need a common ethical base, and in particular they propose a new form of virtue ethics. But as Gray says, ‘Is this imaginable at a time when globalisation has created a market that includes not only countries shaped by monotheism but also those moulded by Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions?’ – and I would add, the secular religions which posit equally various and conflicting basic principles of life.

For me, the Archbishop’s essay points towards a starting point with which all might not agree, but which nevertheless are so basic to my own understanding of human life that I would argue that they should provide a basis for social life. Archbishop Rowan argues that from a Biblical perspective ‘ the model of human existence that is taken for granted is one in which each person is both needy and needed, both dependent on others and endowed with gifts for others’ (p25). In which case, ‘a global economic ethic in which the indefinitely continuing poverty or disadvantage of some is taken fro granted has to be decisively left behind’ (p26). Economic systems cannot be exempt from ethics: we have to reject the arguments which try to describe them as objective fact; human choice is still at work, and to pretend otherwise is nothing but moral cowardice.

Archbishop Rowan talks about one of my favourite recent books, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, as a pointer towards a different way of thinking about our relationship with work, one which gets beyond the scary idea of the ‘work/life balance’ (I thought it was ‘death’ that was the natural other term to ‘life’?). The sceptical side of me remembers William Morris’ News from Nowhere, a vision of a socialist heaven of craft and free exchange – and wonders if we are becoming entirely utopian. But maybe that’s exactly what we need – a vision that is clearly not attainable in the sense of being reducible to an economic programme, and which is not derived solely from one religious or philosophical framework, but which can help us to tell a new story about the sort of world we want to live in – economic life included.

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