Reflections on ethics and the good society

599px-The_Blue_MarbleTony Lawson, a professor of economics and philosophy at Cambridge University, has researched and championed the role of social ontology, that is, the study of the basic subject matter and constitution of social reality, in economics. From a paper of his discussing the role of ethics, in which I found much of interest and inspiration, here are a few choice quotes, which are implicitly critical of mainstream economics and supportive of a different approach to economics as a truly social science:

“Generalised flourishing is…the basis of ethical thinking, the referent of the ethically good.”

“Human interests, the bases of our conditions for flourishing, that allow each to flourish, do not reduce to our preferences. Rather, each human being is a bundle of needs including those of realising various capacities, capabilities and so forth, where flourishing depends on the fulfilment of those needs…[these are] developed in specific historical and socio-cultural contexts. And all are in some ways subject to continuous transformation.”

“Human beings have evolved in communities where the survival and flourishing of each depends on the survival and flourishing of the community, and so ultimately of all others. Thus we are essentially, as a result of evolutionary development, beings whose ability to flourish is bound up with the ability of all others to do so. It is in the interests of each of us that others around us, and ultimately everyone, flourishes; this is so regardless of similarities and differences, so long as the necessary conditions of flourishing of any one is not necessarily undermining of the flourishing of others.”

“The ultimate ethical good is generalised human flourishing…the ethical goal of generalised flourishing will be of a form in which we flourish in our own very different ways; a situation in which the flourishing of each and any of us is a condition of the flourishing of all others…this…can be called the good society or eudemonia.”

“Given that there are obstacles blocking the achievement of any such good society…then action that can be considered derivatively as morally good or right is action oriented to removing such obstacles.”

“In the context of modern economics specifically, it seems especially urgent that we more clearly recognise and embrace the insight that rationality itself is not about adopting a narrow self-oriented individualism of the sort that populates modern texts but about acting as far as possible in ways that facilitate the flourishing of us all.”

3 thoughts on “Reflections on ethics and the good society

  1. It is hard to disagree with Lawson’s pronouncements—however, in a way, that’s the problem. I venture the claim that all of the above propositions could be equally endorsed by a socialist and a libertarian—the last quote may look a little less obviously palatable to the libertarian, as he seems to be the implied target, nevertheless he could accommodate the phrasing, too.

    At the same time, the parts about flourishing could be challenged by both camps, with the libertarian perhaps emphasising competition and creative destruction, which inevitably involve non-flourishing, and the socialist pointing to the class struggle and the need to stop the flourishing of disliked social strata/agents.

    • I have some sympathy with your comments. Creative destruction, essential to economic growth and change under capitalism, need not mean permanent negative effects on the flourishing of particular individuals, say through job loss. But it needs to be managed by governments in order to minimise long term exclusion from prosperity. Some countries seem to be better at this than others, with the US having a poor record on poverty especially. Perhaps it is a matter of time frames. I still find these philosophical musings inspiring even if they may be somewhat idealistic.

      • I agree with you.

        I did not mean to insinuate that “these philosophical musings” are trivial or useless, far from it: the difficult task is to work them out; we—not necessarily you and I— have different approaches to it, which diversity is a plus, especially if we manage to involve the different positions in a common process of arriving at ever temporary approximations to a solution.

        I enjoy reading your fine blog as it attests to an open mind, which is not that easy to find when it comes to economics with its inevitably value-laden political implications.

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