What is the biggest ethical challenge facing us today? The reality that we have let economics guide our lives, and in doing so, we have devalued people and the associated virtues of respect, cooperation, empathy, and compassion. The primacy that we have allotted to economics underlies and complicates daily challenges we face; do the following – “stressed and tired”, “juggling work and home”, “surrounded by selfish individuals”, “led by uncaring politicians”, “in strained relationships”, “constantly pressed for time”, “never enough money, even for the basics” sound familiar? In other words, we have been carried away by the pragmatics of the “bottom line” dominate our decision-making, turning money, which is essentially a means, into an end in itself, while turning people, ethically understood as “ends in themselves” (according to Immanuel Kant) into mere means. The idea that money is a resource that should be used to serve our ethical ends—ensuring that our society functions in a way that addresses the needs of everyone—is increasingly losing its allure; instead due to our collective preoccupation with money, we have discarded our responsibility to individual and societal development and lost touch with our values, morals, and relationships with our community and the environment. This shift to market that aims at transforming society as a whole into a ‘market society’, has not only influenced the behaviour of individuals, government institutions, NGOs, and private organizations active in the domains of development, but also dampened intellectual diversity of ideas about human progress.
Do We Have Our Priorities Right?
Money-making is the raison d’être of the modern human civilization. At the individual level, many of us, encouraged by parents and society, embrace wealth accumulation as our prime achievement. Though most of us cannot afford to revolt against such goals created by the market culture, we must not underestimate the lasting impact such values have on our lives and the society at large. For example, these goals induce pressure on our educational institutions to reshuffle their priorities in favour of the pragmatic goal of preparing young people for the workforce, as if technical knowledge and the skills of obedience and productivity are more important than history, identity, meaning, purpose, values, creativity, and vision. In the business world, many investors do not see investing as a moral act, but a financial one. Instead of approaching investment as an opportunity to use their extra money to support those businesses they believe are serving society the best, these investors are motivated simply to use their extra money to make even more money for themselves: they choose to invest in what they think will be most profitable, regardless of whether the values the companies they invest in line up with their own.
The market culture has reduced people to being consumers. Our addiction to consumerism is not only promoted, but also required by the capitalist economic process which is driven by interminable desire for profits and consumption. According to the World Watch Institute (2013), there are now more than 1.7 billion members of the “consumer class”—nearly 50% of them in the developing world. A lifestyle and culture that became common in Europe, North America, Japan, and a few other pockets of the world in the 20th Century is going global in the 21st. Worldwide, the amount spent on goods and services at the household level—topped US$20 trillion in 2000, a four-fold increase over 1960 (in 1995 US$); and between 1950 and 1990 more goods and services were consumed than by all generations in human history! But the irony is that a high level of consumption does not necessarily guarantee happiness (Happy Planet Index 2006; Diener & Kahneman 2013 – Gallup Organization). According to the study, individuals can live long and happy lives without using more than their “fair share” of resources. Data shows that many poorer countries achieve levels of life satisfaction just as high as their wealthier counterparts, implying that above a minimum level, there is no apparent correlation between per capita income and life satisfaction. In fact, a recent study “Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility” (Oxfam/IDS 2012) shows that for most individuals in developed as well as developing countries, “home life is less harmonious, with the unpaid work of care left undone or shouldered by harassed working mothers, tired grandparents or children”, begging the question as to whether we are chasing a mirage with our current model of development.
We often spout fashionable terms like “sustainable development”, but do our daily activities and behaviour reflect the type of “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Bruntland Report 1987)? Instead, we constantly engage in arguments about whether it is realistic to convince states to live within their ecological means, with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institutions, or whether it is fair to convince individuals that limits on material wealth and comfort are required to secure the environment for future generations.
What is the impediment, then? We have a structural problem: the over emphasis on economics has resulted in a de-emphasis on profoundly important things such as, relationships with other humans as well as with nature. This pandemic in turn has lead to an unsustainable world where everyone wants more and more – giving into our desires at every turn, rather than exercising control and limits. Such irresponsible behaviour is applauded in the current world which values consumption over restraint. This hierarchy of values, has seeped into our institutional structures (education, labour, politics, economy), through which disruptive social norms are endorsed and crystallized (Giri 2012; Loy 1997). Most of us take great pride in conforming to this socially-constructed hierarchy of values, defining ourselves, our worth, and success in terms of money and power, go through our entire lifetime without realizing the lasting negative impact that we are leaving behind.
What is the Way Forward?
Traditional economic theory posits that physical resources are finite while our cravings are infinite. As such, failure to reacquaint ourselves with the idea of self-limitation is a recipe for disaster. But again, this is not an inherent or necessary problem: it is socially constructed largely by how we have prioritized money above values and relationships. Individuals can and do transcend this constructed dichotomy, and collectively we can choose to dismantle it by changing how money and power function in society. We can start by thinking and talking more honestly about money, exposing and critically examining the mythology of economics representing the common good. There is a paradox in this mythology: on the one hand, we moralize money, associating wealth with virtue; on the other hand, we regard money as morally neutral. In this paradox, perhaps we strive to create a non-moral value system by which to run our lives, but that itself is only a clever disguise for the re-emergence of “might makes right.” What gets lost is human dignity.
Development is about the well-being of people, and so it is values, relationships, and ethics that should be the end while money is merely one kind of means. It is not unrealistic to hold each other accountable to this standard and insist that our financial policies and social institutions uphold this ideal as well. It is imperative. There is no inherent reason why living true to our ideals or doing what is best for society, the global community, or the planet should be economically impossible. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that our fundamental task is exactly to pool our resources, financial and otherwise, to solve these problems. Reintroducing the idea of restraint, personal limits, and spiritual growth into this highly commoditized and monetized world is an uphill battle. But we have to start somewhere.
*The Centre for Poverty Analysis(CEPA) is an independent, Sri Lankan think-tank promoting a better understanding of poverty related development issues. Vagisha Gunasekara is a Senior Research Professional at the Centre for Poverty Analysis, Sri Lanka. Vagisha received her PhD in political science from Purdue University, USA. Her research straddles issues at the intersection of post-war reconstruction, gender, feminism and international relations.