Ethics reduced to economics?

Over the years I’ve listened to many of BBC Radio 4’s short talks entitled Thought for the Day. I always found one of the most profound speakers to be Jonathan Sacks, then Chief Rabbi, who died recently. I am indebted to David Lorimer’s New Renaissance Newsletter, published by SciMed, for bringing to my attention the significant speech given by Sacks in his 2016 Acceptance Address for the Templeton Prize. The following extracts key points related to our current Western predicament. It could almost be his manifesto for a New Renaissance. Or you could just read the original at the above link.

“We have forgotten one of the most important lessons to have emerged from the wars of religion in 16/17C and the new birth of freedom that followed. A free society is a moral achievement. Without self-restraint, without the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct, and without the habits of heart and deed that we call virtues, we will eventually lose our freedom.

At some point the West abandoned this belief. When I went to Cambridge in the late 60s, the philosophy course was then called Moral Sciences, meaning that just like the natural sciences, morality was objective, real, part of the external world. I soon discovered, though, that almost no one believed this anymore. Morality was no more than the expression of emotion, or subjective feeling, or private intuition, or autonomous choice. It was, within limits, whatever I chose it to be. In fact there was nothing left to study but the meaning of words. To me this seemed less like civilization than the breakdown of a civilization.

It took me years to work out what had happened. Morality had been split in two and outsourced to other institutions. There were moral choices and there were the consequences of our moral choices. Morality itself was outsourced to the market. The market gives us choices, and morality itself is just a set of choices in which right or wrong have no meaning beyond the satisfaction or frustration of desire. The result is that we find it increasingly hard to understand why there might be things we want to do, can afford to do, and have a legal right to do, that nonetheless we should not do because they are unjust or dishonourable or disloyal or demeaning: in a word, unethical. Ethics was reduced to economics.

The consequences of our choices were outsourced to the state. Bad choices lead to bad outcomes: failed relationships, neglected children, depressive illness, wasted lives. But the government would deal with it. Forget about marriage as a sacred bond between husband and wife. Forget about the need of children for a loving and secure human environment. Forget about the need for communities to give us support in times of need. Welfare was outsourced to the state. As for conscience, that once played so large a part in the moral life, that could be outsourced to regulatory bodies. So having reduced moral choice to economics, we transferred the consequences of our choices to politics.

It seemed to work, at least for a generation or two. But by now problems have arisen that can’t be solved by the market or the state alone. To mention just a few: The structural unemployment that follows outsourcing. The further unemployment that will come when artificial intelligence increasingly replaces human judgment and skill. Artificially low interest rates that encourage borrowing and debt and discourage saving and investment. Wildly inflated CEO pay. The lowering of living standards, first of the working class, then of the middle class. The insecurity of employment. The inability of young families to afford a home. The collapse of marriage, leading to intractable problems of child poverty and depression. The collapse of birthrates throughout Europe, leading to unprecedented levels of immigration, and the systemic failure to integrate some of these groups. The loss of family, community and identity, that once gave us the strength to survive unstable times…

Why have they proved insoluble? First, because they are global, and governments are only national. Second, because they are long term while the market and liberal democratic politics are short term. Third, because they depend on changing habits of behaviour, which neither the market nor the liberal democratic state are mandated to do. Above all, though, because they can’t be solved by the market and the state alone. You can’t outsource conscience. You can’t delegate moral responsibility away.

When you do, you raise expectations that cannot be met. And when, inevitably, they are not met, society becomes freighted with disappointment, anger, fear, resentment and blame. People start to take refuge in magical thinking, which today takes one of four forms: the far right, the far left, religious extremism and aggressive secularism. The far right seeks a return to a golden past that never was. The far left seeks a utopian future that will never be. Religious extremists believe you can bring salvation by terror. Aggressive secularists believe that if you get rid of religion there will be peace.

Two historical phenomena have long fascinated me. One is the strange fact that, having lagged behind China for a thousand years, the West overtook it in 17C, creating science, industry, technology, the free market and the free society. The second is the no less strange fact that Jews and Judaism survived for two thousand years after the destruction of the Second Temple, having lost everything on which their existence was predicated in the Bible: their land, their home, their freedom, their Temple, their kings, their prophets and priests.

The explanation in both cases, is the same. It is the precise opposite of outsourcing: namely the internalization of what had once been external. Wherever in the world Jews prayed, there was the Temple. Every prayer was a sacrifice, every Jew a priest, and every community a fragment of Jerusalem. Something similar happened in those strands of Islam that interpreted jihad not as a physical war on the battlefield but as a spiritual struggle within the soul.

A parallel phenomenon occurred in Christianity after the Reformation, especially in the Calvinism that in 16/17C transformed Holland, Scotland, England of the Revolution and America of the Pilgrim Fathers. It was this to which Max Weber famously attributed the spirit of capitalism. The external authority of the Church was replaced by the internal voice of conscience. This made possible the widely distributed networks of trust on which the smooth functioning of the market depends. We are so used to contrasting the material and the spiritual that we sometimes forget that the word credit comes from the Latin credo, I believe, and confidence, that requisite of investment and economic growth, comes from fidentia meaning faith or trust.

What emerged in Judaism and post-Reformation Christianity was the rarest of character-types: the inner-directed personality. Most societies, for most of history, have been either tradition-directed or other-directed. People do what they do, either because that is how they have always been done, or because that’s what other people do.

Inner-directed types are different. They become pioneers, innovators, survivors. They have an internalized navigation system, so aren’t fazed by uncharted territory. They have a strong sense of duty to others. They try to have secure marriages. They hand on their values to their children. They belong to strong communities. They take daring but carefully calculated risks. When they fail, they have rapid recovery times.

They have discipline. They enjoy tough challenges and hard work. They play it long. They are more interested in sustainability than quick profits. They know they have to be responsible to customers, employees and shareholders, as well as to the wider public, because only thus will they survive in the long run. They don’t do foolish things like creative accounting, subprime mortgages, and falsified emissions data, because they know you can’t fake it forever. They don’t consume the present at the cost of the future, because they have a sense of responsibility for the future. They have the capacity to defer the gratification of instinct. They do all this because they have an inner moral voice. Some call it conscience. Some call it the voice of God.

Cultures like that stay young. They defeat the entropy, the loss of energy, that has spelled the decline and fall of every other empire and superpower in history. But the West has let it go. It’s externalized what it once internalized. It has outsourced responsibility. It’s reduced ethics to economics and politics. Which means we are dependent on the market and the state, forces we can do little to control. One day our descendants will look back and ask, How did the West lose what once made it great?

Every observer of the grand sweep of history has said essentially the same thing: civilizations begin to die when they lose the moral passion that brought them into being. It happened to Greece and Rome, and it can happen to the West. Sure signs are: falling birthrate, moral decay, growing inequalities, loss of trust in social institutions, self-indulgence of the rich, hopelessness of the poor, unintegrated minorities, failure to make sacrifices for the sake of the future, loss of faith in old beliefs and no new vision to take their place. These danger signals are flashing now.

There is an alternative: to become inner-directed again. This means recovering the moral dimension that links our welfare to the welfare of others, making us collectively responsible for the common good. It means recovering the spiritual dimension that helps us tell the difference between the value of things and their price. We are more than consumers and voters; our dignity transcends what we earn and own. It means remembering that what’s important is not just satisfying our desires but also knowing which desires to satisfy. It means restraining ourselves in the present so that our children may have a viable future. It means reclaiming collective memory and identity so that society becomes less of a hotel and more of a home. It means learning that there are some things we cannot or should not outsource, some responsibilities we cannot or should not delegate away. 

We owe it to our children and grandchildren not to throw away what once made the West great, not for the sake of some idealized past, but for the sake of a demanding and deeply challenging future. If we do simply let it go, if we continue to forget that a free society is a moral achievement that depends on habits of responsibility and restraint, then what will come next – be it Russia, China, ISIS or Iran – will be neither liberal nor democratic, and it will certainly not be free. We need to restate the moral and spiritual dimensions in the language of the twenty-first century, using the media of the twenty-first century, and in ways that are uniting rather than divisive.”

Featured image of Sacks by cooperniall via Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “Ethics reduced to economics?

  1. Thanks Barry, appreciate this piece and the wisdom from Sacks, he was quite a thinker. And with this piece he has certainly nailed our current woes and also provides a way forward if we are only wise enough to accept.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure. I don’t believe morality is objective.. surely that would imply that it comes from a source beyond humanity. It clearly changes with time and culture, and I expect species. Still there are instinctive ethics that most social mammals have, like a sense of fairness and the extension of empathy. I’m offput by the citation of marriage and birthrates as having something to do with societal ethics. To me, cruelty and indifference to suffering in our own and other species is the key moral challenge of humanity. If we don’t meet it, we don’t deserve to be called civilised, or indeed to survive at all. But deserve is a highly subjective term.

    Liked by 1 person

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