Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Towards a Moral Economy

Guest post by Isaac Fox

Morality and Economics. Those are two words that we seldom see juxtaposed in  print. And I suspect that we seldom associate them in our own minds. We hear a lot about the economy these days. "The economy is up"; "The economy is down"; "We're in a recession"; "Maybe the economy needs another stimulus package"; and on and on we go. Our chief concern with the economy seems to be only how much wealth is presently flowing towards us. In fact, that seems to be as far as our definition and understanding of economy goes. A good economy means that I am making more money at the moment. "Good" has no specially moral value in the above sentence. Perhaps we might feel an occasional self-righteous hint of moral repugnance at the size of the National Debt, or the disparity between the rich and the poor in America, but beyond that morality remains largely unconnected in our minds with the economy. Yet economic structures contain all the necessary ingredients for moral culpability or virtue, and demand moral thought and action from us, as much as government, environmentalism, politics, business, and our inter-personal relationships do. When we leave morality out of politics, business, relationships, etc... well, I probably don't need to finish that sentence--we've all seen where it goes.

Let's glance at morality for just a moment. Morality has to do with relationship. Relationship is implied in every moral action. To see this, let's take an extreme (and impossible) hypothetical example. Suppose that nothing existed except you. No God, no universe, no people, and no possibility of anything else ever coming to exist. There is no law for you to break, there are no persons for you to hurt, and no God for you to offend. Without relationship to a law, or God, or nature, or other persons, your actions will have no moral significance. Morality enters the scene the moment a relationship is established.

Now, hold that thought for a second, and let's go back to economics. The first part of the Merriam-Webster College Dictionary's definition of economics reads as follows: "The social science that deals with the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services...." Through this definition we can see that economics deals with very relational topics. Production involves labor, or work. Distribution involves buying, selling and shipping. Or to put it more simply: trade. So economics involves  work, trade, and consumption. Now it is almost self-evident that these three subjects are fundamentally relational and moral.

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