THEME M | Meanings and Moral Framings of the Good Life

The foundation for our work is an understanding of the meanings of prosperity. The goal of theme M is to explore the moral and philosophical assumptions that underpin visions of sustainable prosperity. Critically, we seek to identify which pivotal institutions and political questions need to be addressed if ‘sustainable prosperity’ is to be achieved in practice, rather than just valued as an idea. Browse through updates from this theme below. Read on for detailed information about the work programme.

Research Updates


The theme adopts a pragmatist and pluralistic approach to moral debate, seeking to showcase diverse philosophical and everyday theories and ideas of what ‘sustainable prosperity’ might mean. It is based on an understanding that moral philosophies need to become embedded in the institutions, commitments and ethos of economic actors, if they are to be a basis for change. The moral deficits of existing institutions, commitments and ethos of contemporary economic activity also need to be brought to light. For these reasons, the theme aims to provide a bridge between philosophical debate, dominant institutions of contemporary capitalism and intuitive understandings and notions of ‘fairness’ or ‘the good’.

Two philosophical problems in particular recur in the various work packages of this theme, which are viewed as critical to unlocking the possibility of sustainable prosperity.

Firstly, there is a concern with the good life and human flourishing. Modern economics seeks to isolate questions of ‘value’ from those of ‘values’; yet this separation also produces institutional, technocratic and political frameworks which lose sight of ethical purpose. By posing philosophical questions about the nature of the good life and its economic components, this theme aims to reconnect economic and ethical considerations and debates. One critical challenge in this respect is the problem of complexity of economic institutions (for instance, in lengthy chains of ownership of assets), which leads to a distancing of economic agency from its broader social and environmental effects. Ethical questions of the good life must be addressed within such institutional contexts, and not merely in the abstract.

Secondly, there is a concern with the future as a moral issue, whether that be in a fictional, imaginary or modelled sense. The theme uses ideas of utopias and science fiction in order to interrogate assumptions and moral visions about the future, while also engaging with latest developments in economic sociology and moral economy, which look at the techniques and principles which allow the future to be valued and represented in different ways. Moral questions of intergenerational justice and inheritance accompany this inquiry.

Meanings and Moral Framings of the Good Life
Image: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 :: Ian Christie / University of Surrey

M1 :: Philosophical Understandings

To explore the meaning and moral framing of sustainable prosperity, we have been commissioning papers by leading international philosophers, social theorists and political economists, each adopting a distinctive and divergent perspective on the topic. The first series was published over the course of 2017, by the following authors Melissa Lane, Princeton University; Roger Scruton; John Bellamy Foster, University of Oregon; Ingrid Robeyns, Utrecht University; John O’Neill, Manchester; Ruth Levitas, Bristol University. These connect questions of human flourishing with those of economic and environmental policy, seeking the normative foundations and possible institutions that might underpin sustainable prosperity in future. The papers are written with the purpose of enriching public debate, and receive written responses as they appear. The print publication of this series was launched at the 3rd Nature of Prosperity Symposium, featuring several of the essay authors.

A second series of essays on the morality of sustainable prosperity will be published over the first half of 2019, featuring contributions from Peter Frase, Miriam Ronzoni, Geoff Mann, Jonathan Rowson and Isabelle Ferreras, concluding with another Nature of Prosperity dialogue in July 2019.

M2 :: Professional understandings

This programme of work focuses on professional advisors and consultants, in order to consider the way in which expertise and professional advice function in a normatively binding fashion. In particular, it looks at how explicitly moral dimensions of professional identity (duty towards the public interest of some kind) sits alongside technical matters of expertise and knowledge; and at how experts succeed in distinguishing matters of ‘efficiency’ from matters of ‘equity’. It seeks to understand how advisors transform the moral dimensions of economic activity, and look at how political philosophers have understood the role of advice within government and society.

Two strands of work are feeding into M2, being conducted by Dr Nick Taylor. The first examines the actuarial profession, to look at how traditional notions of risk are extended to deal with far-reaching social and ecological changes in the future. The second looks at professional ‘futurists’, to look at the epistemological and ethical underpinnings of their vocation and knowledge claims regarding the future. This research seeks to unpack the moral and theoretical assumptions at work, in allowing experts to make knowledge claims about the future, in a time of ecological disruption.

M3 :: Everyday Understandings

This strand of work examines everyday understandings of ‘sustainable prosperity’, that is, what are the moral and philosophical underpinnings of everyday concerns with prosperity, sustainability and the future. It builds on the M1 theme, and works in cooperation with S1, to examine ways in which questions of value, justice and the future are at work in lived social, environmental and economic practices. The question of everyday ‘utopias’, as tools of orientation and hope, is foregrounded, to consider what kinds of future people imagine and plan for. This treatment of utopia as a method – as explored by Ruth Levitas in her essay for us – is developed in M3 to illuminate the visions and aspirations that guide people to sustainable futures.

M3 includes empirical research on lifestyles and ideologies that recast prosperity, and create new forms of moral economy. These include a study of communities that seek to radically reduce their consumption. It also considers ways in which ‘sustainable prosperity’ meshes with ideals of community and democracy, so as to empower people, asking how the political forces roused by populism can be harnessed and diverted towards the goal of sustainable prosperity.

M4 :: International dimensions

In partnership with international civil society organisations, this piece of work hosts a series of discussions for how ‘sustainable prosperity’ is conceived as an international phenomenon. As with other areas of the philosophical strand of the CUSP research, this seeks to bridge between technical matters of economic policy and normative principles and philosophies which might provide a basis for reform and new consensus. Events are hosted, accompanied by the production of brief working papers, to take dominant concepts of international economic governance, and critically scrutinise them, unearth their latent moral assumptions and consider alternatives. A theme running through these events is the need to challenge a neoliberal worldview, in which nations are comparable to firms, competing in a ‘global race’.


Nervous States: How Feelings Took Over the World | By Will Davies

February 25, 2019

Why do we no longer trust experts, facts and statistics? Why has politics become so fractious and warlike? What caused the populist political upheavals of recent years? How can the history of ideas help us understand our present? In this far-reaching exploration of our new political landscape, CUSP co-investigator Will Davies reveals how feelings have come to reshape our world.

The Commonplaces of Environmental Scepticism

December 2, 2018

It is nearly half a century since the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report was published. The thesis at its core—that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet—is a seemingly common sensical proposition. To investigate why the ‘limits to growth’ has not yet led to decisive political action, this paper examines the thought of its most explicit critics in debate, employing Wayne Booth’s ‘Listening Rhetoric’, used to understand opposing discourses on their own terms.

Social Mobility

June 23, 2018

There has been an increasingly common trend in the UK to identify character skills and traits as the basis for various individual successes and achievements. In education policy and employment services, character has been linked to the making of successful, morally aware, employable and socially mobile citizens. This article explores the late-19th-century use of character discourses, focusing on the economist Alfred Marshall.

Economic Science Fictions book cover, with chapter by Tim Jackson

March 26, 2018

From the libertarian economics of Ayn Rand to Aldous Huxley’s consumerist dystopias, economics and science fiction have often orbited each other. In Economic Science Fictions, CUSP co-investigator Will Davies has deliberately merged the two worlds, asking how we might harness the power of the utopian imagination to revitalise economic thinking.

October 9, 2017

The language of capital penetrates social and environmental policy discussions at local, national and international level. Yet its appeal, John O’Neill argues, is premised on a fundamental misunderstanding of prosperity. The treatment of nature as capital is not a solution to the problems of environmental loss. Rather, it is part of the problem.

June 27, 2017

In the fifth essay in our series, Ruth Levitas argues that thinking about our ethical responsibilities in the present and for the future is helped by looking through the lens of Utopia. The Utopian approach allows us not only to imagine what an alternative society could look like, but enables us to imagine what it might feel like to inhabit it.

May 10, 2017

Is it possible to lead rich and good lives that are simultaneously just and ecologically sustainable? Yes, Ingrid Robeyns argues in the fourth of our CUSP essay series on the morality of sustainable prosperity, if we understand well-being and human flourishing in terms of human capabilities.

Prosperity Without Growth — Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow (Book Cover, 2017)

April 27, 2017

The publication of Prosperity without Growth was a landmark in the sustainability debate. This substantially revised and re-written edition updates its arguments and considerably expands upon them. Tim Jackson demonstrates that building a ‘post-growth’ economy is not Utopia – it’s a precise, definable and meaningful task. It’s about taking simple steps towards an economics fit for purpose.

March 17, 2017

The nature of work has divided thinkers across the fields since the Industrial Revolution. In his Marxian take on the meaning of work, John Bellamy Foster argues that the real potential for any future sustainable society rests not so much on its expansion of leisure time, but rather on its capacity to generate a new world of collective work.

February 10, 2017

Can we create communities that are both prosperous and sustainable? And can we do this while retaining democratic procedures? These are huge questions and, like others who have addressed them, Roger Scruton is by no means convinced that he has a persuasive answer. But an answer is more likely to be found, he argues, “in the legacy of conservative thinking, than by adopting the standpoint of the top-down plan.”

January 13, 2017

The field of ‘moral economy’ explores the ways in which seemingly amoral economic institutions are normatively and politically instituted. However it has tended to neglect the question of how economic actors make commitments to the long-term future, of the sort that are implied by the idea of ‘sustainable prosperity’. Anthropocenic utopias are urgently required.

January 6, 2017

Whose job is it to save the planet? Apart from a very few people the task is not in anyone’s job description. Yet, to achieve sustainable prosperity, we can’t afford to hide behind the permissions attached to our professional roles as they now stand, argues Melissa Lane in the first essay of our CUSP essay series on the morality of sustainable prosperity.

October 9, 2016

This paper explores the ramifications of the combined crises now faced by the prevailing growth-based model of economics. In paying a particular attention to the nature of enterprise, the quality of work, the structure of investment and the role of money, the paper develops the conceptual basis for social innovation in each of these areas, and provides empirical examples of such innovations.

September 29, 2016

Understanding sustainable prosperity is an essential but complex task. It implies an ongoing multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary research agenda. This working paper sets out the dimensions of this task. In doing so it also establishes the foundations for the research of the ESRC-funded Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP).

Theme Lead
CUSP Director
Research Fellow
PhD Candidate