This theme interrogates philosophical and everyday moral assumptions about our economy and the idea of ‘sustainable prosperity’, with a view to probing and challenging the distinction that is conventionally drawn between technical questions of economic efficiency and moral questions of justice, sustainability and equality.

Image: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 :: Ian Christie / University of Surrey

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 future inheritance as a moral and economic issue. Thomas Piketty’s work has recently demonstrated the growing importance of private inheritance as a source of capital, reasserting the significance of the family as an economic unit within capitalism. Questions of capital, capitalisation and post-capitalism have been revived in recent years, with growing concern with the replacement of labour by capital. How else might we understand and value the future – philosophically and practically – other than in terms of private returns to capital? How might we conceive of property or capital differently, in ways that aren’t projected (and expanded) into the future in the ways described by Piketty?

M1 :: Philosophical Understandings

To explore the meaning and moral framing of sustainable prosperity, we have commissioned six papers by leading international philosophers and social theorists, each adopting a distinctive and divergent perspective on the topic. The authors of these papers are (in order): 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. Papers are published once a month over the first half of 2017. They are written with the purpose of enriching public debate, and will each receive written responses as they appear. Finally, the authors will be brought together at a conference to explore the meaning and moral framing of sustainable prosperity on 7 June 2017 in London.

M2 :: Professional understandings

This programme of work will focus 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 will look 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 will seek 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.

Based on interviews with lawyers, accountants, auditors and other consultants in the business world, it will seek to describe and theorise the worlds inhabited by contemporary professional advisors. It will employ semi-structured interviews to test the limits of different moral frameworks, and to explore how ‘sustainable prosperity’ is conceived by professionals in these sectors.

M3 :: Everyday Understandings

This project will examine everyday understandings of ‘sustainable prosperity’, focusing in particular on how property, capital and future prosperity are conceived today. In the context of financialisation, often experienced as intergenerational injustice, M3 will explore how the economy involves competing moral visions of the future, and political strategies aimed at privatising or socialising the future. It will develop moral and political agendas for the re-imagining of capitalisation and inheritance, which are aimed at the conservation of value for younger and future generations.

Accompanying interviews and the focus groups (supported by the Sustainable Prosperity Dialogue), this programme of research will conduct sociological research on the legal and institutional mechanisms through which things become capitalised. If ‘sustainable prosperity’ is to mean a different means of balancing current and future value, this must also means critically and morally reconsidering how property rights become extended into intangible and unspecified future returns. It will seek to bring to light the latent understandings of common ownership and look at how these relate to contemporary notions of post-capitalist or post-growth economies.

M4 :: International dimensions

In partnership with international civil society organisations, this piece of work will host a series of discussions for how ‘sustainable prosperity’ is conceived as an international phenomenon. As with other areas of ‘M’, this will seek to bridge between technical matters of economic policy and normative principles and philosophies which might provide a basis for reform and new consensus. Events will be 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 will be the need to challenge a neoliberal worldview, in which nations are comparable to firms, competing in a ‘global race’. ‘Fools Gold’, a new advocacy organisation established by the founders of Tax Justice Network aimed at challenging narratives of ‘national competitiveness’, will work as partners on this programme.