POSTED: February 12, 2018
Nature of Prosperity | Philosophy

Sustainable What, Why, and for Whom: Learning from Moral Philosophy

These are turbulent times, the fault lines within modern capitalism are widening. Yet, Will Davies finds, where one economic model becomes less certain, we can open up a much wider range of questions about what progress, prosperity and welfare actually mean: this is the right moment to interrogate the meaning and moral dimensions of prosperity.

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We live in a time of great anxiety regarding the future of our economy. We can see various threats coming over the horizon, including automation, an ageing population and, in Britain, the complications of Brexit. Economists speak of ‘secular stagnation’, the fear that growth may have slowed down permanently, while Britain’s productivity growth seemed to take a permanent hit circa 2011.

There are also opportunities lurking here. Where one economic model becomes less certain, we can open up a much wider range of questions about what progress, prosperity and welfare actually mean – the kinds of questions that too often get closed down by narrow economic metrics. This is the right moment to interrogate the meaning and moral dimensions of prosperity.

On Friday, 16th February 2018, CUSP formally launches an essay series that was published over the course of the last year on the Morality of Sustainable Prosperity. This includes six essays by renowned philosophers and thinkers, offering bold perspectives on sustainable prosperity, anchored in a diverse range of intellectual traditions. Each of them recognises that we cannot define ‘sustainability’ in a narrowly empirical or economic sense, before first understanding what we are trying to sustain, why and for whom, before we then turn to the problem of how.

One way in which this can be done is to recognise that the economy is already imbued with moral meaning and purpose, but which is too often overlooked. In his essay, John Bellamy Foster discusses the importance of work to human flourishing, using the ideas of William Morris to explore what place work would have in a post-capitalist society, resisting the negative view of work that some utopian visions of a fully-automated economy rest on. Melissa Lane’s contribution looks at the place of professions in the economy, which, she argues, need to rest on a broader vision of ethics that includes the broader public interest, including that of future generations.

Another dimension of the essay series is the need to develop a richer vision of human life than that offered by concepts of efficiency maximisation and economic growth. Ingrid Robeyns draws on the ‘capabilities approach’ to look at sustainable prosperity as an ethical demand, stressing the importance of social justice and equality in how we reform our economy. Meanwhile, John O’Neill critically reviews the idea of ‘natural capital’, which plays an important part of some environmental economics, challenging the idea that nature can be conceived as an economic resource in this way.

Finally, there are two essays that consider our historical moment and future from two radically different political positions, though with a similarly hopeful disposition. Ruth Levitas discusses the need for a utopian imagination, that helps us recognise the form of prosperity we desire in the future, such that we can act deliberately in the present. By contrast, Roger Scruton draws on the conservative philosophical tradition, to argue that our commitment to the environment must ultimately draw on a commitment to our shared past, as well as our shared future.

Reading these papers together, the range of possibilities seems wider than it typically does. Cynical, fatalistic and technocratic views of politics are challenged by the sense that moral philosophy has real purchase on the urgent questions and challenges that face us today. The purpose of the essay series was to publish work that non-philosophers could benefit and learn from, whether these be businesses, NGOs, politicians or citizens.

The meaning of prosperity is not something that any expert, be it a philosopher or an economist, has command over. Ultimately it is a democratic question, of how we collectively want to live and to flourish (or not, as the case may be). The achievement, but also the limitation, of technical disciplines of economics and public administration is to separate questions of efficiency from broader ethical concerns with the good life. One of the ambitions of this essay series, and of CUSP more generally, is to challenge this division, to rejuvenate and broaden debate about the meaning of prosperity. Moral philosophy cannot define the term ‘prosperity’ once and for all, but it will bring some of its components to light, helping all of us to grasp what’s at stake.

Will Davies is Co-Director of the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths. He leads the CUSP theme on meaning and moral framings of the good life.

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