As if People Mattered
If the reader has been following these musings in this blog, s/he will know that the above title is in fact the subtitle of a book alluded to in my last post, viz., Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973). In Ireland, at present, we are facing into yet another austerity Budget on Tuesday next: our
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan has said €2.5bn is to be taken out of the economy in the Budget and not the projected €3.1bn. This is, of course, no reason to celebrate because, after five years of austere budgets and growing hardships, the Irish Exchequer is still spending a billion euro more every month than it is collecting in taxes. Whatever way one looks at it, these figures simply don't add up. It is, indeed, hard to square this huge economic circle. And yet, it is important to state loudly in answer to the contention of the late great Brian Lenihan, Jnr., our erstwhile Minister for Finance,, that many of us simply did not party while The Celtic Tiger was roaring. However, it is also unquestionable, indeed, that many others did party. Some "Paddy Irishmen" took to their new-found wealth through unlimited credit and unsecured loans like a an addict to alcohol or drugs.
Human beings are more than economic units, much more. There is more to happiness and success than the amount of one's earnings or the size of one's bank account. That money does indeed buy privilege of all sorts goes without questioning. Middle class parents can buy their children grinds for State Examinations and they do so readily. One young boy I know had five separate teachers coming to his house to get him through his exams. Now he did, indeed, get the results. The point I'm making here is that the children I teach who attend a disadvantaged inner city school can often not afford the price of their school books, never mind pay for grinds. The Vincent de Paul often advance some of our pupils the money to go on school trips or tours, and the ones we go on are not terribly exclusive. However, the real fundamental question behind all these anecdotes I am recounting here is the question in the above sub-heading: Can Economics be ethical. Our Uachtarán, Micheál D Ó hUiginn believes it can. Speaking at a public lecture (Wednesday September 11, 2013) in Dublin City University on the topic of "Toward an ethical economy," he stated:
|People who matter: Two of our Spanish students at School|
Can Economics be Ethical?
|People who matter: Myself and two senior students at school|
(M)y Presidency.... seeks to develop an ethical discourse that places human flourishing at the heart of public action.... I would like – tonight – to focus in particular on the relations between ethical reasoning and economic thought...
This speech proceeds like a third level lecture, replete with learned quotations and references to contemporary academic sources. That it was delivered before a university audience is possibly the reason. Our President, or Uachtarán is a scholar and academic as well as a former (Labour Party) Minister. He has always been renowned for his commitment to social equality issues and for his defense both of civil and human rights. He is also a very passionate individual who speaks with compassion and conviction as well as with erudition and reason. He continues in this lecture to adumbrate his concern for the well-being of citizens. To this end he praises Martha Nussbaum's exposition of the teachings of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, especially his ethical teachings as they appear in his Nichomachean Ethics. I have mentioned before in this blog Aristotle's defining "happiness" as "eudaimonia" as the "flourishing" of the human person. Such flourishing is above and beyond mere economic concerns, while firmly based on such concerns. Let me add to our President's reflections by suggesting a Maslowian hierarchy here. Once a human being's economic needs have been met, and this is the firm foundation, other more human concerns are further solidly built upon it. However, what happened to us Irish during the Celtic Tiger era was to continue greedily to remain at that foundational level only, forgetting all the other human values which both sustain and enhance the human enterprise of "flourishing." It is, then, that I was somewhat overwhelmed by the President's call for Philosophy to be a subject on our curricula at school. Perhaps. However, I'm more convinced that adding a philosophical dimension to each subject might be more beneficial, given the overstretching of today's curricula. Anyway, let me quote him more fully here:
Our schools’ curricula and pedagogical methods reflect the kind of humanity our society seeks and nurtures. The society we so dearly wish for will not take shape unless we acknowledge the need for an education of character and desires, the need to encourage and support critical reflection and a more holistic approach to knowledge. Specifically, there would surely be considerable merit in introducing the teaching of philosophy in our schools, which could facilitate the fostering of an ethical consciousness in our fellow citizens. (See President )
He then proceeds to quote professor Kathleen Lynch and her colleagues from the School of Social Justice in U.C.D. These latter put great emphasis on the provision of care for the person in any human community. That cold Economics allows for this depth of care is a question for disputation. In any civilized society it certainly should. Let me quote from the President's speech once more:
As Lynch puts it, “bonds of friendship or kinship are frequently what bring meaning, warmth and joy to life… They are both a vital component of what enables people to lead a successful life and an expression of our fundamental interdependence”...To reflect on the demands of care, love and friendship is to replace the categories of utility, efficiency and self-love with the values of mutuality, long-term commitment, trust and responsibility. It is to conceive of the Other as an end in himself, as a source of non-reciprocal responsibility, in the sense of Emmanuel Lévinas. (See link above)
The President's lecture continues on with multiple references to other learned scholars, but his contention that all human beings have a right not alone to endure on this wonderful blue planet, but also to flourish in the broadest meaning of that concept. The reification of human concerns by a focus on an Economics, which is heartless and soulless, must be surmounted if we as a community of caring individuals are to do more than merely surviving, if we as a community and as individuals are really to flourish.
I have stated here many times that we humans are meaning-making creatures and our goal is our self-shaping which we can really only do within the mutuality of a community. Such meaning can only be found if we work for our mutual flourishing. This essentially entails that we have a vision for our future; a real hope in the possibilities of tomorrow; a true concern for the well-being of all sentient creatures as well as that of our beautiful Blue Planet, Mother Gaia; a passion for our work to bring this vision about; a conviction and a belief in the worthwhile-ness of the human project, which is always more than mere survival, more than a mere river of genes that flows ever onwards into an unknown future. No it is more. It is a mystical, mythic and visionary dream of what we can be, and no less real for all of that: the flourishing of a human community, replete with all those human values that cold economics can not envision, though enhanced with values, can certainly support.