Changing the conceptions of morality and reality associated with economics

Jay Owen Transforming Finance, Latest Headlines

August 16, 2021

from Richard Norgaard

Economism has been modern capitalism’s myth system, or in computer parlance, capitalism’s operating system. It has stressed utilitarian moral beliefs compatible with economic assumptions that are critical to neoclassical economic theories. These beliefs include the idea that society is simply the sum of its individuals and their desires, that people can be perfectly, or at least sufficiently, informed to act rationally in markets, that markets balance individual greed for the common good, and that nature can be divided up into parts and owned and managed as property without systemic social and environmental consequences (Norgaard, 2019). Especially after World War II when the industrialized nations globally organized around economic beliefs and set out to spread their economic systems among less industrialized nations, these simple beliefs steadily displaced more complex moral discourses of traditional religions (Cobb, Jr, 2001). Economism has facilitated climate change and other anthropogenic drivers of rapid environmental change. Natural scientists are labeling current times the Anthropocene. I advocate using the term Econocene since our economic beliefs, both moral and those with respect to reality, and the econogenic drivers they facilitated have been critical to the rise of rapid environmental change. Furthermore, the term Econocene alludes to the current social and technological structures and human capital that are sustained by economism.[1] Escaping the Econocene will require dynamically, polycentrically, reconnecting reality and morality writ large.

I have invoked the terms “reality” and “morality” several times and will do so many times again as if people, whether individually or collectively, were able to comprehend reality and morality directly. I have no doubt that reality will remain elusive. I do not imagine people comprehending the changing details and dynamics of natural systems, as well as the combined complexities of natural and social systems interacting. Nor do I imagine people mastering the long and diverse discourses on morality, as if there were no limits on human understanding. Of course, there are limits. We need to be continually humbly aware of our limits (see for example DeCanio, 2013).And so I am advocating that morality and reality need to be actively discussed, not things long lost in economic fables. Morality and reality have long been ignored in the vague units of analyses precisely presented in the mathematics of economists. It is time to listen to scientists and moral philosophers and to have more people entering into informed, reasoned debate.[2] A key point of this paper is that we need to remove the constructed narrow conceptions of morality and reality associated with the economics and economism that have brought humanity and the planet to the brink of disaster and into centuries of rapid change.

Such a dynamic environmental and social future raises a key issue stated most effectively by Yuval Noah Harari (2011, p. 30):  “Any large scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”

Neoliberal economics and its supporting economism is simply a specific belief system, albeit one that has sustained unusually viral, imperial claims. Its demise and replacement with another economic belief system, however, will only briefly suffice. Due to historic and ongoing econogenic drivers, our options for acting within natural, social, and moral systems will keep changing, leading us into less known to totally unknown territory in all three systems. Operating in a world of more rapid and unpredictable change will require frequently changing our provisioning system and supporting culture. The democratic challenge is to acquire a widely shared public myth system that connects moral, social, and natural systems while also continually adapting to rapid change.

My argument unfolds as follows.  ( read morePost-economics: Reconnecting reality and morality to escape the Econocene)

[1] Many social thinkers have found that the term “Anthropocene” blames people in an inappropriately inclusive yet nondescript way that does not inform action. Capitalocene, Technocene, and other alternatives that have been put forward and the swirl of arguments initiated by Malm and Hornborg (2014) are reviewed by Lopez-Corona and Magallanes-Guijon (2020).

[2] Because modern ways of knowing are fractured, I have long advocated methodological pluralism (Norgaard, 1989). My historic concerns have been updated for the Econocene (Goddard, Kallis, and Norgaard, 2019). With the multiple perspectives on reality and morality that we have, reaching shared understanding through expert discussion and public discourse is the only option. I am concerned that such a process will work, let alone work fast enough to reach shared understandings rapidly enough in a future of rapid change.