Laura Rediehs
Laura Rediehs

"Economics Has Replaced Ethics" by Laura J. Rediehs

Feb 21, 2013

Laura J. Rediehs is an associate professor of philosophy, and the coordinator of peace studies at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY.

Essay Topic: In your opinion, what is the greatest ethical challenge or dilemma facing the planet?

Economics Has Replaced Ethics

The biggest ethical challenge facing us today is that we have let economics replace ethics as a guide to life, and in doing so, we have devalued people and the associated virtues of respect, cooperation, empathy, and compassion. This problem underlies and complicates the more specific ethical challenges we face.

We let the pragmatics of the "bottom line" trump ethics in our decision-making, turning money, which is properly a means, into an end in itself, while turning people, ethically understood as "ends in themselves" (according to Immanuel Kant) into mere means. Properly speaking, money is a resource that should be used to serve our ethical ends—making sure that our society functions in a way that addresses the needs of everyone—but we have collectively become so preoccupied by money itself that we have lost touch with how to stay ethically oriented in the world. Also, properly speaking, people should be regarded as ends in themselves (having intrinsic worth), but when economics replaces ethics, the value of people is reduced to their being consumers and/or workers, that is, as means to the economic end of profit. Giving economics priority over ethics thus dehumanizes people, hides or pushes out the ethical dimensions of our problems, and weakens our relational abilities and ethical reasoning skills. Examples abound, from our personal lives to business practices, politics, and global relations.

At the personal level, many young people, encouraged by their parents, regard money-making as their primary goal as they embark on adult independence. Not only are their own lives diminished by such a narrow goal, but these expectations create pressure on our educational institutions to abandon their ethical ideals in favor of the pragmatic goal of preparing young people for the workforce, as if technical knowledge and the skills of obedience and productivity are more important than history, identity, meaning, purpose, values, creativity, and vision. Relatedly, we talk of our work and define ourselves in terms of careers and income rather than vocation, and many people even accept jobs that run counter to their values. Furthermore, in the name of the economic value of efficiency, workers are increasingly asked to do more for less until health, family life, and civic responsibilities become compromised, if not sacrificed altogether.

At the business level, while there are businesses that aim to have a beneficial effect on society, many businesses adopt practices that compromise higher ideals in favor of profits. Some examples are businesses that engage in planned obsolescence or produce low-quality products that need to be replaced more frequently, and businesses that play on fears, anxieties, addictions, and other human weaknesses in order to generate "demand" and, hence, profits. One chilling example is how gun sales increase after mass shootings, and go down if stricter gun control laws are put into place. While one hopes that those who manufacture and sell firearms are not consciously placing concern for their own profits above the safety of society as they engage in policy debates, it is clear that there is an economic disincentive to impose stricter controls on access to guns. In this example and in many more, we see the strong temptation for businesses to exacerbate human vulnerabilities, instead of alleviating them, in order to serve the economic end of securing maximum profits for their investors.

Relatedly, many investors do not see investing as a moral act, but a financial one. Instead of approaching investment as an opportunity to use their extra money to support those businesses they believe are serving society the best, these investors are motivated simply to use their extra money to make even more money for themselves: they choose to invest in what they think will be most profitable, regardless of whether the values the companies they invest in line up with their own.

At the political level too we often find economics trumping ethics. While those who enter into political life may initially do so out of a motivation to serve the public good, the need to gain votes is increasingly dominated by money. Lobbyists, usually representing companies and industries, try to influence politicians to support their interests. Where once these interests might have been phrased in ethical terms of responding to human needs, now economic arguments dominate. Each industry tries to make the case that it plays a key role in holding the whole economy together—again, under the presumption that economics is and should be the fundamental determinant of all else. The paradox of equating "the economy" with "the common good" becomes more evident when we find politicians debating which services to cut, instead of asking how to summon further resources to provide for the community's, state's, or nation’s needs. Somehow, it has become unquestionably acceptable to cut services that address human needs in order to save some abstract entity called "the economy" that is implicitly equated with the common good, even as the common good is what is sacrificed to serve it!

Even the ethical problems of global climate change and war become controlled by financial concerns that trump the ethical. We are told that it is impossible to reverse global warming because of the economic costs. In truth, the attempt to reverse global warming can stimulate new economic activity, and thus the overall economic effect would actually be neutral if not positive. The ethical effects, however, are not neutral. Ignoring global warming disproportionately disadvantages the global poor and future generations. But there are economic incentives not to address this problem: some powerful businesses profit from the systems that increase global warming and do not want to lose their economic advantage.

War too is likely controlled more by economic than ethical concerns. From an ethical point of view, war is increasingly unjustifiable. First of all, an increasing percentage of civilians are harmed by war—a fact clearly violating just war theory. Second, we know a lot now about how to resolve conflicts nonviolently, and nonviolent approaches tend to be less expensive and significantly more effective than military responses at resolving conflicts and at transforming unjust systems of power into more just ones. Why then are we not employing nonviolence more often in place of war? The answer, sadly, might again be economic: war is immensely profitable to some, especially the makers of weapons. Because nonviolence is a lot less expensive and its practitioners and trainers are not motivated by a desire to generate large profits, nonviolence is not seen, from an economic point of view, as valuable.

Once we detach the ethical considerations from the economic ones, the ethical responses are clear. It is the mixing in of economic considerations that obscures the ethical clarity and makes the problems seem intractable. But there is no inherent reason why living true to our ideals or doing what is best for society, the global community, or the planet should be economically impossible. On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that our fundamental task is exactly to pool our resources, financial and otherwise, to solve these problems.

What is the impediment, then? We have a structural problem: unfortunately, our economic system is such that people can benefit financially from being on the advantageous side of an unethical situation. Such people are reluctant to use the power they have thereby gained to remedy the unethical situation, as doing so might cause them to lose their wealth and power. But again, this is not an inherent or necessary problem: it is socially constructed largely by how we have prioritized money above ethics. Individuals can and do transcend this constructed dichotomy, and collectively we can choose to dismantle it by changing how money and power function in society.

We can start by thinking and talking more honestly about money, exposing and critically examining the mythology of economics representing the common good. There is a paradox in this mythology: on the one hand, we moralize money, associating wealth with virtue; on the other hand, we regard money as morally neutral. In this paradox, perhaps we strive to create a non-moral value system by which to run our lives, but that itself is only a clever disguise for the re-emergence of "might makes right." What gets lost is human dignity.

Ethics is about the well-being of people, and so it is ethics that should be the end while money is merely one kind of means. By restoring this proper relationship, we resist the temptation to regard money and ethics as existing in opposition to each other. The only opposition is that greed is unethical. But greed is not the only possible relationship we can have with money—we can establish ethical relationships with money, by keeping clearly in mind that money is a means that should serve the well-being of people and their ethical aims. It is not unrealistic to hold each other accountable to this standard and insist that our financial policies and social institutions uphold this ideal as well. It is imperative.

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