visser_logo_small.gif (1783 bytes)Work in a Sustainable Society:
Values for New Economic Relationships
Miller, page 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6

by Amata Miller, IHM.

At the time of the 1995 consultation, Sister Amata was Chief Financial Officer, Marygrove College.
Section headings:

dot.gif (101 bytes) I. Values underlying current economic relationships dot.gif (101 bytes)

III.a   Mondragon's Society of Cooperatives

dot.gif (101 bytes) II. Values for new economic relationships in a sustainable society dot.gif (101 bytes)

III.b   Korten's People-Centered Economy

dot.gif (101 bytes) II.a  Basic Moral Presumptions dot.gif (101 bytes)

III.c   Daly and Cobb's Wholistic Community of Communities

dot.gif (101 bytes) II.b  Moral Priorities dot.gif (101 bytes)

III.d   Theobald's Economic Security Plan

dot.gif (101 bytes) II.c  Applying the Moral Presumptions and Priorities dot.gif (101 bytes) IV. Actions for transformation
dot.gif (101 bytes) III. Some visions of what could be


home.gif (503 bytes) index.gif (483 bytes) feedback.gif (656 bytes) glossary.gif (710 bytes) links.gif (499 bytes)

The 1995 Visser ‘t Hooft Memorial Consultation challenges its participants to contribute to rethinking the values which underpin production, consumption and the role of work; to identifying new ethical references for choices between growth and quality of life; and to pointing toward new social, political and economic institutions needed to build a more human society.

The particular topic assigned to this paper is the need for explicit non-economic values in economic analysis and policy making to guide ethical choices in the trade-offs between growth and the environment -- with specific focus on work issues and the implicit or explicit attitudes and values implied in economic and environmental policy affecting work.

The topic will be developed in four sections. The first section will identify the values currently underpinning production, consumption, and the role of work and the economic and environmental policies affecting them. The second section will identify the moral presumptions of a new economic vision and their implications for work. The third section will present some concrete proposals by some visionary economists for a just and sustainable economic order, with focus on implications for life and work. The final section will address the kinds of action necessary for the necessary structural transformation.

I. Values underlying current economic relationships

Capitalist market economic systems dominate global economic relationships today. Each nation's market capitalism is uniquely shaped by its people's shared history, goals and culture, and thus there is a whole spectrum of market capitalisms differentiated on the basis of the degree of integration between political and economic life. However, a shared set of interrelated assumptions and values underly all of the varieties. In order to bring into focus the issues surrounding work it is necessary to summarize these briefly at the outset.

First, market capitalism is grounded in utilitarian hedonistic philosophies of human nature. The fundamental assumption is that human beings are motivated primarily by self-interest -- seeking their own good as they define it and avoiding what brings them pain. This self-centered individualism fundamentally determines the relationships between persons in societies with capitalist market economies. Individuals are assumed to enter into contacts with others only to advance their own interests. In the classic formulation of the father of modern capitalist market economics, Adam Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. [Wealth of Nations (1776, New York: Modern Library, 1937), p. 14.]

Since human wants are basically insatiable, this basic definition of human nature has fostered the consumerist growth ethic which has dominated the 20th century.

A second value-laden assumption undergirding market capitalism flows from the first. Based on the utilitarian philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and his followers, the good of the individual is equated with her/his desires. And thus the social good is identified with the sum total of the individuals' desires. "The greatest good for the greatest number" becomes the operative definition of the social good to be pursued. The economic doctrines of laissez faire economics and the policy prescriptions flowing therefrom have been shaped by this definition. [See Kenneth Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values, 2d ed. (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1963), 22-23.]

A third key value, rooted in these assumptions about human beings and about society, is that individuals should be as free as possible to pursue their own interests as they define them. Interference with individual freedom is by definition undesirable and should be kept to a minimum. It will diminish persons' sense of advancing their own good and hence their incentive to perform those actions necessary for the social good. It will by definition diminish the social good as defined. The presumption is always for individual freedom, and the burden of proof is upon anyone who argues for a diminution of individual freedom, which in this thought framework can only be harmful. Leaving individuals (including economic actors such as corporations and nations) free to make their choices in free markets (assumed to mean markets unfettered by government regulations) is seen as the best way to achieve individual and social good. The freedom to make choices, to take risks in expectation of individual gain, is essential to the creativity of the market capitalist systems. The reality of inequality of market rewards is part of the price of motivating risk takers.

A fourth basic value-assumption is that if everyone takes care of her/himself, everyone will be taken care of. Since the goal is satisfaction of individual self-interest and individuals are conceived to know best what their interests are and how they want to achieve them, then individuals are responsible for themselves and their own households. Economic independence is both goal and mandate in capitalist market economies.

A fifth assumption is that everyone has access to some resources to use in order to get her/his wants satisfied. By entering into a contractual relationship with someone else in the market place one can trade what one has for what one needs/wants. In the classical economic formulation one has land (the resources of the earth), one's labor, and/or some capital goods (tools, machinery, buildings) or some money with which to access these. This assumption, tied to the previous ones, undergirds the reality that people's labor has become a commodity to be bought and sold. It is also the underpinning for policies which have allowed the exploitative use of natural resources. Human labor and natural resources are instruments, means to the primary end of human self-satisfaction.

Sixth, since everyone has access to something(s) which can be used to make or do (i.e. to produce) something which can be traded for what one needs/wants -- and since the if everyone takes care of her/himself everyone will be taken care of -- then it follows that everyone is expected to use those resources in order to meet their needs. In a formulation with which we are all familiar: "If you don't work you don't eat." The link between job and income, between contributing something to production and the ability to enjoy some of the fruits of that production (i.e. to consume) is inherent in the workings of the capitalist market economies. This contrasts with other types of economies in which one's ability to consume is based on one's position in the society or one's function as assigned by political authorities -- not on market valuation of one's contribution to production.

In addition to the link between one's individual contribution to production and one's ability to consume, there is a causal link between the availability of opportunities to work (or use one's resources to obtain what one needs/wants) and the total level and kind of consumption in a society by those willing and able (because they have the money to do so) to enter into the marketplace to engage one's services or buy the products of one's work. The overall level of employment is tied to the overall level of domestic and foreign spending by individuals, businesses, governments on the goods and services produced by the people of a society. This might be phrased -- "If others don't eat, you don't work."

Seventh, it is assumed that competition among equals in free markets is the best regulating mechanism for an economy. Individuals free to make choices in the market place in which they have access to alternatives and to correct information will choose the quality and price acceptable to them. This will force poor and exploitative producers out of the market and regulate quality and price. Workers who do shoddy work will not be hired and employers who pay unfair wages or impose poor working conditions will not be able to find people to work for them.

Eighth it is assumed that the value of human work (and of any other productive resource) is determined by the price that the market puts on that work. This means that work done at home, volunteer work and work in the informal or underground economy has no value put on it in the current economic systems. The allocation decisions of the economy are thus distorted by the assumption that all of these kinds of work are costless. When, as in the case of women moving into the paid labor force, tasks previously done without monetary payment have to be provided for in the marketplace, there are shortages of the necessary persons and places to provide the service. The shortage of child care facilities and the lack of provision for it in the United States is a striking example of this.

Undoubtedly some will find this summary disturbing, and/or reject it out of hand. In its starkness, this simple listing of the value-assumptions underlying the dominant economic systems of modern society lays bare the depth and scope of the ethical challenges before us now. For the value-orientation just described has brought us to the point where we face the choice between continuation of the quest for economic growth as now defined and the ultimate survival of life on our planet.

There is no intention here of denying the improvements in human life through technological advances made possible by the unleashing of creativity in capitalist market economies. Nor is there an intent to mask the problems of other types of economic systems. However the focus in our Consultation is on the critical choices between growth and environmental sustainability evident as we near the 21st century. For this we require some new value assumptions -- as individuals and as societies.

Before identifying the value orientation needed for addressing the issues related to work in a sustainable society, it is instructive to consider a few insights of economists and others who are raising questions about the values underlying current dominant economic systems.

For example, New York University economist Michael Zweig observes that there can be no morality in such an economics. Taking individuals' own interest as starting and ending points and positing treatment of all others as if they also have only internal points of reference to guide their choices excludes ethics, which by definition is relational. [Zweig, Michael. "Economics and Liberation Theology," in Michael Zweig (ed.) Religion and Economic Justice (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991), 26.]

Where there is no obligation beyond self-interest, all one has are relations of exchange at arm's length, not the close interpersonal relations of mutual responsibility which are the very subject matter and essence of ethical questions.3

Philosopher John Kavanaugh, S.J. through several decades of study of advertising has developed a careful analysis and powerful presentation of how what he calls "the commodity culture" dehumanizes both the haves and the have nots. He calls for a spirituality of cultural resistance. [John Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance. Revised edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991)]

Socialist author Barbara Ehrenreich calls the left to reinvent a "credible vision of abundance" in order to persuade people in the richer nations to live in a more modest and sustainable fashion. She calls for a vision of abundance different from that of the capitalist consumer culture. "We need to imagine a new social order that is dedicated to meeting not only material needs, but the non-material needs--conviviality, adventure, self-expression, love--that capitalism so inadequately addresses."  [Barbara Ehrenreich, "Reinventing Abundance," Dollars and Sense, No. 193 (May/June, 1994), 7]

With regard to the growth-orientation inherent in individual self-interest based economies, economist Herman E. Daly has been writing for over two decades about the importance of shifting the focus to quality of life goals. Since the early l970s he has been one of the few economists who have been realistically addressing the untenability of the earth-abusing, natural-resource wasting growth ethic that undergirds current economic systems. He has called for a return to the understanding of word "growth" as including "some concept of maturity or sufficiency, beyond which point physical accumulation gives way to physical maintenance." He urges us to remember that "growth" is not synonymous with "betterment." [Herman E. Daly. Steady State Economics (San Francisco, CA and Reading, England: W.H. Freeman and Co., 1977), 99.]

Liberation theologians and others reflecting on the experiences of the world's poorest peoples, minority groups within rich nations, and women throughout the world have pointed out the ways in which individualistic, competitive economic systems exploit those excluded from participation in the markets, and break down communitarian bonds existing in pre-industrial societies.  [See for example Pamela K. Brubaker, Women Don't Count: The Challenge of Women's Poverty to Christian Ethics. American Academy of Religion Series, 87 (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1994); Donal Dorr, Option for the Poor, Revised ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993); Marilyn Waring, If Women Counted: Economics As If Women Mattered (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).]

Emory University Professor Pamela D. Couture argues that the tradition of economic self-sufficiency has contributed to the recent growth of women's poverty.

Self sufficiency is fundamentally determined by detachment of persons from one another, both relationally and economically. It holds individuals so fully responsible for their own lives that they cannot be moral agents without giving up relational and economic power...there is no room for moral agency of parents and society on behalf of children; there is no protection of the most vulnerable.  [Pamela D. Couture, Blessed Are The Poor? Women's Poverty, Family Policy, and Practical Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991), 164.]

She reappropriates the theological traditions of Luther's ethic of care and Wesley's relational ethic to suggest that individual self-sufficiency is a partial ethic which should be situated within a larger ethic of shared responsibility responsive to the reality of interdependence.

In his book Facing the Nuclear Heresy: A Call to Reformation United Methodist theologian Clarke Chapman has insightfully unmasked four paradigms undergirding the current dominant worldview: "Power as Violence," "Life Together: A Zero Sum Game," "The Future As Worst Case Analysis," and "Faith As Official Optimism." The second of these focuses on the adversarial rivalry inherent in the concept of a shrinking habitable world at a time human demands upon it are expanding from escalating levels of wants among the haves as well as from growing needs among impoverished peoples. Such a worldview, Chapman observes, is grounded in a materialistic assessment of what is "enough," and in the grossly inequitable distribution of global product. He deplores that "in a lifeboat adrift with diminishing supplies and prospectively increased claims, such qualities as compassion and cooperation are accounted absurd luxuries." The "win-lose" mentality rooted in a zero sum worldview fosters confrontation and a fortress mentality, and deters cooperation to address common problems.  [G. Clarke Chapman, Facing the Nuclear Heresy (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 1986), 135-149.]

When we confront the issues surrounding work in a sustainable society the dominant economic value assumptions which give priority to individualism, quantitative definitions of economic growth, competition, economic independence, and a win-lose mentality have to be questioned. At the same time individual freedom and the avenues for creativity given priority in the current systems have to be protected.

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