Sunday, June 8, 2014

'Good for the Economy'

What’s good for the economy? This seems to be the driving question behind every decision governments make. Lobby groups within society are forced to adopt this line of thinking if they are to have any influence on government policy. So, for instance, no environmental group can argue for the intrinsic value of taking care of the environment, let alone the obligation to do so. It is no longer possible to argue for ‘saving the tiger’ because it is the right thing to do. It is necessary to demonstrate, for instance, that tigers are a tourist attraction and, therefore, preserving them makes economic sense. We can’t argue for clean air because it is intrinsically more healthy and leads to healthy people; we have to add the argument that health care is expensive and that, therefore, preventative measures, such as removing pollution, make good economic sense.

But what does it mean to argue that something has intrinsic value? What does it mean to claim that an action is intrinsically right or wrong, and is not just to be measured in terms of its benefit to the economy (or, indeed, according to any other utilitarian criterion)? These are extraordinarily difficult questions to answer. Interestingly, a morality based on divine laws does not really allow for such intrinsic value. A thing is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because divine law proclaims it so. An action is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ because a deity says so. Even to claim that the deity does so because the action or being has some intrinsic value is to deny the supremacy of that deity: it would imply some kind of external constraint upon that deity’s power. In theory, a supreme deity can pronounce that murder and rape are righteous acts, and they will become so. It doesn’t quite work, though, does it? We would (some of us, at least) remain unconvinced, being persuaded that there is something intrinsically unethical about those acts. This is not just random or arbitrary. I suspect that only a humanistic, rationally based system of ethics can really recognize intrinsic worth in actions and things, although it may not. It, too, can be based on utilitarian criteria. (Although, isn’t there something intrinsic underlying even such values? Choosing a path that causes the least harm to the smallest number of people, for instance, implies that to do so is intrinsically better than not to do so.)

It seems to me that economic (and other utilitarian) criteria have assumed a place in our thinking to which they are not entitled. To do the right thing only if it yields economic benefits or if, at worst, it is economically neutral, is pretty shabby ethics. There are, of course, spontaneous actions of bravery and altruism in human society: rushing in front of a bus to save a child, for instance, even at the risk of one’s own life. That action is okay, because it can be justified on economic grounds too. It makes good economic sense to risk the life of an older ‘economic unit’ to save a younger one, who potentially has many more years of productivity ahead of him or her. A twenty-year-old man rushing in front of a bus to save a ninety-year-old woman in a wheel chair, though? No. Definitely not a good economic decision. Fortunately, such spontaneous altruistic actions are not based on economic considerations.

It’s a pity that when we have time to actually think about things, this is rarely the case.

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