The Correlation Between Ethics and Economics: My Story and Journey

The Correlation Between Ethics and Economics: My Story and Journey

By WPF ICC member Dr. Kamran Mofid published at on May 01, 2011

Over the last decade or so, I have been trying as hard as I can to highlight the rotten state of the value-free departments of economics and the many business schools around the world, and how they have been infected by the now discredited neo-liberalism and the “Washington Consensus”. Recently, a dear friend sent me a copy of a letter that had been published in The Times. This is a very important piece of evidence confirming that what I have been saying is true. I have re-typed it below. It says it all.

Unless, somehow, this rotten and destructive approach is reversed, I cannot see how we can change the world for the better. The key is education for the common good - what we have on offer now is all for the common bad! Lest we forget, it was the same establishment, the London School of Economics, that turned down the funding offered (see the letter) to set up a Chair in Business Ethics, which later on accepted millions from the Gaddafi family and sold a PhD to his son!

The Times, 8 March 2011
Ethics boys
Sir, Around 1991 I offered the London School of Economics a grant of ?1 million to set up a Chair in Business Ethics. John Ashworth, at that time the Director of the LSE, encouraged the idea but had to write to me to say, regretfully, that the faculty had rejected the offer as it saw no correlation between ethics and economics. Quite.
Lord Kalms
House of Lords

What a sorry state of affairs! Shame on those at the LSE, and all others like them elsewhere, bringing Economics into such disrepute, not to mention business and the world of education, and in the process so destructively short-changing their students.

I was born in Tehran, Iran in 1952. In 1971, after finishing high school, I came to England to further my education. In 1974 I married my English wife, Annie, and two years later we emigrated to Canada. I received my BA and MA in Economics from the University of Windsor in 1980 and 1982 respectively. We returned to England in 1982, and in 1986 I was awarded my PhD in Economics from the University of Birmingham.

From 1980 onwards, for the next twenty years, I taught economics in universities, enthusiastically demonstrating how economic theories provided answers to problems of all sorts. I got quite carried away by the beauty, the sophisticated elegance, of complicated mathematical models and theories. But gradually I started to have an empty feeling.

I began to ask fundamental questions of myself. Why did I never talk to my students about compassion, dignity, comradeship, solidarity, happiness, spirituality – about the meaning of life? We never debated the biggest questions. Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going to?

I told them to create wealth, but I did not tell them for what reason. I told them about scarcity and competition, but not about abundance and co-operation. I told them about free trade, but not about fair trade; about GNP – Gross National Product – but not about GNH – Gross National Happiness. I told them about profit maximisation and cost minimisation, about the highest returns to the shareholders, but not about social consciousness, accountability to the community, sustainability and respect for creation and the creator. I did not tell them that, without humanity, economics is a house of cards built on shifting sands.

These conflicts caused me much frustration and alienation, leading to heartache and despair. I needed to rediscover myself and a real-life economics. After a proud twenty-year or so academic career, I became a student all over again. I would study theology and philosophy, disciplines nobody had taught me when I was a student of economics and I did not teach my own students when I became a teacher of economics.

It was at this difficult time that I came to understand that I needed to bring spirituality, compassion, ethics and morality back into economics itself, to make this dismal science once again relevant to and concerned with the common good. It was now that I made the following discoveries:

Living happily is “the desire of us all, but our mind is blinded to a clear vision of just what it is that makes life happy”. The root of happiness is ethical behaviour, and thus the ancient idea of moral education and cultivation, is essential to ideal of joyfulness.

Economics, from the time of Plato right through to Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, was as deeply concerned with issues of social justice, ethics and morality as it was with economic analysis. Most economics students today learn that Adam Smith was the ‘father of modern economics’ but not that he was also a moral philosopher. In 1759, sixteen years before his famous Wealth of Nations, he published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which explored the self-interested nature of man and his ability nevertheless to make moral decisions based on factors other than selfishness.

In The Wealth of Nations, Smith laid the early groundwork for economic analysis, but he embedded it in a broader discussion of social justice and the role of government. Students today know only of his analogy of the ‘invisible hand’ and refer to him as defending free markets. They ignore his insight that the pursuit of wealth should not take precedence over social and moral obligations, and his belief that a ‘divine Being’ gives us ‘the greatest quantity of happiness’.

They are taught that the free market as a ‘way of life’ appealed to Adam Smith, but not that he distrusted the morality of the market as a morality for society at large. He neither envisioned nor prescribed a capitalist society, but rather a ‘capitalist economy within society, a society held together by communities of non-capitalist and non-market morality’. As it has been noted, morality for Smith included neighbourly love, an obligation to practice justice, a norm of financial support for the government ‘in proportion to [one’s] revenue’, and a tendency in human nature to derive pleasure from the good fortune and happiness of other people.

The focus of economics should be on the benefit and the bounty that the economy produces, on how to let this bounty increase, and how to share the benefits justly among the people for the common good, removing the evils that hinder this process. Moreover, economic investigation should be accompanied by research into subjects such as anthropology, philosophy, politics and most importantly, theology, to give insight into our own mystery, as no economic theory or no economist can say who we are, where have we come from or where we are going to. Humankind must be respected as the centre of creation and not relegated by more short term economic interests.

‘Economic rationality’ in the shape of neo-liberal globalisation is socially and politically suicidal. Justice and democracy are sacrificed on the altar of a mythical market as forces outside society rather than creations of it. However, free markets do not exist in a vacuum. They require a set of impartiality in government, honesty, justice, and public spiritedness in business. The best safeguard against fraud, theft, and injustice in markets are the cardinal virtues of justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

Every apparently economic choice is, in reality, a social choice. We can choose a society of basic rights – education, health, housing, child support and a dignified pension – or greed, pandemic inequality, ecological vandalism, civic chaos and social despair. Modern neo-liberal economics ignores the first and promotes the second path as the way to achieve economic efficiency and growth.

The moral crises of global economic injustice today are integrally spiritual: they signal something terribly amiss in the relationship between human beings and God.

Where the moral life and the mystery of God’s presence are held in one breath – because the moral life is the same as the mystical life – the moral agency may be found for establishing paths towards a more just, compassionate and sustainable way of living. ‘Moral agency’ is the active love of creation (for oneself as well as for other people and for the non-human creation); it is the will to orient life around the ongoing well-being of communities and of the global community, prioritising the needs of the most vulnerable; it is the will to create social structures and policies that ensure social justice and ecological sustainability.

In contrast to this sensibility, which weds spirituality and morality, stands modern economics’ persistent tendency to divorce the two, in particular to dissociate the intimate personal experience of a close relationship with God from public moral power.

It is the belief in collective responsibility and collective endeavour that allows individual freedom to flourish. This can only be realised when we commit ourselves to the common good and begin to serve it.

There are three justifications for the common good which are not commonly discussed in economics:

  • Human beings need human contact, or sociability. The quality of that interaction is important, quite apart from any material benefits it may bring.
  • Human beings are formed in the community – their education and training in virtue (their preferences) are elements of the common good.
  • A healthy love for the common good is a necessary component of a fully developed personality.

The marketplace is not just an economic sphere, ‘it is a region of the human spirit’. Profound economic questions are divine in nature; in contrast to what is assumed today, they should be concerned with the world of the heart and spirit. Although self-interest is an important source of human motivation, driving the decisions we make in the marketplace every day, those decisions nevertheless have a moral, ethical and spiritual content, because each decision we make affects not only ourselves but others too. We must combine the need for economic efficiency with the need for social justice and environmental sustainability.

The greatest achievement of modern globalisation will eventually come to be seen as the opening up of possibilities to build a humane and spiritually enriched globalised world through the universalising and globalising of compassion. But for ‘others’ to become ‘us’, for the world to become intimate with itself, we have to get to know each other better than we do now. Prejudices have to disappear: we have to see that the cultural, religious and ethnic differences reflect an ultimate creative principle. For this to happen, the great cultures and religions need to enter into genuine dialogue with each other.

It has been my pleasure and honour to put into practice these discoveries by founding the Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative.

Dr Kamran Mofid is Adjunct Professor, Dalhousie School of Business, Dalhousie University, Canada, and Founder, Globalisation for the Common Good Initiative - and Co-founder/Co-editor, Journal of Globalization for the Common Good -