Where do Good Things Come From?
An alternative philosophical analysis of economics, towards a non teleological conception of the good.
My Twitter friend Philip Proudfoot (Leader of the Northern Independence Party) recently posted a picture of Durham City Baths - then and now - along with a plaintive question:
“Why can’t we have nice things anymore?”
This got me thinking. Not about the vast regional inequalities in the UK and the injustices of Tory Britain. [No, I am not going to write about that here; well only a little bit.] It got me thinking about a slightly different question:
“Where do good things come from anyway?”
Philosophers often talk about what are called teleological goods - the good things which we aim at - like happiness, pleasure, fame, wealth, power and other dubious goals. But it seems to me that it is a little misleading to think of good things as things we are constantly striving to achieve.
Most good things don’t really turn up in our lives because we aim at them; they just turn up anyway. Think of these these good things:
being held in the warm embrace of someone you love | feeling the sun on your face | listening to Bach | reading Jane Austen | talking with friends | swimming
Maybe you’ll have a slightly different list, but you get my point.
Whatever part we play in ‘achieving’ these good things seems rather small. I accept that we must be somewhat active if we are to appreciate these good things. But we are certainly not the main player. These are good things that we appreciate, not good things we’ve achieved.
Instead of thinking about good things as things we are trying to achieve, maybe it would be useful to ask where good things come from. I am going to try and divide up all the good things I can think of into some rather large groups; we can examine at the end whether these groupings make sense and whether there is anything we can learn from grouping things in this way.
It seems to me that there is a large category of good things that we might think of as primarily part of our life in Nature. Our enjoyments of beauty, nature, food, sex, drink or exercise are largely given to us by Nature. Although the modern world may parcel up these things in different ways and often tries to sell them back to us, there is an obvious sense in which Nature comes first. Often Nature seems overwhelmingly generous. We can only sup a little portion of the beauty of night sky or the taste of an apple, what is left over is infinite.
So, some good things are just given to us by Nature. We are not entitled to them, we don’t deserve them. They are just there and - unless we destroy them or obstruct them - they are largely free for the taking.
Then there is a second category of good things, which are all the things human beings have created and passed on through the ages. We might even call this civilisation; although I think that term is perhaps too grand and raises other questions. Instead let us recognise that many of the things that we enjoy and take for granted were created by other people, in other places, at other times, and which we receive by transmission.
I may pay a few pounds to buy a book or a CD but my money has got next to nothing to do with the creation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. These works of beauty and power were not created by customers, they were created by great artists. The past hands forward these good things; although sometimes it also loses them. Imagine if we had more of the works of Aeschylus or Aristotle; imagine if we could hear the music played in the Court of King David. Think also about the languages and civilisations we’ve totally lost and which can no longer pass forward their treasures. The gifts of society might also be considered to be institutions, laws and mores we’ve inherited from those who care before us. Our main job is not to destroy these things and ideally to improve them a little where we can.
The third category of good things we receive are all the good things people give us because they love us. I mean love here in its stretchiest sense, including friendship, family, comradeship and neighbours, all those people in our lives who give us warmth, support, encouragement and more. At its most basic we receive life from love and it is the love of our parents for each other and then for us that creates and sustains our life. But then, unless we are very unlucky, we are passed from parent to parent, to grandparent, to family, to friends, to lovers; just as we in turn pass on love and support to others.
Very little of this love, this fundamental life-sustaining stuff, can be accounted for and when you start to try and pay for it or swap it for some artificial or colder alternative you quickly find that you’ve lost what you truly valued. It is true that you are unlikely to flourish in the arms of love if you don’t also take part. But this is not exchange and you are not really trying to achieve anything when you give love to others. The Beatle lyric that claims “And in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give” misses the mark by a mile. I suspect once you’ve started counting you’ve lost the plot.
Now there’s another bunch of things that we get in life that can certainly include some good things, these are things we give each other, not from love, but as a service. Sometimes we buy these services, sometimes people do these services from a sense of duty (although duty is a form of love, so we could recategorise those services under love) while other services are organised collectively by organisations or governments (which is just another form of buying). In the UK we’re lucky enough to have healthcare organised as an effective public service, while food shopping is still a largely a matter of individual exchange. It seems likely that some things are best done individually, while other things are best done collectively.
Now curiously, when we are talking about politics or justice, we put a great deal of stress on services. However we don’t tend to think about service in terms of what it costs us (the time we sacrifice to performing the services); instead we all seem to want that our own service (say, being a banker or a politician) to be valued more highly than other people’s services. This naturally means that the more I am paid then the harder other people have to work: if my time is worth more then your time must be worth less.
So services, even good services, come with a price, the time we take away from another human being.
It is also noticeable that services also tend to be rather parasitic on the other good things. I may sell you a chocolate bar, but I didn’t create chocolate, nor the sun, earth or rain that nurtured the cocoa bean nor the cows, the grass or the milk. Nor did I invent chocolate, nor any of other social and technological structures involved in the transformation of the bean into a chocolate bar.
Almost all services are refracted through complex framework of nature, society and love; but we somehow seem to forget this fact as we gather our earnings and pat ourselves on the back for a hard’s days work.
Maybe there’s also a fifth category of good things, the things that happen all around us, if we’re lucky for our good, the things that constitute our histories. If you are lucky: peace (not war), justice (not fascism), inclusion (not prejudice).
These historic events, waves or developments often overwhelm us and they rarely feel like things that we can control. They are also much more noticeable when they are harmful. We seem much more likely to take for granted a secure natural environment and climate, a period of peaceful co-existence and justice. We even struggle to respond to an emerging crisis that we know will destroy what we value.
My suspicion is that the intellectual frameworks that dominate philosophy and political debate are deeply out of harmony with the reality of things. We seem to have somehow persuaded ourselves that what we get must be somehow equal to, not the love, but the service we provide. And in our greed we keep trying to increase the value of our own service, even though the only value of that is to reduce the value of other people’s services. By focusing on service as the key field of economics we’ve both turned ourselves into servants and we’ve turned politics and economics into a series of lose-lose trade-offs.
Instead we could look at what is truly good and ask ourselves how we can protected, transmit and support those good things. This would be to largely micro and macro economics as it is studied today and to start with some different questions:
What does the planet need in order to thrive and provide us and other species with what we need?
What do we need to do to protect, transmit and evolve our knowledge, social structures so that they can offer better frameworks for future generations?
What habits, practices and political structures truly nurture love, in both its familial, neighbourly and civic forms?
What must we do to respond to emerging threats and how can we create better governance and decision-making locally and globally?
We do need a new kind of economic system; but perhaps this starts by different economic thinking. Efforts to tame capitalism, like doughnut economics or alternatives to measuring GDP, are good starting points. But I wonder if we need a very different appreciation of the good things we all need.
For one thing, the good news, if we choose to hear it, is that Nature, Society and Love are far more generous and regenerative than zero-sum trade-offs in our services. Perhaps a different kind of economic theory might help us to become better citizens instead of exhausted servants.
And perhaps, to return to Philip's image of Durham Baths, we'll find the answer to Philip's question. For the destruction of once proud civic assets is clearly the result of our failure to protect the good things in life. We've clearly forgotten the value of beautiful buildings, share public utilities and the benefits of Northern municipal socialism. We are in awe of markets we don't understand. We think that theft is delayed gratification and we've lost the power to decide things for ourselves. Can a macroeconomist understand this loss? I don't think so. But we know the loss is real.