All entries for Friday 27 November 2009

November 27, 2009

Response: Ethics and Money Part 1

Firstly, there is certainly no tension between ethics and money, if ethics is interpreted as involving questions about how to live and what sort of person to be.  In a money-based economy, we all need enough money to satisfy basic needs if we are to survive; we probably also need enough money to satisfy some non-basic desires as well, if we are not simply to survive but to lead a good life.  Working out what these basic needs are may well be an area of dispute; deciding which non-basic desires merit satisfying assuredly will (we'll be coming back to this).  So we all need either to make money, or to obtain it by some other means.  And the ways in which we make or obtain money themselves are part of how we live and who we are, and may be done in ways which increase or decrease our own overall well-being and/or which increase or decrease the well-being of others.

But we do not just have to make or otherwise obtain money in order to satisfy at least some of our needs and desires.  We also have to spend it (or use the products which others have bought for us), and the way we spend money is also an ethical issue.  How was the product produced or made?  What are the working conditions of those involved in its production?  What is the environmental impact of its production, transport, marketing, use and disposal?  Should we buy from local sources?  What is going to be the overall impact of the product on our happiness or the happiness of others?  How are we going to find the time to work these things out when we are rushing round the supermarket before picking up our children from school?!

For almost all of us, the making and spending of money will also involve a current bank account, and most of us will also need to borrow from and save in banks and building societies at various stages of our life.  Some of us will also choose to invest e.g. in shares or gilts or property.  So there will also be ethical considerations connected with the terms on which we save, borrow or invest, and the nature of the bank or company with which we are dealing.

So, on the one hand, money undoubtedly plays a key role in our ethical life, and given this, it is strange how little time most of us spend thinking about how best to earn, spend, save, borrow and invest it, in ways that will increase our well-being and perhaps the well-being of others too.  It is also strange how comparatively little attention is given to such matters in most schools (though there are some commendable exceptions, and the situation is slowly changing for the better).  Given this lack of attention to the bigger picture of how money fits in to the good life, it is perhaps not surprising how many unintentional anomalies there are in our thinking and practice e.g someone may say that they think money does not buy happiness and that being wealthy can be dangerous, yet exhaust themselves trying to make money to leave to their children, or they may say that they think investing in shares is wrong without bearing in mind that the banks they use or companies they buy from are doing exactly that.  Nor is it surprising how many rows couples have about money (some of which, of course, are caused by events which are out of their control, but some could be avoided with more discussion and planning).

On the other hand, most of us (as I suggested last week) only want money because we think it can further other ends, yet spend a huge proportion of our waking lives trying to make the stuff that we (mostly) only want because of something else ... And we may further feel trapped in jobs that we hate, and end up feeling intense resentment and frustration.

So our current relation with money in the west is confused and conflicted.  Next week we'll look at whether we can start to clarify the situation (using Plato for some help), and whether we can take any steps to make money work for us, rather than the other way round.


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