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A Humanist perspective on Economics

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A Humanist perspective


The word economics comes from two ancient Greek words oikos and nomos and it originally described the management of the resources of the home and family. As human societies became more and more complex over the last few thousand years, and groups of people organised themselves into cities and nations and empires and companies, swapped and traded with each other, the rules governing the management of resources have grown more and more complicated. Whole systems have evolved for dealing with wealth and resources. The ethical considerations that matter in economic questions today, however, are just as much about people as in the smaller economies of thousands of years ago. Economics today is domestic management with the whole world as the home of humanity and the practical engagement of human beings with the systems we develop, and reform, to manage the distribution of resources.


Ethics are involved

If you found a ticket (to a concert, say, or sports match – whichever you prefer) on the floor of a shop, clearly dropped by someone else, you would have a number of choices what to do about it. You could keep it for yourself; you could give it to a less fortunate friend who you knew would appreciate it; you could try to find the person who had dropped it and return it to them; you could enlist the help of the shopkeeper and leave the ticket with them to try to return; you could refer the whole matter to some external authority – like the police – and trust them to deal with it. The big questions of global economics confront us with choices just as immediate as these. We often don’t notice, because the people affected are distant from us and unknown, but the same ethical considerations apply as to our day-to-day decisions.


Economics is ultimately a human institution and humanists apply the same principles to questions of economics as to other ethical questions – what will best advance human welfare, fulfilment and flourishing? On some of the most complex economic questions humanists – like people of any worldview – often have very diverse opinions. Some may be communists, others liberal capitalists, or socialists, they may be campaigners for free trade or fair trade – but the reason they have for their economic views is the same: a concern for human fulfilment, freedom and material comfort.


John Maynard Keynes, a famous economist who was also a humanist said, ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist’ and ‘The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.’ This illustrates another important point for humanists. Economic thinking, like all thinking, can too often become dogma. Humanists, who value free and critical thinking, would apply critical thought to questions of economics as much as to any other questions in order to constantly test, and refine, the systems they develop to manage the world’s material resources.