linkedin document video images microphone

President of Ireland

English / Irish / A- / A+

President of Ireland

Media Library
Back Button go back

Speech at the Economy and Society Summer School

Blackwater Castle, Castletownroche, Co. Cork, Monday, 11th May 2015

Tá áthas orm a bheith anseo libh ar fad ag tús an tseachtain seo a gheallann a bheidh torthúil agus lán de plé bríomhar intleachtúil. Is mian liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na heagraithe as an chuireadh an chomhdháil acadúil tabhachtach seo a sheoladh.

[I am very pleased to be opening this Summer School, bringing together as it does scholars from across the humanities, social sciences and business studies for a joint exploration of the theories, concepts and methods that might better enable you, and us all, to apprehend the rich interrelations between society and the economy.]

Convened by the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) and University College Cork (UCC), this School is in its second year, and   I have no doubt that the majestic and pastoral environment offered by this beautiful place – Blackwater Castle – will be propitious, once again, to your reflection and exchanges.

As is acknowledged by the organisers in their prospectus for this Summer School, one of the defining intellectual problems of our times is the hegemonic status acquired by one particular branch of economic theory, often referred to as neoclassical economics, as the principal way of understanding economic life and informing policy-making.

Yet, behind every policy, there is a theory – a structure of thought with domain assumptions that need to be articulated and declared, and, once they are declared, made open to contestation. This is all the more necessary as some of these assumptions relate to the purported essence of human nature itself.

The dominance of one single perspective in economic thinking has consequences well beyond academic and policy-making circles. It also has profound repercussions on the conceptions informing the contemporary public discourse as to what constitutes prosperity and the good life. Indeed the invitation to view the world as rational, calculating utility maximisers has inflicted deep injuries on our moral imaginations, on the way we conceive of our relations to others, to the future, and to our shared planet.

One way, I suggest, to break free from such a reductionist conception of human nature and social relations is to re-anchor economic theory in its rich ethical and philosophical sources. I am delighted, therefore, that this Summer School was developed under the auspices of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative, and that your programme gives such a central place to the study of the relations between ethics and economics.

I note, however, that on the School’s website, economics has been located within the group entitled “business”, together with management, marketing and finance – and separate from the cluster of disciplines they identified as “social sciences”.

This can only provoke me into reassessing the status of economics as a social science, if not as a craft, whose theoretical assumptions and methods of enquiry must be stated clearly. As the distinguished Indian academic and World Bank’s new Chief Economist, Kaushik Basu, argued in a paper from 1997, economists should build norms explicitly into their models, lest they embed them unconsciously instead,[1] and lest – I would add – we succumb to the illusion of economics as a pure science with the power of revealing the “natural law” of The Market (in the singular, and with a capital M).

Thus it is as important, I would argue, to reconnect economic thinking and ethical reasoning, as it is to firmly anchor economics, its objects and methods of enquiry, within the bosom of the social sciences.

The title of this Summer School – “Economy and Society” – evokes,   of course, Max Weber’s seminal eponymous work, published posthumously, in 1921 and 1922. For what concerns us today – that is, not just the profound embeddedness of economic and social trends, but also their intertwining with ethics – Max Weber remains, I believe, an inspiring source.

Indeed the effort to understand the connections between institutions and identities, practices and values, sociality and subjectivities was central to the late 19th and early 20th century writings of great social theorists such as Marx, Weber, Simmel and Durkheim. It is my profound conviction that there is, today again, an acute need for such an integrated scholarship, capable of embracing at once the social, economic, political as well as moral and intellectual-ideological dimensions of both collective and individual life.

The current status of mainstream economics as a hegemonic source of norms and practices has been analysed by many distinguished scholars. Sociologist Michel Callon, for example, has convincingly argued that there is a performative quality to economics, in that most social institutions favoured by economists, such as, for example, private property rights, are effectively ways of making values calculable and turning people into “calculating agents.” While many of his fellow sociologists usually challenge economists for thinking about the market in overly abstract terms, Callon contends that it is precisely this act of engaging in economic abstractions that fosters “calculability”. Economic markets, therefore, are embedded not just in society and culture,[2] but in economic knowledge itself.

By thus emphasising the centrality of economics in shaping so many aspects of contemporary life, I am not disputing the relevance of this discipline as such. I am, quite the contrary, fully aware of the value of the abstract econometric tools and parsimonious modelling techniques embraced by economists in their pursuit for patterns that are widely generalisable, and hence rendered all the more relevant to policy making.

One of the most critical elements of methodological parsimony derived from classical economics has been, perhaps, the paradigm of the self-regarding choice-making individual – often simplified, as I have said, as a utility-maximising agent in neo-classical theory. As Paul Krugman once remarked:

Homo economicus is an implausible caricature, but a highly productive one, and no useful alternative has yet been found.”[3]

This may be true. I would, however, compound Krugman’s contention by another of Kaushik Basu’s insights:

“The realisation, more than two hundred years ago, that much of the order that prevails in society can come about from individuals pursuing their own selfish ends, was stunning indeed. It has rightly been epitomised in lengthy monographs and pithy theorems. But to go over to the other extreme and assume that the order and collective efficiency that we see occur invariably because of individual incentive-compatible systems is to handicap our understanding of not just society and polity but also the economy.”[4]

Thus parsimonious modelling and abstraction does involve some real gains but also real losses: thus economists should always be wary of bringing back these strategic losses into the picture when interpreting outcomes, and also, most importantly, when advising policy makers.

There is another way in which a reflection on ethics is important to this Summer School. Over the next few days, you are invited, not just to examine the manner in which your various research projects apprehend the relations between economy, society and ethics, but also to discuss the values and principles which you, as conscious subjects, regard as fundamental to your scholarly practice and, more broadly, to our living together as a society. You are invited, in other words, to engage with ethical reasoning, not only as rigorous analysts and observers, but also as concerned scholars and citizens.

In this too, inspiration can be found in Max Weber’s conception of scientific methodology as serving, not simply as a guide to investigation but as a moral practice and a mode of political action. In Weber’s own words:

“The fulfillment of the scientific duty to see the factual truth as well as the practical duty to stand up for our own ideals constitute the program to which we wish to adhere with ever increasing firmness.”[5]

What type of intellectual work is required as will enable us to make all these new beginnings to which we aspire? Which virtues should academics cultivate in contemporary society? How might their scholarship address the great challenges of our times? How to imagine a better future and not be defeated by the present, in the face of the deep pessimism currently prevalent in the social sciences?

Such a questioning underpins this Summer School’s programme, encouraging as it does participants, doctoral researchers and faculty alike, to imagine alternatives to our contemporary condition by exploring the “neglected” ethical sources and moral foundations of social life. I know that most of you here are PhD students, and it seems to me that this is a most valuable reflection to undertake during those formative years of your doctoral studies – years during which you are exploring a variety of concepts and theories, testing the boundaries of your research, but also sharpening your ideals and ideas, and reflecting upon your role in society as scholars and intellectuals.

The titles of the papers which will be presented throughout this week show that many of you are grappling with very contemporary problems, from the new world of work to the practices and worldviews prevalent in the financial sphere. These papers show that most of you are eager to engage with subject matters that have an ethical overtone.

When we consider the challenges of Ireland’s “recovery” – a term which in itself would deserve close study – it is clear that what is required is not just financial adjustment and a lifting up of enterprise and innovation, but also a revitalisation of our moral and intellectual foundations, a new collective discourse, and a new set of institutional practices, including academic practices. It would not be fair, however, to ask you to undertake the change on your own, or indeed at your own cost; we must, together, ask ourselves how we might strategically operate so as to achieve change.

We need a new language to address the manifold intersections of the economic and the social – new perspectives to manifest the large range of ties that exist between material and moral visions of human well-being. We need to widen our conceptions of how human beings engage with one another and with their collective future. To the reductionist vision of human nature as fundamentally self-interested, let us oppose the power of moral sentiments such as care, trust and friendship; and let us respond to methodological individualism by reasserting the centrality of mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation to the flourishing of our social and economic life. What is at stake is no less than, as anthropologist Arjun Appadurai put it, “the survival of multiple visions of the good life.”[6] This is, I believe, an ideal worth fighting for.

Tá súil agam go mbeidh an Scoil Samhraidh seo ina chloch mhíle agaibh i bhur múnlú intleachtúil, agus guím go mbeidh diospóireachtaí luachmhar torthúil agaibh i gcaitheamh na seachtaine.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.


[1] Basu, K. 2001. “The Role of Norms and Law in Economics: An Essay on Political Economy.” In Keates, D. and J. Scott (Eds.). Schools of Thought: Twenty Five Years of Interpretive Social Science. Princeton University Press.

[2] As economic sociology, from Polanyi to Granovetter, has long aimed to show.

[3] Krugman, P. 1995. Development, Geography, and Economic Theory. The MIT Press, p.78.

[4] Basu, K. 2008. “Social Norms and Cooperative Behavior: Notes from the Hinterland between Economics and Anthropology.” In Bardhan, P. and I. Ray (Eds). The Contested Commons. Wiley-Blackwell, p.233.

[5] Weber, M. 1904/1949. “Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy.” In Shils E. and H. A. Finch (Eds. and trans.)The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Free Press. p.58.

[6] Appadurai, A. 2002 “Cultural Diversity: A Conceptual Platform.” UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity, Cultural Diversity Series 1. Paris: UNESCO.