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“Recovering Possibilities – Discovering the Rich Promise of a Moral Foundation to Economy & Society Speech at the Launch of the Centre for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society

Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 13th November 2015

President (Royal Irish Academy)

President (University College Cork),

Registrar (Waterford Institute of Technology),

Members of the Academy,

A chairde,

Tá áthas orm bheith anseo i bhur measc tráthnóna chun an tIonad seo a sheoladh.

I am delighted to be here with you all this afternoon to launch the Centre for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society, a joint academic and intellectual venture between University College Cork (UCC) and Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT).

Today’s launch represents in its own way the culmination of a long process that began at a round-table discussion in Áras an Uachtaráin in November 2013, when the idea of creating a structured academic programme dedicated to studying the moral underpinnings of economic and social life was first mentioned.  That suggestion was one of the substantive contributions to the second consultation with the public on some of the major themes I had identified in my Inaugural Address in November 2011.  The first consultation has been on “Being Young and Irish”, and the second consultation was on the theme of the nature and significance of ethics in our lives in the contemporary Ireland.

The meeting at Áras an Uachtaráin at which this idea of a Centre for the Study of Moral Foundations was first raised was one to which I had invited the representatives of all of Ireland’s third level institutions, as well as the Royal Irish Academy, to make their contribution to a national discussion on the values and principles by which we might live together ethically as a society. That meeting was at the very earliest stages of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative – and it is thus especially fitting that one of the final public events of that Initiative will be the launch today of this Centre, a Centre which I regard as a key legacy outcome of the Initiative.

I am very pleased that this project has come to fruition, and  I would like to avail of today’s occasion to commend the vision – and ethical commitment – of all those who have worked with such scholarly dedication and courage to achieve what we can celebrate today. May I thank, in particular, Dr Kieran Keohane, Professor Arpad Szakolczai and Professor Colin Sumner, who run the Centre at UCC, and their colleagues from WIT, Dr Tom Boland, Dr John O’Brien and Dr Ray Griffin.

I am confident that the intellectual work produced by this Centre will contribute in an important way, over the years to come, in tackling the deep injuries inflicted upon our moral imaginations by the extraordinary ascendancy in recent decades of what is an extraordinarily narrow version of economics that has, through abstraction and in an ideological manner, had the effect of severing the ties between economics and its ethical and philosophical sources – except, perhaps, for those ties deriving from some of the extremes within the utilitarian tradition.   

These issues of connection of economy, ecology and ethics, and the connection of policy, theory and method, have been at the centre of my Presidency because I believe that they are essential to reading and understanding the current situation in which we find ourselves – in Ireland, in Europe and in the wider world. Furthermore I believe that these are the issues that must be engaged with and addressed if we are to meet the great challenges we face in the years ahead; challenges of global poverty, deepening inequality, development, climate change and sustainability.

The intellectual and ethical questions which will be addressed by this Centre, then, are not peripheral – they are essential concerns of our contemporary world; and not only that, they are concerns that require the deep consideration and analysis that    I would submit can so appropriately be undertaken in centres of thought and learning.

In my speeches at home and abroad – and most recently in the Émile Noël Lecture I delivered at New York University – I have again and again emphasised the crucial role that universities can and should play in crafting a response to the great intellectual challenges of our time.

As seats of pluralist scholarship, universities can significantly enrich the contemporary public discourse on what constitutes ‘prosperity’ and ‘the good life.’ As institutions dedicated to intellectual speculation, they can contribute to carving out a much-needed space for vision and innovation in theory and policy at a time of great change and upheavals on our planet. We turn to them for critique of the paradigms of thought which affect our living. On them we rely for pathways from failed and failing models to the new theories, practice and vision that we need.

Such a role of universities - and particularly public universities - as place of intellectual freedom, creativity and pluralism cannot, of course, be taken for granted. Today academics are challenged to privilege, and if necessary defend, the moral purpose of emancipatory scholarship – a scholarship that is sensitive to ideals of justice and dignity; a scholarship that is concerned with the course of the world and the lives of others around us.

Academics are also challenged in their ethos as caring teachers and colleagues in an environment which, far from being impervious to the trends at play in wider society, is infused with highly individualistic values, inappropriate and artificial measurements of performance and productivity, and characterised by intense competition and increasingly precarious working conditions for younger scholars.

In this context, I think that we can all welcome the creation of The Centre for the Moral Study of Economy and Society, as a worthy endeavour at holding together the analytical (the descriptive) and the ethical (the prescriptive). Indeed its mission is not just to study the various ways in which the principles driving our current economic system can, as the founders of the Centre have described it, “damage the very tissue of social life”; it is also to set to the task of “imagining a better Ireland”, by offering suggestions as to how we might relocate ethics to the centre of collective life. 

The Centre already harbours an interesting variety of research projects and initiatives. Some research projects are of a rather classic sort; others focus on the training of students, such as the Economy and Society Summer School, which I had the pleasure of introducing last May.  Other projects are more unconventional in their methods and outreach, such as the “Community Voices for a Renewed Ireland”, of which we got an interesting glimpse in Áras an Uachtaráin at the National Seminar of the President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative in March of this year.

The work of the Centre will have a relevance and value far beyond the areas of economic and social policy treated as discrete areas of study.  Members of my staff have also attended the “Commemoration: Contexts and Concepts” symposium, held in UCC in September 2015, and I look forward to examining the journal/the papers resulting from this event. The question of how we remember the past – as individuals, in our families and communities, collectively as a nation, and as Europeans – this question has great pertinence, as we commemorate in Ireland the centenary of a series of seminal events in the formation of the State.

This issue of commemoration is, of course, also eminently ethical. It concerns our lives in the present – the manner in which we relate to others, sometimes recast as “the other”, of a different class, nation, religion or political conviction. It also relates to the manner in which we give a future to past events by remembering them in transformative ways. Indeed, following Paul Ricoeur, one can view the past as a repository [Ricoeur says “a cemetery”] of “promises which have not been kept.” In Ricoeur’s own words:

“the past is that which “lives in the memory thanks to arrows of futurity which have not yet been fired or whose trajectory has been interrupted.”

The late John O’Donoghue’s work on Possibility made a similar point:

“The consideration of possibility as a force of transformative invitation enables us to re-cast our perspective on what facts actually are.  Facts are not as lonely as they appear.  Possibility is the mother of facts. Each fact is a former possibility.”

Such a reflection on the past is quite relevant, I believe, to our reflections today. One can legitimately wonder, for example, what shape would our economy and society have assumed, had our fellow citizens kept alive, during Ireland’s recent economic boom, the cultural, philosophical, political and moral motivations which underpinned the Irish national revival, or the spirit of other historical movements for social and political reform such as the Cooperative Movement.  How might these elements of the past now inform our vision for the future of Ireland? What should we retain and what should we discard? What is the purpose of our State?

It is my view that we have neglected the contribution of the cooperative instinct to our social cohesion and indeed the role the Cooperative Movement in the discourse that preceded the establishment of the state. That neglect is one example of the reflective choices we have avoided in our modern history, and we will have ample time and opportunities to explore such questions in the months to come, as we commemorate the 1916 Easter Rising.

For now, I would like to concentrate on a concept that is central to the intellectual ambition of the Centre we are launching today – namely, the concept of “moral economy”, a concept with a rich history and heritage of its own. [1]  There are various reasons why I deem it worthwhile to reflect on this notion of moral economy, which evokes different periods in the history of social sciences – for example, it evokes a time before the fall of the Berlin Wall, an era when the emancipation struggles of the oppressed were still widely believed to hold the key to tomorrow’s world order. It also evokes the period from the late 1980s to the present when the role of the State has been redefined in terms that are responsive to a financialised global economy.

For those who studied or read sociology in the 1960s and 70s, as I did, the references then were to studies such as that of Eric Wolf on Latin America’s armed movements, or of Sidney Mintz’s on the exploitation of sugar plantation workers in the Caribbean. Past economic forms and surviving oppressions, were central in the discourse.  Recently we have recovered interest in global poverty and deepening inequality, but we have not seen in the academic work of recent decades significant changes in institutional economic decisions and responses placed in any philosophical, practical or moral framework of analysis.

As many in this audience will know, the concept of “moral economy” was first formulated by British historian Edward P Thompson, in an endeavour to introduce a moral dimension to a Marxist (and, in his eyes, overly materialist) reading of the social and economic history of the popular classes, a view which I share. Although the expression “moral economy” appeared in Thompson’s book, The making of the English working class, in 1963,[2] it is in his 1971 article published in the journal Past & Present, that he fully articulated the idea, in his study of the “food riots” of eighteenth-century England.[3]

Thompson’s concept was later utilised by, among others, a political scientist, James C. Scott, who introduced it with great success to anthropology – in particular, American anthropology. James C. Scott’s work, which included qualitative materials in a brilliantly illuminative way, looked at the moral economies of South-East Asian peasants[4].  This work thus opened the way, in the early 1980s, to a rich corpus of work on protest movements and social mobilisations among the rural populations of developing countries. 

In some respects, early work on strategies of defence used by peasants in interactions with those who held power reversed Gramsci’s notion of false consciousness.  James C. Scott’s own interest lay in the “subsistence ethic” of Southeast Asian peasants. He described how these peasants who constantly hover on the edge of famine seek, not to maximise their profit, as a liberal economist would expect, but, rather, to minimize the risk of loss.

This makes the important point that rational behaviour cannot be taken as the exclusive property of utility theory as instrument.  Rather a deeper version of rationality, rooted in instinct and cultural experience, is reflected in the tactical assessment as to, not only minimise risk in confrontations with power, but also for assessment of the opportunities for upheaval in social power, subversion and revolt.

It may be useful, therefore, to recall some of the reasons why this concept is worth reactivating in the current intellectual climate. First of all, E.P. Thompson’s study of food riots in eighteenth-century England offers a brilliant refutation of the notion that man’s behaviour can ever be described as a simple response to economic stimuli.

Deriding those scholars who view the riots as mere “rebellions of the belly”, as “compulsive, rather than self-conscious intrusions of the common people upon the historical canvas,” Thompson warns us against what he calls a “spasmodic view of popular history”. According to him, these eighteenth-century riots were never the mere mechanical result of soaring food prices and hunger. They operated within a popular consensus as to what were legitimate, and what were illegitimate, practices in marketing, milling, baking, etc. which, in its turn, was grounded upon – I quote:

“A consistent traditional view of social norms and obligations, of the proper economic functions of several parties within the community, which, taken together, can be said to constitute the moral economy of the poor. An outrage to these moral assumptions, quite as much as actual deprivation, was the usual occasion for direct action.”[5]

Edward P. Thompson’s study thus grasps the confrontation between the two economic models described in his own time by Karl Polanyi, at the historical juncture when the second overthrows the first one, when liberal reason undercuts traditional reason, or when, to paraphrase Max Weber, the capitalist ethic challenges the ethos of the poor. Here we see at play a moral economy of the dispossessed that reminds us that alternative forms of exchange are possible; that despite the ideological revolution then underway in England, older principles of justice, respect, and dignity still matter.

The difficulty for the contemporary moment lies in interpreting the degree to which a cohesive collective view has been reflected in a deeply fractured society where the public world has shrunk in comparison with privately consumed experience.  Then too, in the sphere of communications, public service broadcasting that assumed a shared story has been replaced by privately consumed entertainment – not totally of course, but to a significant extent at least.

Nevertheless, I believe that this moral economy framework can still very productively enlighten our current situation. One might suggest that contemporary forms of civic resistance and popular protests, such as they have unfolded recently in a number of European countries, fit the Thompson model at least to an extent; in that such protests are not just the mechanical result of deplorable levels of unemployment and deteriorating material circumstances – though that context must be recognised and understood. There may be also more to them - and this ‘more’ has to do with the breakdown of trust between citizens and their institutions, and with the rupture of the democratic pact to which I have referred, for example, in my address to the Council of Europe, earlier this year.

The present institutional structure of the European Union can be seen as reflecting the distribution of political power in recent decades, decades that have seen the emergence of a new financialised global order, where unaccountable agencies and forces removed from democratic oversight or control are in the ascendancy.

Modern work such as that of Dr. Srinivasan Raghavendra “Economics, Politics and Democracy in the Age of Credit Rating Capitalism”, make a valuable contribution as to the impact of monetarist orthodoxy in its new guise of New Consensus Macroeconomic. [6]  He raises the questions that flow from a credit rating hegemony within capitalism.

“Their power does not merely stop at inhibiting the State or its agencies from borrowing from the market it goes beyond the markets into the realm where it is beginning to reshape the palettes of representative democracy in the conduct of the fiscal affairs of the State.

The economic rationale for delivering politics from fiscal affairs is to eliminate uncertainties concerning the conduct of economic policy in general and fiscal policy in particular.”

Dr. Raghavendra goes on to instance three post-Maastricht instruments – ‘Transfer of Competition to Community, Rules-based Co-ordination’ and ‘Soft Co-ordination’ as being central to this process.  These changes surely deserve space in contemporary discourse as to the legitimacy issues that arise with, and between, countries of the EU.

The alternative view is for European democracy to retain its full meaning, and for our decision-makers to remain attentive and open to such expressions of the moral economy of our citizens, and in particular of the most vulnerable amongst them. Indeed a social view of Europe demands that our fellow citizens should never be seen merely as “consumers” of public policies, driven by a sense of their sectional interests. They harbour deeply held moral views as to what is legitimate and what is not in matters of economic relations, and these views should be listened to and responded to.

Evading or obstructing the necessary discourse of a critical scholarship abandons the future of European citizens to populism, ethnic factionalism, even racism.

Thompson’s argument is also interesting in that it colourfully exposes the intellectual bias involved in endorsing the analytical framework proposed by Mauss or Malinowski when looking at so-called “traditional societies” – whether they are located in the distant past or in faraway lands – while forgetting all about these authors as soon as we look at the modern and contemporary Western world.

Here it is worth quoting E.P. Thompson at length

“We know all about the delicate tissue of social norms and reciprocities which regulates the life of the Trobriand islanders, and the psychic energies involved in the cargo cults of Melanesia; but at some point this infinitely complex social creature, Melanesian man, becomes (in our histories) the eighteenth-century English collier who claps his hand spasmodically upon his stomach, and responds to elementary economic stimuli.”[7]

Paraphrasing Thompson, one could add that this infinitely complex social creature becomes (in twentieth century neo-classical theory), the self-regarding, choice-making individual whose foremost concern is the maximization of his utility.  He or she has become an abstraction within an uncontested paradigm.

The moral economy approach thus powerfully undermines the limited, abstracted, “abbreviated view of man” as mere homo economicus. It invites us to reassess the relevance of moral sentiments such as care, trust and friendship, and to reassert the centrality of principles of mutuality, reciprocity, redistribution and cooperation to the flourishing of our social and economic life.

We are left with a choice between a mechanistic and artificial view of the individual on one hand, and a rich, complex and social view of humanity on the other.  At the present time, there are not equally treated discussions in an educational institutional sense, or indeed in the media.  Yet, for the future of possibilities of our ‘citizens’ being realised, we will need a pluralist scholarship and an open reflective space of discourse.

We are invited, then, to rediscover, with joy and hope, the full meaning of our inter-dependence as human beings – an interdependence that is inter-national, with other nations, as well as inter-generational, with those who came before us and with those who will come after us; and an interdependence that also extends, we increasingly realise, to all the non-human beings with whom we share this fragile planet.

As Paul Ricoeur put it,

“It is in the inter-esse [being-with] that the wish for a good life finds its fulfillment.”

I have described in a number of recent speeches, both at home and abroad, and on such themes as global poverty and climate change, how the present moment in human history must be defined by the need to construct a new normative framework, free of that legacy of imperialism and colonisation that gave us a cruel dualism of traditional/modern and developed/backward; which was of course also dismissive of gender equality. 

This is an intellectual task which will require new theories and tools,[8]And this is the thrilling intellectual agenda lying ahead of all of you who are involved in the Centre for the Study of the Moral Foundations of Economy and Society. Is mian liom a rá arís cé chomh sásta is atá mé a bheith anseo libh chun an tIonad nua seo a sheoladh, agus guím gach rath oraibh don todhchaí.

May I say, once again, how pleased I am to be here with you all to launch this new venture, and wish you all the very best in your future endeavours.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.



[1] The study of “The anthropological foundations of a moral economy” is the object of one of the research projects developed under the Centre’s first research themes entitled “Recovering the Anthropological Foundations of Social Life” and led by Professor Arpad Szakolczai.

[2] Edward P. Thompson. 1968 [1963]. The making of the English working class. Harmondsworth. Penguin Books, p.68 and 222.

[3] Edward P. Thompson. 1971. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Past and Present (50), pp. 76-136.

[4] James C. Scott. 1976. The moral economy of the peasant: Rebellion and subsistence in Southeast Asia. New Haven. Yale University Press.

[5] E.P. Thompson.1991. “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” Customs in Common. The Merlin Press, p. 188. (This chapter was first published as the aforementioned 1971 article in Past and Present).

[6] Economy and Political Weekly, Vol. XLVIII, No. 05, February 2013

[7] Ibid., p. 187.

[8] President Higgins’ Address “The Power of Ideas for Climate – Making a New Beginning”, delivered at Summit of Consciences for Climate, Paris, 21st July 2015