Ten years after the 2008 global financial crisis, the commodification of health, the spread of fiscal austerity programmes, deep social marginalization and climate change challenges revealed that health issues are “vital matters” that economists should address. Moreover, the outcomes of the coronavirus crisis call for a reflection on the contemporary threatens related to individual freedom, control on individuals and insecurity in social interrelations.
Indeed, it has long seemed to me the need to call for reflection and action upon what is ethical in our behavior in the world and the role of ethics in economics education.
In a recent piece titled “How Should Colleges Prepare for a Post-Pandemic World”, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education (https://www.chronicle.com/article/How-Should-Colleges-Prepare/248507), Brian Rosemberg wrote: If one were to invent a crisis uniquely and diabolically designed to undermine the foundations of traditional colleges and universities, it might look very much like the current global pandemic.
In the same line of thought, Frank Bruni, in his piece “The End of College as We Knew It” (https://tinyurl.com/ybha8mhb), said: Colleges and universities are in trouble — serious trouble. They’re agonizing over whether they can safely welcome students back to campus in the fall or must try to replicate the educational experience imperfectly online. They’re confronting sharply reduced revenue, severe budget cuts, warfare between administrators and faculty, and even lawsuits from students who want refunds for a derailed spring semester. And a devastated economy leaves their very missions and identities in limbo, all but guaranteeing that more students will approach higher education in a brutally practical fashion, as an on-ramp to employment and nothing more.
The actual learning scenario reveals that rational behaviour is now required of everyone in all areas of social life. As Max Weber explained, modernity in education has been a process and result of the rationalization of society. Indeed, “rationalization” has been a key feature of the reorganization of social interactions. In the context of neoliberalism, this process involved the adoption of efficient business practices. While short-term portfolio decisions predominate in the free markets, the provision of basic services of health, education, energy, water, among others, has increasingly relied on a diversified set of arrangements among governments, corporations, non-governmental organizations and communities.
In the Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi highlighted the critique of the liberal myth and the challenges to social justice, showing that the dehumanization of capitalism is a result of the particular institutional set up of the market society. Taking into account the historical analysis of capitalism enhanced by Polanyi, we can say that contemporary institutions adjust perfectly to the principles of instrumental rationality in society.
Nowadays, calculation and control are fundamental conditions for the rationality of bureaucracy that overwhelms the advancement of knowledge.
In short, the social, cultural and political challenges of this pandemic require a re-grounding of economics in ethics.
Any ethically defensible approach to economics as a social science that address “vital matters” should look for universal ethical principles that might guide life in contemporary societies beyond effectiveness.