ethics and economics

Part 2 of Lecture on Spirituality and Development: Friday, 27th Jan 2017 by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE — for Students of Religion & Development Paper, Center of Development Studies, University of Cambridge. Link for part 1: Spirituality . 50m Video lecture:


  1. The meaning of development has varied dramatically across time, space, cultures.
    1. When Britannia ruled the Waves:
      Development definition suited Britain: Sea-Power, Coal Mines, Industry, Climate, Race
      No entry for “democracy” in Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1930
    2. Post-War Rise of USA
      Initial Definition: Democracy, GNP per capita – both criteria serve to ensure leadership of USA.
    3. Later, some Oil Economies had Higher GNP/Capita than USA
      So REDEFINE Development to include Income Distribution, so as to keep US on top
    4. Later, Switzerland, Japan and some other Scandinavian countries had Higher Wealth + Lower Gini. How to measure development to ensure USA is on top? Answer: Redefine Development to include Infrastructure
    5. Conclusion: Definition of Development Changes to suit the powerful. Criteria are chosen to ensure that the powerful are on top.
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Friday, 26th Jan 2017: Lecture by Dr. Asad Zaman, VC PIDE to students at University of Cambridge, Center of Development Studies for Religion & Development paper. 40 minute video recording of lecture on you-tube

Part 1: “What Is Spirituality?”:  Modern Secular thought takes spirituality and religion to be diseases which affect weak minds not properly trained in the scientific method. Part I of this lecture explain why this view, which is based on positivist ideas, is seriously mistaken. OUTLINE of this lecture is given below

Separate Lecture Part 2:” What is Development” focusing on how spirituality affects how we think about development and how to achieve it.

  1. Standard Modern Answer
    1. Spirituality is a literary term, used to spice up poetry and novels.
    2. It is like Phlogiston, Unicorns, Ghosts, Souls, God
    3. It is one among many medieval beliefs, like flat Earth, which have been proven wrong.
  1. Why don’t we understand spirituality?
    1. Because we have been trained to think like Logical Positivists, EVEN though this philosophy has been proven wrong! Key wrong positivist beliefs:
    2. Unobservables do not matter for science
    3. Science explains the observable patterns. It may postulate things like atoms, gravity, but this is just for convenience. Existence of gravity is not part of scientific assertion.
    4. Kant: Thing-In-Itself is not knowable, not relevant for science. Wittgenstein: Wherof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. ALSO, The human body is best picture of the human soul (That is, observables matter, unobservables don’t)
    5. SCIENCE is the ONLY source of valid knowledge.

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Ifaohungermapf any group of concerned citizens would gather to discuss economic problems, it would seem natural to begin with the problem of feeding the hungry. Strangely enough, one would not encounter this problem within a standard course of study of economic theory at any of the leading universities throughout the world. This is due to two major mistakes made in the formulation of conventional economic theories currently being taught and practised throughout the globe. The first mistake is the idea that the goal of an economic system is the production of wealth, broadly defined. For example, Adam Smith takes the fundamental economic problem to be the production of wealth. The maximisation of GNP per capita currently forms the core of economic growth theory. The value of human life can be evaluated in terms of how much wealth the human can produce. This also accounts for the use of the degrading term ‘human resource’, which basically puts humans on a par with other resources, like factories and machines, as inputs to the production process.

A revolution in economic theory would result if we replace this completely mistaken idea with its opposite: the goal of an economic system is to increase human welfare. Wealth is important only to the extent that it can bring about increases in human welfare. In conjunction with wealth, many other types of invisible inputs, such as social capital, cultural norms and institutional structures also play an important role in determining human welfare, broadly understood in terms of all dimensions of life which contribute to our collective well-being. Wealth, industry and production of goods and services are resources to be used to help improve human lives. A central goal of economics should be the relation between resources, and their relative efficiency at contributing to human welfare. In particular, providing food to the hungry is clearly the single most important and universal invariant in production of human welfare. The fundamental economic problem is to study how to use a given amount of wealth to produce the maximum amount of welfare.

The second mistake, engendered by the first, is the idea that investment in physical capital is the main source of growth and development. Mahbubul Haq pioneered the replacement of GNP by the Human Development Index. Similarly, Amartya Sen in his book, Development As Freedom, argues that progress is about the development of human capabilities. The UN now defines development as the ability “to lead long and healthy lives, to be knowledgeable, to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living and to be able to participate in the life of the community”. Of course, food is the sine qua non of human development. Many factors not usually considered by economists also play an important role in improving quality of life. The elements of trust, cooperation, culture and communities are gradually gaining recognition as important contributors to welfare.

A revolution in planning for growth would result from taking seriously the idea that human beings have far more capabilities and potential than any kind of machine. History gives us many examples of human beings who have changed the world. Given the right environment and training, all children have the potential to achieve extraordinary genius. It is our collective task as a society to ensure that all children get the opportunity to develop this potential. The economic system is valuable only as a means to achieving this goal. This means that providing basic necessities like food, healthcare and education is actually the most valuable investment we can make. Unfortunately, conventional theories of growth, currently routinely being applied throughout the world, do not recognise this fact. As a result, these false economic theories lead us to invest in industry, instead of our children, who represent our greatest potential and our future.

The spectacular failure of conventional economic theories during the global financial crisis has strengthened and created several movements for reform of these theories, ranging from mild to radical and revolutionary. Many of these reforms are taking on board the idea that economic growth is a means to providing for the people. Our greatest treasure is our people and investing in them is the surest path to prosperity.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 23rd, 2015.

A driving spirit of the modern age is the desire to banish all speculation about things beyond the physical and observable realms of our existence. This spirit was well expressed by one of the leading Enlightenment philosophers, David Hume, who called for burning all books which did not deal with the observable and quantifiable phenomena: “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

This is a breathtakingly bold assertion. The literate reader may examine his or her bookshelf to see what little, if anything, would survive after applying Hume’s prescriptions. Nonetheless, the spirit of the secular age was very much in tune with Hume, and relegated vast areas of human knowledge captured in literature, history, and the arts, to second-class citizenship. The modern world has been shaped by this downgrading of the spiritual, intuitive, and mystical, and the elevation of the rational as supreme judge and arbiter over all other faculties.

The leaders of the Enlightenment advocated rationality as the sole criterion for establishing an authoritative system of ethics, aesthetics, and knowledge. This has led to a dualism which has become firmly embedded in the foundations of Western thought, and has created a social science incapable of perceiving, let alone solving the problems currently being faced by humanity as a whole. Western hegemony has led to the global and widespread acceptance of this dualism, clearly expressed by Hume, in embracing the quantitative and passionately and violently rejecting the qualitative. Exploring the full range of difficulties caused by this dualism would take several books. In this essay we consider just one of the salient problems. Harvard Professor Julie Reuben expressed it as follows: “Truth was (a united whole) embracing spiritual, moral, and cognitive knowledge. By the 1930’s, this unity was shattered; factual cognitive knowledge (was separated from) moral/spiritual knowledge.”

The Enlightenment project had aimed to provide rational foundations for all human knowledge. However, influential intellectuals like Max Weber, in the early twentieth century, argued that scientific knowledge had to be value-free, because values could not be established empirically. Widespread acceptance of this rejection of morality and spirituality has had dramatic consequences in all realms of human life. The most important questions that we face as human beings were declared to be meaningless, and unworthy of our attention and study. We all recognize that our own life is an infinitely precious gift; the most important question we face is: how should we use this gift? What is the purpose or meaning of life? What characterizes the ‘good life’ and what steps can we take to achieve a lifestyle which embodies the good?

Influential positivist philosophers argued that these questions had no meaning, because there was no empirical or observational evidence which could be used to answer them. All answers were equally valid. We should simply do with our lives whatever we desire to do. There were no ethical or moral standards to guide our behavior. As one of the leading positivist philosophers, A J Ayer, stated: “Moral judgments are as meaningless as a cry of pain”. Centuries of traditional wisdom about life was discarded as meaningless noise, and the new generations were encouraged to work out answers to these deep and difficult questions on their own, starting from scratch. To understand the catastrophic consequences of this, imagine what would happen if we threw out accumulated wisdom in medicine (or any other field of knowledge), and started again from scratch.

The key to the social sciences is an understanding of the nature of human beings. Can we understand human lives without understanding responsibility, conscience, courage, love, heroism and cowardice, trust, jealousy and the enormous range of human emotions? All of these elements of human lives are deeply and inherently qualitative and cannot be measured on any scales. Thus, by definition, these do not qualify for inclusion in the realm of scientific knowledge. The wisdom of the ancients, contained in books discussing these concepts in literary and philosophical terms, without measurement and data, would deserve to be burned according to Hume. But all this book-burning would leave us without any guidance on issues central to human affairs.

The dualism that deified science, and scoffed at that qualitative and unmeasurable, resulted in a tremendous loss of knowledge about the nature of human beings and society. We are living with the consequences of a college education which teaches students how to build bombs, but nothing about the ethics of killing innocents. As a chilling example, consider the changing attitudes towards torture and murder. Japanese soldiers were executed for torturing American POW using waterboarding, and American soldiers in Vietnam were tried for such treatment of Vietnamese prisoners. But recent Presidents have thrown their full support behind the use of extreme torture techniques, officially approving their use. Hollywood movies glorify and justify torture, even though empirical evidence shows that it does not work to obtain useful intelligence. Official reports show that senior officials in the UK and the US concocted evidence to fool the public into supporting the invasion of Iraq, resulting in deaths of millions of innocent civilians, and unnecessary expense of trillions of dollars. But no one has been convicted of any wrongdoing. MBAs are taught that the bottom line is all that matters, and social responsibility should not interfere with the pursuit of profits. Thus, there is no outrage at the deaths of the poor and hungry farmers, caused by millions of dollars spent on research to produce genetically modified terminating seeds, so that rich organisations can make more profits by selling seeds every year. Even justice has been separated from morality; in the adversarial system, lawyers are taught that their responsibility is to win the case for their clients, regardless of whether or not justice would be served by this win. Reform requires deep and fundamental changes in the system of education, which needs to be firmly grounded in all those ideas that have been kicked out of the curriculum as ‘unscientific’.

Short Posts on Diverse Topics: My author page on LinkedIn. Other works: Index . Related: Re-Enchanting the World.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2016.ethicseducation

greedIdeology and Science are diametrically opposed to each other. An ideology is a set of beliefs that is maintained even in face of strong empirical evidence to the contrary. Science is primarily concerned with explaining the empirical evidence. Theories which conflict with observations are rejected.  This does not mean that ideology is necessarily wrong or bad – we must maintain our belief in justice, morality, honesty, trust, integrity without any empirical evidence; indeed, even when strong empirical evidence suggests that these beliefs will not bring us popularity or personal benefits. However, ideological beliefs in wrong ideas can blind us to the facts and prevent learning which is essential to progress. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz remarked that modern Economics represents the triumph of ideology over science. This essay explains the reasons for his remarks.

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The perpetuation of inequality through clustering in neighborhoods is graphically depicted in: “Living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life” by Alvin Chang. Of course, this concept cannot even be formulated in conventional economic theory. I think we must move beyond the idea that neoclassical economic theory is “wrong” and come to the realization that neoclassical economist accomplishes perfectly what it is designed to do. It is designed to conceal those aspects of economic reality which could create unrest among the bottom 99%, as well as those aspects which enable the 1% to achieve extraordinary privilege and power at the expense of the rest. For instance,  “The Veil of Money” shows that QTM and standard monetary theory is designed to conceal how the mechanism of money creation provides enormous advantage to the wealthy. “The Fairy Tale of GNP” shows how standard economic theory measures of progress are designed to conceal inequality and distributional injustice. The standard DSGE model, with only one representative agent, is designed to conceal the presence of disadvantaged groups, minorities and laborers.

In reading obits to prepare  an article in memory of Muhammad Ali, I came across something to the effect that Muhammad Ali was a child prodigy. In any just society, given educational opportunities, he would have grown up to be a scholar, a philosopher, a statesman, or other kind of superstar. However, given the realities of discrimination, he could only become a boxer. The drastically different economic realities of heterogenous communities within societies are systematically concealed by economic theory. The article below, about Muhammad Ali, was published in Express Tribune on 13 June 2016, with the title: “Remembering an Icon

The Greatest 

The dramatic shifts of fortune experienced by Mohammad Ali, who died recently on 3rd June 2016, reflects the checkered fortunes of the minorities he represented. It requires effort for contemporary mindsets to visualize the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s where Black Americans were fighting not just for social, economic and political equality, but most fundamentally, the right to lead lives with human dignity. Mohammad Ali was among the most colorful champions of equality in a now nearly forgotten era of Black liberation. He came to prominence on the world stage after a surprise victory against reigning heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, when 7 to 1 odds were given against Ali. He earned the anger and ire of white public when he publicly announced his conversion to Islam, and renounced his “slave name” of Cassius Clay.

Muhammad Ali’s status as world champion provided him with the platform to express and articulate the sentiments of the oppressed Black minority regarding the Vietnam War.  He refused to “drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights”. [ read more]

Modern economic theory is founded on the  principle that human beings “maximize utility”; that is, they choose the best action from among a collection of choices. This axiom is considered self-evident: why would anyone make an inferior choice, when a better option is available? However, the mathematical formulation of this axiom is far from realistic. After all, it is self-evident that human behavior cannot be described by mathematical laws. Critics have invented the term “homo economicus” to describe behavior governed by economic laws, which differs drastically from normal human behavior. We can describe homo economicus as cold, calculating, and callous. We explain each of these terms separately.

The theory of consumimages (9)er behavior which is taught in business school differs drastically from the same theory taught in the economics school. The homo economicus of economists is cold – not subject to any emotional influences in his consumption decisions.  In complete contrast, a fundamental axiom of consumer theory in the business school is that effective marketing appeals to emotions instead of reason.  The proven effectiveness of business school methods in getting consumers to purchase a wide range of completely useless goods shows the superiority of their models of human behavior.

The term ‘maximize’ describes the assumption that homo economicus calculates the consequences of his actions to the last penny, and utilizes any opportunity for even the slightest gain. Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon observed that real human beings do not act according to this assumption. He invented the term “satisficing” to describe the observed behavior of real humans. Satisficing means making a choice which is satisfactory, or sufficient for the purpose, instead of maximizing, or searching for the best possible choice. For a wide range of situations, satisficing is a much better description of  human behavior than the maximization done by homo economicus.

Finally callous refers to the assumption that homo economicus is concerned solely with his own personal gains, and does not have any concern for others. Psychologists who learned of this bizarre theory of the economists decided to test it in a simple lab experiment. They gave some amount of money, like $10, to a subject X, and asked him to divide the money with another subject Y. The subject X was completely free to choose how to divide the money, including keeping all $10 for himself and leaving none for the subject Y. In fact, almost no one did this. Many subjects split the money into equal shares while nearly all gave at least $3 to the other subject. Only economists, blinded by their theories, found these results strange. According to economists, all subjects should keep all $10 for themselves and give nothing to others. Interestingly, in experiments among college students, economics students behaved the most selfishly, occasionally even keeping the entire amount for themselves.

The discovery of the great divergence between homo economicus and real people led to the creation of Behavioral Economics. This discipline studies actual behavior of people via experiments like the one described above. This goes against modern economic theory, which uses mathematics to calculate human behavior. For a long time, behavioral economics was an outcaste subject within the economics discipline. Actual human behavior was complex and varied, and conflicted strongly with the mathematical laws according to which homo economicus behaves. Leading behavioral economists advised their students not to study the subject, since they would have difficulty finding jobs as economists. The situation changed gradually as the radically different predictions of behavioral economists often turned out to be more accurate than conventional economic theory. Robert Shiller used behavioral theories to show that stock markets were overpriced, something which was not possible in the world of the rational robots that conventional economic theories study. After the Global Financial Crisis proved him right, Shiller was awarded a Nobel Prize, and Behavioral Economics acquired a new respectability among economists. Nonetheless, mainstream economists continue to treat behavorial theories as a sideshow, and homo economicus continues to occupy the central place in modern economic theory. We cannot hope for a realistic economic theory until this situation changes, and a more realistic theory of human behavior is adopted for use by economists.

NOTE: The failures of neoclassical utility theory are extensively discussed in: The Empirical Evidence Against Neoclassical Utility Theory: A Review of the Literature, International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education, Vol. 3, No. 4, 2012, pp. 366-414

Short Posts on diverse topics: LinkedIn. Index to all works:AZProjects.Closely related:Fundamental Flaws of Economic Theories.