Summary

This chapter started off by pointing to the influence of the economics profession and economic fundamentalism on public policy and expressing concern at that influence. I suggested that economic fundamentalism assumed that social relationships were reducible to transactions between self-interested individuals—that is, that economic relationships were the fundamental social relationships. It has been argued that as a consequence, the vocabulary of economics with all its entailments now provides the dominant vocabulary for the evaluation of public policy choices.

My more detailed analysis began with an examination of the basis of the social order, starting from a position that saw the individual as embedded in society. I pointed out that there is no such thing as a pre-social human nature and that the formation of our values—and even of our consumer preferences—is a thoroughly social process. In support, I pointed to our earliest hominoid ancestors as having lived as members of social groups. Our evolution involved a complex in which the organised hunting of large animals, life in organised social groups and the making and use of tools were interconnected. That evolution is inseparable from the evolution of human culture. That culture is something we learn as children—discovering how our parents and those around us interpret the world. This evolved social order is acknowledged widely to be a moral order—an order that determines how we should act. The study of social life is, therefore, the study of social norms, institutions and the stories in which they are embodied—not simply regularities in conduct, but regulated conduct. These regulations set limits to, work against and channel the drives we have inherited. It is the control of greed, broadly defined, which constitutes a crucial victory of culture against animality—a victory that permitted complex organisations to emerge. Central to this view is the idea that human beings as they have evolved created the social system in which they have their being. This evolution of human culture is not a once-and-for-all process; it is a continuing process.

The maintenance of any social order involves, then, a moral struggle within and between individuals—a struggle to control our behavioural tendencies to dominate, to compete and to be aggressive. There are severe limits to our successful control of these tendencies. This fact has been acknowledged widely throughout human history and in different cultures, particularly in the context of religious teachings. In particular, it is reflected in the Christian doctrine of original sin—a doctrine secularised by Hobbes in his war of all on all—and then largely forgotten. It is a doctrine that incorporates a profound insight into the human condition—an insight that we ignore to our peril, particularly in the design of our institutional and organisational arrangements. It is unorganised social pressure, organised enforcement of law and our own sense of guilt flowing from any breach of internalised norms that provide the moral coercion that permits the social system to survive.

It is also clear that no society can survive without stable moral traditions backed up by effective means of coercion. Leading moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre tells us, however, that our day-to-day moral vocabulary derives from several different and incompatible moral traditions.[126] Consequently, the moral foundations of modern society are incoherent and fragmented. This would seem to pose a significant threat to that social system and some commentators have sensed deterioration in the social, intellectual and philosophical capital of the Western civil order.

Having concluded that human civilisation is always under threat from what used to be called human sinfulness—including human greed—in the next chapter, we will go on to examine the relationship between the economic system and the social order. It will suggest that the economic system, like society itself, is a social artefact and, far from being autonomous, is dependent on the systems of social control discussed above.