Background - 15.11.2016 - 00:00
16 November 2016. Martin Booms shares his insights on a meaningful economy with new values, created by a humanist turning point.
What new values does the economy need, and why?
Martin Booms: First and foremost, we’re not talking about the definition of substantially new values, and most certainly not about an external moralisation of the economy. Rather, this is about a new understanding of values and a new competence for dealing with them. After all, business as a purpose that brings people together is invariably value-related per se, although we don’t always reflect on this. Contrary to this, the idea that there are "value-free economic activities" is still widespread both in economics and in economic practice. However, this view is less morally problematic than factually misleading: it blanks out half of the economic reality and thus leads to distortions and malfunctions which also manifest themselves in reality.
After the economic and financial crisis, some quarters vehemently demanded a change in values. Since then, however, it doesn’t look as if much has happened. Is this impression deceptive?
Booms: A change in values won’t happen as long as prevalent ways of thinking remain unchanged. It is pointless to proclaim a cultural change which is then completely disconnected from the actual economic core activities. A genuine change in values requires reflection on fundamental questions of economic activities, in particular: what is the company’s objective and purpose from which it derives its corporate identity? Against what criteria is economic success measured? Are profits a prerequisite or a target of business activities? What is the company’s relationship with society, and what conclusions must be drawn from this for the orientation of the business model?
Politics, the economy and society interact. Who has a say in the discussion about changing values in the economy?
Booms: Well, the economy is not an end in itself but a means to an end: it is in the service of society and its people, not vice versa. Once the basic needs have been economically secured, everything else depends on how we want to live – and this question obviously concerns all of us. True wealth does not necessarily consist in a maximum accumulation of economic goods but in having those resources which are required for a happy life, however we may define it. A good life is the measure of a meaningful economy, whereas a buoyant economy is not the measure of what a meaningful life is.
The election of Donald Trump came as a surprise. Many people are now afraid that the advance of populism will spread even further. Does this environment impede the discussion about values in the economy?
Booms: Well, the phenomenon of Donald Trump is in itself an expression of a need for values. What is manifesting itself here is the highly dangerous process of an increasingly proliferating internal uprooting, which may even outweigh the economic disconnect that can be seen among Trump’s supporters. People need an inner home which provides meaning and identity and encourages self-esteem and self-determination.
The foundations of this inner home have been undermined not least by the socio-economic and political processes of structural change in the wake of globalisation. Apparently, too many people ultimately didn’t see themselves as confidently participating in, but as helplessly affected by, these processes of change that struck them as fateful and far beyond their control. However, this only explains the phenomenon but doesn’t even remotely justify the behaviour of those who are affected.
And what are the consequences?
Booms: The consequences are uncertainty, disorientation and fear. Besides politics, however, which hasn’t managed to offer people any reorientation in Europe either, it has also been the globalised corporate world such as has revealed itself in the financial crisis of the emissions scandal that has contributed towards this erosion process. Companies, too, now have the responsibility to recover people’s trust. This is about more than the orchestration of a new culture of recognition: it is about reasserting people’s role as the purpose of the economy. This humanist turning point is without alternative. If it does not occur, then the economy, politics and society will ultimately have to pay a price that is very likely to exceed the dimension of all the crises that we have known to date.
Interview: Claudia Schmid
Martin Booms is Director of the Academy of Social Ethics and Public Culture (Bonn) and Lecturer in Critical Thinking at the University of St.Gallen.
Lecture series on business ethics: How many values does the economy need – and if it does, which ones? A philosophical voyage of discovery with stumbling blocks.
The lectures take place Wednesdays, 8.15 to 9.45 p.m., room HSG 09-110 on the following days:
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