The value of the self: three views on privacy in the digital age (part 1)

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men. (Ayn Rand)

In this essay I want to consider three interconnected ways in which we can view privacy: its meaning in organic society; its potential monetisation in a digital era; and the existential threat that the digital state poses to the potentialities of individual value and the concomitant protection of privacy. Privacy rests on the idea of the sanctity of the individual person, whose roots lie in a transcendent concept of human nature, one shared by both religious persons and humanists. However, privacy in the age of the local, determined by historic place and blood relations, takes on a different complexion in a globalised digital age. The concept of privacy is necessarily complex; however, it can be usefully thought of as comprising three distinct but interrelated aspects: the protection of intimacy, the concealment of transgression, and the nurturing of identity. These all have implications in the dialectic of the individual self and the collective and the boundary between them, which is where the notion of privacy is located and finds its meaning.

The meaning of privacy in organic society

Before exposing the concept of privacy to the glare of our increasingly digitised society and economy, it is necessary, and certainly useful, to explore its meaning in simpler, largely unmediated social forms, constituted by physical proximity, shared space, kinship, local knowledge and a predominance of direct address, reading and writing (as simpler forms of mediation). I have called this organic society, although with a different meaning to Durkheim’s use of the term, by which he denoted societies marked by a high degree of division of labour. In the sense I am using it, it does not necessarily imply an earlier stage of development – although it can also be, and often is, that – but a state that continues to coexist, albeit to a diminished degree, with the highly mediated and networked digital culture that we are living in.

Regarding the basis of privacy, philosophers tend to make a distinction between autonomy and freedom. Autonomy is the self as distinct from others, capable of taking decisions. Freedom is either the self freed from constraints on making decisions or the environment in which meaningful decisions can be made. Privacy on that basis can be considered a decision by the autonomous individual about where the boundary between the legitimate realm of the individual life and the life of the public expectation lies. However, like freedom itself, privacy is not a matter of individual diktat, but a negotiated settlement; that is, the decision needs to be mindful of the public sphere.

The public discourse on the self, only on the foundation of which can claims about the meaning and limits of privacy be legitimised, is constituted in the received narratives of a specific culture, yet there is a surprising universality to the mythological, poetic and literary analogues of the self in such cultural narratives: the sacred garden of the Hesperides wherein the gods derived their immortality; the temple of Solomon, with its holy place and holy of holies, of which Jesus said (referring to himself) “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19); the Secret Garden of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s imagination, a metaphor for the lost innocence and happiness of childhood. In many such depictions an inner sacred self is separated from a profane outside. In the story of the garden of Eden, which is foundational to the civilisations of the West and the Middle East, the self harbours not only the intimacy of communion with God, but also the guilt of sin, for which the self is cast out into the profane world.

These mythopoeic depictions of the self are pertinent to the idea of privacy, for how can one approach the idea of privacy, which exists solely at a psychological and deontological level, unless it is through a historiography of narratives, both sacred and secular. The genesis of privacy is in the self and sense of identity and is projected out into the surrounding sphere of possession, so that it encompasses all (and everyone) that one ‘touches’ that are considered belonging to oneself and creating the larger context of the value of the self. It is more than that identity, though; it is the protection of that self and its possessions from jealousy, avarice, theft and murder, both literal and symbolic. For this reason, the narratives of the self depict a protective boundary – a wall or supernatural deity, such as the Hesperides or the Cherubim – between the self and a hostile ‘outside’. Indeed, this narrative becomes tangible in our decision to live our lives behind walls, the walls of our homes, that extends the very meaning of privacy.

What is it that privacy protects? It is not essentially the differentiated self, even thought it is also that, for the individuated self is difficult to separate from that which it perceives and dwells among. It is most pertinently the realm of intimacy with those with whom we share our relative isolation. All of us have lives in which we want to preserve the most precious and sacred things from the public gaze. What constitutes the sacred will be determined by culture to some extent, though in the end each person makes a determination of what that actually is. For many people and cultures it centres on the sexual act, which is carried out beyond the prying eyes of the world. Family life, as a place of intimacy, also largely takes place beyond the gaze of the world. In the family we can be most ourselves without fear of public judgement. The most intimate and sacred place, though, is our own mind; our thoughts, memories and deepest held beliefs are often not on display to the world; they are masked by the face we show to the world, what Jung termed our persona.

Ironically, the concept of intimacy has a strong relationship to the concepts of disgust and shame. There are areas of our lives – bodily functions spring to mind – that we would rather people not know about, and certainly not witness, though they are perfectly natural and about which we might not ourselves feel disgust to the extent that we imagine other people might do so. That association extends to family life. In the family there are many instances of bad behaviour, by adults as well as children that we may feel ashamed of and wish to remain private, hidden from the judgmental eyes of public view. The same is true of our thought processes; we entertain thoughts which we would not like to be known to others, even those closest to us. Disgust and shame, and their association with intimacy, tell an important truth about human life: that the sacred is contiguous with the profane, not merely the opposite of it.

Beyond disgust and shame, transgression must not be hidden merely for the sake of propriety, but from the judgment of social norms and the law. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, transgression and the sacred are closely associated. This association is indicated in the myths of every culture, most prominently for us, of course, in the myth of Adam and Eve, wherein their transgression was followed by knowledge ‘of good and evil’, shame and the concealment of their nakedness and concealment from divine sight. They withdrew from God, so to speak, into the realm of their own privacy. A cynical reading of the tension between the sacred and transgression would be that religions set up impossible ideals, effectively turning everyone into hypocrites, pace Augustine’s prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”. Yet secularists are no less committed to preserving their privacy and the concealment of their moral transgressions.

The relationship between transgression and privacy is more complex than the moral tales derived from biblical or other sources would suggest. Adam and Eve hid themselves, but Milton’s Satan defiantly declared that it was “better to rule in hell than serve in Heaven” and made a virtue of his transgression. We have this expression ‘hiding in plain sight’; many transgressors openly proclaim or display their transgressive behaviour, seemingly attempting to normalise it in the eyes of the public. But a normalised transgression is no longer a transgression and the transgressor craves above all the thrill of transgressing the norms of the society, so must secretly affirm those norms and desire their being continued to be upheld in order to continue secretly, but openly, transgressing them.

Each of us in some way is a transgressor, both metaphysically against a supposed divine order, but more prosaically against the conventional rules of the collective of which we are a part, and we conceal our transgressions in an existential hide and seek in order to avoid punishment. This is not merely an observation of some contingent fact; it is also a claim that such transgression is fundamental to our nature and our true social functioning. For Kant we are ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. We like to believe we are gods and portray ourselves as such to the world, but we also have the demon in us and take refuge behind the walls of our privacy to conceal this fact. Part of our transgressive nature is also our hypocrisy in calling out and exposing the monstrosity in others. In such a way we maintain the social order in which our own transgression is embedded.

I am not quite claiming that transgression is acceptable, nor that the collective does not have a right to punish us for our transgressions. Nevertheless, it is normal to infringe the rules of society from time to time; it is what makes us human. We should not be surprised or indignant, though, if we are found out and punished; ultimately, that is what makes human societies just. Having said that, while it may look as though it is the right and duty of society to punish wrongdoing, there is no absolute moral pivot upon which social order turns. Instead, there is the continual struggle of human societies to solve the problems of continued existence in a fundamentally hostile world and adapt to change. All dramatic breakthroughs, whether in science, culture, politics or in social justice, come from transgression of the established rules. To transgress the moral rules and laws of society is liberating and a source of joy for the individual, and arguably necessary for human sanity. However, the rules exist for a reason –  the common good – and must, therefore, be preserved – paradoxically also for the continued possibility of transgression.

In transgression can be seen a fundamental dialectic at the heart of privacy, between concealment and exposure, between the power of the individual and that of the social collective, between the preservation of rules for the common good and their flouting for the individual benefit. But concealment also confers a power for strategic self-exposure of transgression for the common good, although this is a strategy with considerable risk. Privacy is the realm of the secret, one of life’s currencies that the wise spend with discretion.

Ayn Rand suggests, in the quotation given at the head of this essay, that civilisation is in part the process of moving from societies in which every aspect of our lives is public, to those in which we are granted increased levels of privacy. I think this is open to question, depending on how privacy is defined. In the past, in what I have termed organic society, people undoubtedly lived their lives more publicly and their identities and actions were relatively known and observable; however, the public realm was much smaller than it is now. Outside of immediate family and the immediate vicinity little was known about persons. Communication was limited, slow and largely unmediated. Therefore, one could argue that, by comparison with today, there was a relative contextual privacy. There was a limited state and a correspondingly underdeveloped bureaucratic machinery and, therefore, little requirement to be registered; a person could live their entire lives without being known to the authorities (this was still possible in most countries until about 100 years ago).

As the state and its bureaucratic requirements have grown, and now especially with the development of digital technology, so the concept of privacy has also changed. Where once identity was a matter of visual recognition and reputational transmission, now it is a complex process of substantiation by documentation and a record of accessing the state’s services, increasingly digitised. In organic society privacy meant hiding in some manner, physically placing a barrier or distance between oneself and others. In a world of state intrusion, whether overt or covert, intentionally or incidentally, into the lives of citizens, the meaning of privacy has shifted – and has necessarily had to shift, to forms of resistance such as non-compliance. Moreover, as technological advance has yielded an increasingly digital economy, new layers have been added; privacy has become increasingly commodified, an issue that I want to explore in the second part of this essay.

So, what is the baseline view of privacy, if we strip away all the accoutrements of modern society and the contemporary treatment of this as an ‘issue’? For Wittgenstein it was the experience of an interior monologue, essentially a private language, and “The essential thing [being] … not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else”.1 Wittgenstein himself hints at the problematic nature of such a private language: “sounds which no one else understands but which I ‘appear to understand’ might be called a ‘private language’”.2 There is, in my estimation, no such thing as a private language, only a shared language; for either we share it and explain the ruminations of our interiority, in which case it is not – or no longer – private, or we keep it private, in which case whether we can speak of language or not is ineffable. We can, though, speak without contradiction, I believe, of a ‘shared experience’, one that comes to us through universal narratives.

While the experience is purely part of our interior world, our subjectivity, we are able to communicate the experiential nature of our reaction through shared language and through shared cultural symbols, which are embodied in the narratives of our cultures. The critical myths are those through which we imbibe our understanding of the value of the self. There is, in fact, no other way to experience the self and to understand the nature of the self than through these narratives. Privacy, essentially then, is the protection of the value of the self established through such cultural narratives. Such protections are already encoded in the allegorical appropriation of existing modes of protection (such as walls and weapons) and then reproduced and reinforced through cultural transmission, adding the value of a received mythologised tradition to such mundane devices.

Notes

  1. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, note 272.
  2. ibid., note 269

Selected Bibliography

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958). Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Vladimir Propp (1984). Theory and History of Folklore (translated by Ariadna Y. Martin et al). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Carl Jung (1953). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rod Barnett (2007). Sacred Groves: Sacrifice and the Order of Nature in Ancient Greek Landscapes. Landscape Journal, 26 (2), pp.252-269.

Sir James George Frazer (1925). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. London: MacMillan and Co.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza & Marcus W. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Advertisements

The shadow of value: money theory and the roots of economic anomie

In the West, our ambiguity towards money is expressed deeply in religion, politics and art. We have been beholden to the institutions that provide it as a necessity of life, but desired liberation from the corrupting influence of our dependence on our authentic nature. Through money we have both experienced the possibility of living pleasurably, and recognised its power to lead us astray. That ambiguity, and a measure of hypocrisy, is not merely historic, but pervades our society today: while we expect a decent standard of living, there is anger at gross inequalities of wealth, particularly in developing countries, although we may be ambivalent about their economic advancement; closer to home, our desire for personal wealth is often coupled with disdain for the foibles and vulgarity of the rich. This Janus-like relationship with money seems implicit in the nature of money itself. It may not be resolved, but this ambiguity might be explained and mitigated to some degree by understanding the roots of our economic anomie in the philosophical intertwining of the existential and monetary notions of value.

As with much thinking on any issue, the ancient Greeks thought about the problematic nature of money first, or at least mythologised it in this case, in the story of king Midas. The existence of money as a metal coinage was a relatively new invention, but already both its properties of great convenience and the temptation to excessive accumulation were appreciated. Midas desired that everything he touched be turned to gold and the gods granted him his wish, literally. Realising that he could no longer eat or touch those he loved, Midas begged to have the gift removed. This timeless fable teaches us that there are things that cannot be bought with money or gold, and suggests that the modern belief that everything can be monetised hollows out the very things we find valuable.

It is a feature of the word ‘value’ that it has two distinct meanings, that of moral worth and that of monetary worth, a distinction rooted in a common etymology which runs through most European languages, indicating that at some point they have been considered to be closely related issues. In fact, in two worldviews they have been and still are: Thomistic theology derived from Aquinas, with its notion of the ‘just price’ and the Marxist ‘labour theory of value’. Both theories have been superseded by market economics, in which prices are determined by supply and demand in the marketplace, yet continue to inform areas such as business ethics, the honouring of contracts and the critique of exploitation or capitalist excess.

My intention in this article is to explore the relationship between monetary value and existential value, which underlie, respectively, the prices we assign to goods and services and the values that shape our lives and institutions, and in this way attempt to understand the role of money in institutions and how this might inform economic life and our relationship to money. Clearly, to do this systematically would be a massive undertaking and here I am only developing some of the philosophical framework to underpin this project. In particular, I want to take issue with theories of intrinsic value, particularly Locke’s view of natural value and the labour theory of value, and to present a hypothesis that the moral dimension of monetary value exists at an institutional level rather than at a commodity or service level.

Money and monetary value

For an everyday reality that pervades our lives and our society, money is actually something of an enigma, at one level tangible and obvious, but on closer investigation something whose nature is surprisingly elusive. Clearly money cannot be identified with the notes and coins we carry around with us, firstly for the superficial reason that the currency we identify most readily with is not transnational and can only with some difficulty and cost (and even here the equivalence is not always transparent) be converted into another. Then, although we are not quite there yet, it is possible for us to conceive of a cashless society, in which all financial transaction will take place electronically, through the transfer of information in binary code. However, even more than these reasons, if we stop to consider it, the source of the agency that money confers to enter into economic transactions appears to be wholly mysterious.

The emergence of the digital economy and electronic money has popularised the notion that there has been an evolution in our economic transactions, beginning with barter, passing through the money economy, and now moving into the era of credit largely carried out invisibly. This view is based on what we could call the commonsense view of money, first advocated by philosophers such as Locke and Adam Smith, who drew on Aristotle’s and Homer’s observations in the ancient world two millennia previously, and it is the view still propounded in the majority of textbooks on economics (Graeber, 2011). However, it is demonstrably wrong. There is no evidence that any culture that relied on a barter economy ever existed (Humphrey, 1985). The alternative view, previously at the margins but gathering momentum in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, is that human economic activity has always in its foundations been about credit and debit.

Much of this reassessment is based on the century-old writings of Mitchell Innes (1913) and William Furness (1910). Innes pointed out that the earliest recorded notion of debt, found in the Code of Hammurabi, predates the earliest coinage by 2000 years, and that the repayment of a debt was considered to be a sacred duty. The foundations of economy have always been about the agreements between creditors and debtors, in which the origins and function of money is no more than a marker of that relationship and agreement.  Furness recorded the highly unusual money system on the Indonesian island of Yap, which consisted of stone wheels of various sizes known as fei. He noted that even when transactions were concluded the fei were rarely moved; change of ownership was merely acknowledged. In the most remarkable case a fei which had sunk to the bottom of the sea while being transported was still recognised as valid currency. In other words the currency functioned as markers of credits founded on trust. This view eventually won the approbation of economists as diverse as John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman, though is still largely ignored in macroeconomic theory (Martin, 2013).

The reason for this misunderstanding lies in the seventeenth century in the period when the Bank of England was being set up. Prior to the establishment of the bank, the ultimate source of the authority for the English currency was the British sovereign. Coins were stamped with the monarch’s image and minted in silver, theoretically to the value as stated per denomination. In fact, it was long recognised that the face value of coin and the price of silver frequently diverged, silver being more valuable that the actual coinage. This led to huge amounts of money being melted down and sold as bullion and the stock of coinage being vastly depleted as a result. The Bank of England, which had in the meantime emerged as a mercantile counterbalance to the monetary authority of the sovereign, saw the obvious solution to lie in debasing the metal in the coinage, alloying the silver, and thus lowering the actual value of the coins to or below their face value, thereby removing the motive for destroying them. Unfortunately, this pragmatic solution was overruled by Parliament on the advice of John Locke, the pre-eminent philosopher of his age and a hugely influential figure. Locke, a fierce republican, wanted the Bank to break entirely with the notion that the value of the currency was based on authority, such as the authority of the king, and instead base it on the intrinsic value of nature, such as that of silver. Locke’s suggestion was followed and the nation’s supply of silver coins was replenished, with both predictable and unforeseen disastrous consequences.

Locke clearly believed, or at least wished to assert for political reasons, that money has an intrinsic value, and the modern capitalist economy, whatever private reservations people individually may harbour, continues to function on the basis of this belief, using gold as the most common standard rather than silver. It is necessary, though, to analyse what the ‘value’ is that is the object of such a belief. The Lockean argument from nature can be dismissed out of hand. Value is not a property of nature, but of human judgement. Even if our currency were ‘worth its weight in gold’ (which it is not, by a significant margin), this would not constitute its value any more than it were worth its weight in manure, because the value of gold or manure is not ‘intrinsic’, but arises fundamentally from their utility, a distinction Pepper (1970) refers to as ‘value proper’ and ‘utility value’, the latter which we could also refer to as social value. The different social value ascribed to gold and manure arises from their relative rarity, flexibility and aesthetic appeal. Gold is almost universally considered beautiful due to its colour and lustre, and useful due to its malleability and ductility, qualities which obviously cannot be ascribed to manure. However, gold’s social value depends to a large degree on the technological capacity of the culture in which it occurs. Primitive cultures in regions in which it was naturally relatively abundant had little use for it outside decoration, and were happy to trade it for coloured beads. Unlike manure which is a good fertiliser and building material, useful in settled agricultural communities, gold perhaps had only marginal social value. This point does not seem to me to be undermined by any subsequent retrospective reassessment by post-colonialist critics.

One of the functions of money in monetary theory is reckoned to be to store value (Nesiba, 2013), which seems a not unreasonable proposition; that is, until we start to interrogate its exact meaning, whereupon it slips rapidly from our grasp. The way in which money stores value is like the way in which the sun rises, that is, metaphorically. Since money has no intrinsic value, either as a physical or digital currency, it cannot store value either. And since, with the exception of some hobbyists or collectors who may fetishize the physicality of money, we do not value money as such, but only its instrumentality, the idea of storing value is really just shorthand for the ability to exchange it in denominated amounts for the things that we deem actually valuable, or vice-versa, to receive it in denominated amounts for goods or services. What is ultimately valuable is that which makes human life liveable, bearable and pleasant, so it is in the social agency of money that its source of value is found.

To pursue this thought further, value does not inhere in money itself, but nor can it in the goods or services which are exchangeable for money, at a price determined by the market, as the same objection which was raised against the intrinsic value of money can similarly be raised against the intrinsic value of any commodity or service, that is, value does not exist in the state of nature. The question this denial poses, then, concerns the ontological foundations of the economy in which money plays such a crucial role. Marx (1859)advanced an alternative view of value: rather than arising from nature, the intrinsic value of a commodity represented the ‘congealed labour time’ of the industrial proletarian whose sweat and toil had manufactured it. Although this view, referred to as the labour theory of value, is disparaged by mainstream economists, and although I believe it takes too narrow a view, nonetheless, I will develop an important insight which I believe Marx had, which is that value is inherently social and that it is generated in the world of work.

Marx was motivated to blame capitalism for the dreadful conditions of the industrial working class which sprang up in the newly growing cities created by the industrial revolution. He identified the profit generated in the manufacturing process as an ‘excess’ derived from the exploitation of the workers who had created the value of the commodities, that is by paying them insufficiently for their labour. A clear objection to this idea is that the price – even the marketability – of any commodity is a function of its quality and the demand for it. If a manufactured item is shoddy or faulty it cannot demand the same price in the market as one which is made to high standards, regardless of the labour invested in it, while if there is no demand for an item, it will not sell. Price is determined largely by these two factors, quality and demand, and any business in order to be profitable, has to identify a market where a certain demand exists and strive for quality that meets the market’s expectations.

Money, then, neither has value nor stores it. As we discussed, according to Pepper there are two types of value, value proper and utility value. Money has utility, clearly, though it is a very specific type of tool, one whose usefulness is in being exchanged for things that are in turn useful or pleasurable to us, and therefore to that extent valuable. It has neither value nor utility intrinsic to itself, only as a medium of exchange. Money, though, is unique in that it is denominated and acts as a scaled measure of wealth. Unlike value, which is a function of judgement, wealth is a function of a social process; moreover, it is a social process in which existential and social values play a critical role. As already mentioned, economic activity can only take place on the basis of trust, and money itself exists as a place marker for relationships of credit based on trust. For much of history this was the common understanding of how money worked. It is only in the past few hundred years that this seems to have been forgotten.

Institutional wealth hypothesis

Rather than value, a nebulous term at best, I suggest it is wealth which both money measures and that links money to the value-driven activities of institutions.  By ‘institution’ I mean any human grouping that has some sense of a common purpose, some shared values, a degree of organisational structure however informal, perhaps some rules, and a boundary demarking inside from outside. This would include businesses and all manner of organisations and even individual family units. It would not, for example, include neighbourhoods as geographic entities, but would include neighbourhood associations. Wealth is generated by and accumulates around such institutions and their activities. We tend to think of wealth in opposition to poverty, but what I have in mind is relative wealth, wealth that can be an indicator of the relative performance of institutions. Rather than engage in a diatribe against the perception of poverty created in our society by gross inequalities of income, I suggest that wealth be thought of as a neutral term that can employed evaluatively across all cultures and historic periods and that poverty be restricted to its more ethical connotations, by which I mean a culture-dependent term of disparagement for lack of aspiration.

The hypothesis, one that does not seem implausible, is that wealth is generated in successful institutions. To emphasise, by wealth I am not talking about vast wealth, but wealth as a relative quality; some institutions, such as banks, are required to process huge quantities of money (leaving aside for the moment structural anomalies in the banking sector that governments are attempting to address), but others, such as voluntary or community-based organisations, might run on a shoestring but be fully functional in achieving their nominal purpose. All institutions need money to function and this has to be considered integral to the institutional ontology not as an add-on. It is also a necessity in a comprehensive theory of value to be able to offer explanations of economic value and explore any underlying unity between economic value and social value/values.

The great monetary settlement of the seventeenth century never fully resolved the issue of the nature of money, and Locke’s intervention saddled us with an erroneous concept, which has had consequences to this day. According to Martin (2013) the final authority for a currency is the people in democratic society, who invest their authority in the government of the day to make sensible decisions regarding the economy for the benefit of the people as a whole. Money is like language, in some sense, in that it pervades our culture and is ultimately controlled by no one (ibid); it is above all a social phenomenon, and always has been, although this has been forgotten by governments, the banking industry and by most economists, with rare exceptions like Keynes. Nevertheless, the current financial crisis has led to government intervention, some reforms in banking and some reassessment of economic theory in line with Keynesian thinking.

Wealth goes hand in hand with success in any venture, and that success is built by gradually building relations of trust around that venture. Building a successful venture requires a range of skills and the ability to work hard, for example, but the focus here is not on this range of skills but on the fundamental ontological requirements of institutional success, which requires the creation of multidimensional trust, both within an organisation and outside in relation to other relevant organisations and constituencies. As I have argued in a previous essay on values and institutional structure, relationships within any organisation are strengthened and organisational conflicts between different constituencies are ameliorated when shared values are sought and promoted alongside core values and organisational goals; in fact, the discovery of shared values in the context of the organisation is one of the fundamental responsibilities and ‘people skills’ that a leader of any organisation needs to manifest, as it demonstrates attention to the particular and the individual rather than just to the general and the abstract.

Trust is not something that can be established at once, and not necessarily easily, and it is something that can be rapidly destroyed. However, as Fukuyama (1995) has argued, trust is the fundamental value of social capital, one which enabled the growing prosperity of Europe through the early modern period. If this is true I suspect it is because, unlike other values which are (or run the risk of being) etiolated when they are monetised, it has the property of self-replenishment. The building of trust, therefore, should be a fundamental goal of every organisation. First, everyone feels happier when they are in an environment in which they feel trusted. When people feel happy they willingly contribute to the good of the whole and invest themselves, their efforts and time for the success of the whole. There is a common interest that whatever goods or services they provide should be to a high standard of quality, and when they are to a high quality the recipient of those goods or services will naturally be satisfied. Those who fund the activities of the organisation, whether consumers, shareholders, banks, or donors should be treated as extended constituencies of the organisation, common values discovered and a basis for trust and satisfaction established. This is the basis for success and wealth in any organisation. The same reasoning can also be applied to an individual and a basic social institution such as a family.

Potential objections to the hypothesis

An objection to this hypothesis would be that many organisations seem to function, even function well, while not adhering to this strategy. I would say that this is due to the dampening effect of society; changes rarely happen suddenly, but usually there is a cumulative effect before something becomes apparent. The economic crisis was building up and was predicted by some many years in advance, as indeed the recovery is many years in manifesting itself. When any institution fails, whether it be large or small, there are always underlying reasons, and those reasons invariably come down to human problems: the arrogance of a leader, the disaffection and even sabotage of those mistreated, greed and eventually dishonesty undermining trust. Even failure to adapt to a changing environment can be laid at the feet of systemic failure to seek common values, because that is a failure to draw upon the variety of skills, to discover and to exploit those skills, that any group of people bring with them. Edward Freeman (2010), in his writings on stakeholder theory, asserts that any business that is not seeking to keep all its stakeholders – such as investors, shareholders, banks, employees and customers – happy is a failing business. I have used the term ‘constituency’ rather than stakeholder, but the logic is much the same, although I have attempted to give a more theoretical underpinning to what stakeholder happiness actually comprises.

A second objection would be that wealth simply means the accumulation of money or its equivalent in assets. This is a commonly held view and it arises out of the mistaken understanding of the nature of money and economic value. This view justifies the moral view (not that I am saying that everyone who shares this understanding of money shares this view) that gaining money is a justifiable end in itself, and it does not matter the means by which one acquires it. Clearly, such a view underlies criminal acquisition, whether that be corporate crime, gang-related crime or street robbery. I have advocated the view that the acquisition of wealth should be understood as a reward for, or a consequence of, institutional strengthening. Theft short-circuits that process; it does not represent the justly deserved reward for valued activity, which reinforces the values of social institutions, but leaves the basis of social chaos in its wake: mistrust, fear and loss. Moreover, the empowering function of money cannot be fully realised; its power to purchase is always accompanied by fear of exposure, fear of punishment, mistrust of others and the knowledge that one is not truly worthy in that one has not been rewarded. As a society we are left to take effective measures to counter the increasing prevalence of this sort of activity and its social fallout, whereas we should be establishing as a norm the correct understanding of money and of wealth, that people can police themselves more effectively.

Money is a token that represents the wealth which is generated in successful institutions. In some respects it has similarities to Austin’s (1962) idea of the performative speech act, in that an exchange of paper, metal or electronic tokens effects a change in ownership and the conferring of rights. Money is effectively a symbol, which exercises symbolic power throughout society, for all social institutions. Externally it has the nature of a tool that quantifies wealth, which can switch between a physical format (currency and perhaps its bullion equivalent in extremis) and a digital format (as an entry in a ledger or perhaps now even as a digital currency, such as bitcoin). In this sense it is proper to speak of it having utility or use-value rather than value proper, in the same way that all things that can be defined as tools have utility, and only have value proper if they enter the sphere of our personal experience in the sense of evoking a (usually) positive emotional response. But as a symbol money also represents things that we recognise as social universals such as freedom, both freedom from want and freedom to choose, competence in earning a living and supporting oneself, and also things like moral obligation, such as to pay one’s debts, to care for one’s dependents materially and to contribute to the common good through supporting enterprise, inspiration and endeavour, supporting the needy, and paying one’s taxes.

Money has been one of the most powerful tools for liberation, as it has freed the masses from excessive social control and opened up the way for individual decision-making, risk-taking and enterprise, which has contributed to the emergence of economically vibrant and democratic societies. A further step is now needed to correct the social injustices that the wrong understanding of money has perpetuated, by a new consensus on its nature.

References

Austin, J.L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Freeman, E. R., Harrison, J. S., Wicks, A. C., Parmar, B. L. and De Colle, S. (2010). Stakeholder Theory: The State of the Art. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. London: Penguin.

Furness, W. (1910). The Island of Stone Money: Uap of the Carolines. Philadelphia, PA: Washington Square Press.

Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The First 5000 Years. NY: Melville House Publishing.

Humphrey, C. (1985). ‘Barter and Economic Disintegration’. Man, 20(1), pp. 48-72.

Innes, A.M. (1913, May). ‘What is money?’. Banking Law Journal, pp. 377-408.

Martin, F. (2013). Money: The Unauthorised Biography. London: The Bodley Head.

Marx, K (1859). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Nesiba, R. F. (2013). ‘Where did “money” come from?’ Western Social Science Association (WSSA) News, 42(2) (Fall 2013).

Pepper, S. C. (1970). The Sources of Value. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Two Fallacies Concerning the Value of Human Life

The migration crisis unfolding at present in the Mediterranean has thrown the political and social institutions of Europe into turmoil and revealed their inadequacy, in their present form, to deal with the realities of a world in rapid transition (1). Sooner or later, solutions of a pragmatic nature will have to be found to the issues of processing the thousands of migrants finding their way to Europe, policing the trafficking routes and addressing the political morass in the countries they are exiting. However, the crisis has also exposed a deeper, more fundamental issue: that of understanding and conceptualising the value of human life and, I believe, highlights two fallacies concerning this which are embedded in European culture and of which the responses manifested towards the plight of these people are symptomatic.

In European thought – that of the ancient Greeks, the Enlightenment and the Reformation – the value of human life is considered in the context of what can be called the good life. There would probably be almost universal agreement that many of the conditions of the good life are well understood: a secure supply of the essentials of life such as food and water, a secure territory and dwelling, family and friends, and some meaningful activity through which one’s own and that of the common good is secured. Beyond that things become more complicated. As society has developed, the sense of what is required for the good life has also become more complex, informing a concept of the good society. This includes such freedoms as the right to hold certain beliefs and to speak out and act in defence of them, expectations about health and lifespan, evaluation of worth based on quality and quantity of possessions, or the belief that we have the right to be respected, all of which are problematic and questionable to some degree.

Though the question of what constitutes the good life is one which is a source of ongoing discussion within philosophy, politics, psychology and sociology, there is nothing particularly contentious about the idea that happiness is an important parameter of the good life and the good society. The Greek philosophers gave much thought to the matter of what constituted happiness (eudaemonia – literally ‘in good spirits’). Aristotle proclaimed the cultivation of the virtues as the route to happiness, the virtues being the via media between opposite extremes, for example asceticism and gluttony, or cowardice and recklessness. One of the great fallacies of the present age, however, which has emerged from European humanism, is that a political calculus can be applied to the question of the value of life based on the greatest happiness of the greatest number, the so-called utilitarian principle (2). Yet it is such a calculation which is obvious in the hesitation with which the European leaders have grappled with the refugee crisis in their midst, balancing the humanitarian impulse of most people – and indeed enshrined in the European constitution – with the financial, political and demographic costs of absorbing this tide of humanity.

Yet there is an equally fallacious argument about human value which comes from the other end of the philosophical spectrum, which is that human beings have intrinsic value. On the surface it is admittedly an attractive proposition, that people have a value – and an equal value – simply because they are human, regardless of who they are, where they live, and what they do (or have done). Nevertheless, there are a number of objections to the idea of intrinsic value. I will concentrate on two related ones. First, there is a paradox at the heart of the concept: value arises in the relationship between consciousness and an object, in the discovery that there is something that can be positively affirmed in that relationship, but the idea of implicit value denies this, by claiming that value resides solely in the object, which means that the idea of ‘relationship’ itself becomes problematic rather than coherent. Secondly, the extension of this paradox into social theory means that there is no specific requirement for action based on free-willing on the part of the beheld that might generate value in the eyes of the beholder, nor any relationship between members of a society for them to be considered valuable members of that society. Insidiously, as this is essentially a dogma, this necessitates ethical decision being eliminated from the natural relationship between social actors and usurped by ideological elites, such as state religions and totalitarian governments. However, this is also manifested in ostensibly democratic societies when discussion of certain issues becomes politically taboo.

It is better to think of the value of human life as constructed along two axes, that of belonging and acting, both in terms of the value which we ascribe to ourselves and others and, reflexively, the esteem in which we are held by others and the wider society. Clearly we belong to ourselves, fundamentally if not exclusively, and our sense of uniqueness is the basis upon which we can empathetically identify the uniqueness of others, their value to themselves and others. But it is within social groupings that value is made manifest, both through belonging and the signs of association that that implies, but also through action for the common benefit of those with whom we are most closely associated, and the extension of that benefit into the more abstract ‘common good’, in areas of the economy and culture for example.

It is, of course, outrageous that the European nations fail to act adequately in rescuing those adrift at sea. Basic decency and humanity means the recognition that with the death of a single individual ‘an entire universe is extinguished’ (3). But the necessary action goes further than simply rescuing these people and then allowing them to live at the margins of society or in monocultural ghettoes. To believe that Europe embodies the ideal of the good society is to ensure that those rescued are given the means not only to attain the basic necessities of a good life but to embody European values as full participants. The status of refugees is closer to that of family, unlike economic migrants with whom there is – or should be – a contractual relationship, and the price of a closer belonging is a fuller participation, not just, or even primarily, in the economy but in the wider culture. Often too little has been given or too little demanded in this respect and both lead in the end to alienation from a common life.

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Leader: ‘Europe’s boat people’; Briefing: ‘For those in peril’. The Economist (25/4/15), Vol 415, No 8935, p.9, pp.18-21.

2. There have been many critiques of Bentham and Mill’s Utilitarianism. The most persuasive, from the perspective advocated here, is that in aggregating human happiness it ignores the individual pursuit of happiness and national governments’ duty to provide at least the basis for the pursuit of the good life. From a similar perspective, Rawls critiques Utilitarianism for its sidestepping issues of justice. In response, a distinction is commonly made by some thinkers between Utilitarianism as a moral philosophy – as an explanation for moral choice – and Utilitarianism as a basis for social policy, which is in any case delimited by law.
-Jeremy Bentham (1781). An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Batoche Books, Kitchener (2000), Online at: http://socserv.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/bentham/morals.pdf
-John Stuart Mill (1998). Crisp, Roger, ed. Utilitarianism. Oxford University Press.
-John Rawls (1971). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press.

3. The ultimate source of the quotation is the Austrian inventor, writer and social theorist Joseph Popper-Lynkeus. It was used by the philosopher of science Karl Popper (no relation) in his repudiation of epiphenomenalism, a reductionistic theory of the mind, and his commitment to humanism.
-Karl Popper (1963). Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge.