Ethics vs Economics

I was reading more of Clive Splash’s writing over the last few days and it struck me why I’m always getting into arguments with people about how we’re handling climate change. The problem, I think, stems from the fact that, to me, our approach to tackling climate change is about ETHICS. And the people I get into arguments with, aren’t talking about ETHICS – they are talking about ECONOMICS. And while ECONOMICS is a subset of ETHICS, the reverse is not true.

Ethics examines morality, good and bad, right and wrong, justice, etc. And economics has to be part of ethics. We need to consider how ethical the system of economics in our country is – does everyone have equal opportunity, enough money to afford a reasonable standard of living, access to health care, education, etc.

Economics, on the other hand, doesn’t care anything about ethics. Economics just thinks about the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. How ethical a particular system of economics is, is not the concern of the study of economics.

Unfortunately, I can’t find an ethics portfolio in the Federal government. There is a Treasurer, who worries about the economy, but nowhere to be found is a Minister for Ethics. I think we should have one. The Ministry of Ethics would take the lead on issues such as our treatment of our indigenous population, the handling of boat people, whether or not we should have equal rights for LGBT, and how we handle climate change.

And I think, in future, when I’m having debates with people over climate change, I’ll make sure I clarify at the outset whether or not we’re having a discussion about ethics or economics.

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14 thoughts on “Ethics vs Economics

  1. Good starting point Cameron… 🙂

    I don’t know how Economics became a subset of Ethics and I don’t intend to unravel that one here…but I would like to venture to ‘n’th Degree’ the discussion…

    Aren’t our discussions about Climate Change exactly the same as our approaches? We talk about everything but the underlying core issue and we act as if the underlying core issue doesn’t exist.

    What is that underlying core issue?

    Life & Death?

    I agree that most of our discussions at the moment are geared towards protecting the economy…

    But have you noticed that when the science comes out onto the table and we start talking about possible catastrophic scenarios, the focus of the conversations suddenly bypass economics, shift away from climatological, geophysical and even meteorological terms and go straight into the sociological?

    The moment the economy is seen as changing into something unrecognisable, our concerns aren’t about Super-Storms or Rising Seas but swing inexorably toward discussing large numbers of frightened people…e.g. Immigration, Panic, Fear, Stupidity etc…and how many of us include ourselves behaving irrationally amongst those throngs of frightened people? In my experience, NONE! We all seem to do what we have been taught to do…be civilised.

    If my above observation is somewhere near accurate, wouldn’t this indicate that perhaps Nelson Mandela was correct? That what we fear most is our own power…in other words ourselves?

    So what are we really talking about indeed?

    Is it possible that our first priority is to prevent at almost any cost, inconvenience?

    And if that fails will we then shift into the inconvenient? (and one could well assume that the economy and convenience have almost identical vanishing points)

    And what happens when things become inconvenient? When ‘Joe Blogs’ can’t get food for his family in the manner to which he is accustomed? Do you think he’ll sit down and pray? Do you think he’ll form a community group to establish a community garden…or do you think he’ll go and find the community gardens that already exist and take what ‘his family’ needs? And what if 5000 of his urban comrades had the same idea…and what if 2000 of them remembered their ‘right to bear arms’ before they left home to feed ‘their families’?

    Does it become survival at any cost in the name of love? Or are we civilised beings with ‘virtue’ and the ‘greater good’ at the forefront of our bare human nature, ready to lay down our lives and those of our families and friends for the ‘good of the species’?

    Was the Joker (from the movie ‘Dark Knight’), right too? Are we just a bunch of ‘schemers’ whose morals and ethics disappear at the first sign of trouble? Is that because they are bound together by the tenuous fabric of convenience?

    Is that the very same tenuous fabric that supports global food security?

    I don’t know about you mate…but I reckon that the moment we objectified ‘Ethics’ and packaged it up neatly into little 2 days courses and tacked it onto our University Degrees et al, was the moment we lost the plot. A Minister for Ethics? What about a Minister for Virtue, for Common-Sense, for Doing the Right Thing?

    Apparently some well loved bloke showed up a couple o’ thousand years ago and said “Love one another”…look what we did with that! Perhaps we could rename the human race and just call ourselves ‘God Busters’?

    We have become a population of brilliant heads, all jostling for dominion in a civilised milieu reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. We have become so brilliant at making observations that we have discovered that everything is interconnected…our myriad brilliant observations have become oceans of dots on our great big, ‘constantly and never endingly improving’ global computer models…my question is, are we racing to connect the dots at the risk of missing the point?

    Has anyone written an equation on discussion efficiency? The variables might include a massive number of ‘qualified’ individuals, the time taken and cost of approaching and reaching the point of ‘credibility’, multiplied by an exponentially increasing number of new observations and observers, with the denominator being ‘right v wrong’…oh and I forgot to factor in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle; Oh! And the Butterfly Effect…Oh! And Period Doubling…Oh! And The Law of Diminishing Returns…Oh! And….


    You know where soaking in it? ?


    Stephen G

    PS Incidentally…as an illustration of the shape and/or efficiency of our discussions try this:

    Many of us may have heard by now, the plethora of different statistics relating to the general food security of our cities (usually in relation to a removal of Oil from the equation). E.g. Our cities have anywhere between 3 days and 3 weeks food security.

    Try and find a definitive reference. And while you are looking, notice what our highest level researchers and policies are saying and how they are saying it.

    My conjecture is that our decision making processes and resulting decisions/policies have evolve with a priority of being difficult to challenge either logically or legally. And this protective ‘evidence-based’ didactic is not built on either logic or legal integrity, but on the economic unviability of mounting a challenge and/or arguing against it. Of course this also prevents any kind of meaningful modification, improvement or replacement thereof based on empirical experience of people…and of course it’s not economically responsible to challenge it after all the money that has been spent on arriving at the policy in the first place….and round and round we go.

    Have we reached the point where the law of diminishing returns and economies of scale collide with unstoppable forces and immovable objects?

    If any of the above observations have any merit, then indeed what the hell are we talking about? And what hope have we really got of arriving at any practical, common sense solutions for anything at all, let alone something as large and as seemingly complex as Climate Change? And if any of that is even remotely accurate, then what hope have we really got of actually implementing anything meaningful and actually useful in a timely manner?

    We’re still arguing about who’s clock is right…aren’t we?

    1. Okay, now that’s we’ve cleared up the nature of our familial connections…

      You finish with “what hope have we really got of actually implementing anything meaningful and actually useful in a timely manner?”

      Human history abounds with stories of people doing amazing things when they needed to. Even in the 20th century, the peoples of the USSR, Germany and Japan somehow managed to re-build their countries after the most horrific of tragedy of WWII. I’m hoping it won’t take massive scale tragedy before we get our heads out of the sand regarding climate change and engineer a similar-scale turnaround. It will take leadership, though. And that’s something we are sorely lacking in Australia. Not just in the political scene – in the corporate and social arenas also. We need a generation of leaders to rise up and make the case for change on a national scale. And if WE do it, perhaps leaders will rise up in other countries. We might say Al Gore has already taken that role in the USA. We need more leadership, though.

      1. Hi Cameron,

        Sorry mate…I didn’t get an email noti­fi­ca­tion for your reply. I just hap­pened to pop by just now…glad I did…after Tony’s com­ments I thought this was just another ‘clique’ and a WOF­TAM and that you guys were just takin’ the piss…I’m only too happy to be wrong on that count, hav­ing had my faith restored by your excel­lent response. 🙂

        I’m hon­oured that you took the time to read my rather over-?the-?top com­ment and heart­ened that you not only under­stood it, but under­stood it well enough to dis­till from it the key issue…hope 🙂

        In respect of your reply and in the inter­est of care­fully pro­gress­ing what for me is a cru­cial con­ver­sa­tion (and one that I have not seen else­where, at least not this well tar­geted), I have used inline responses to your comments.

        Also, so as to min­imise the impact on your blog and the appear­ance that I may be ‘grand-?standing’, I have posted my reply on my own blog (under the title ‘Don’t forget your change…’ – link above), for you to peruse at your leisure. Should you wish to post my com­ment here anyway, you are most wel­come to do so.


        Stephen G

  2. You’re not a politician are you Cameron? 🙂

    Hehe! With a comeback like that mate, I reckon there are only 2 reasonable possibilities: either you are a politician (or should be one ;-), or you’ve actually got a cousin called Stephen Glanville?

    Nice one! 🙂

    And I don’t know for sure that I’m not your cousin mate…I’ve often wondered how many of us actually get sent home with the wrong parents 😉


    Stephen G

  3. Stephen, I don’t think I understood anything that you wrote, but thanks for the TED talk links, they were great.

    Cam, Not sure that economics is a subset of ethics, maybe more like ethics is a handbrake on economics. And I don’t mean that it a negative way.

    Economics is human beings being human beings and they require an ethical nudge every now and then.

    I think there is some great work being done in behavioural economics that can help solve ethical problems.

    I liked the TED talk on changing perceived value. Can we come up with something lateral that will reduce carbon dependance? Like, a law proscribing that all child molestors have to drive SUV’s.

    Even just something simple like one switch in the household near the front door that you turn off before you leave and it shuts off every ounce of power to the house at once and then magically restores all the clocks when it is flicked back on again.

    I think that this has a better chance of solving the problem than waiting for the government. Although, fingers crossed.

    1. Tony, the new show I’m doing with Ellyard and Liao (that we’re recording next Monday while Liao is still at COP15) is going to turn the carbon discussion on its head from “cutting back” to “mining the carbon out of the sky”. As Peter says, it doesn’t matter how much carbon you put into the atmosphere as long as you take more of it out than you put in.

    2. Oh and I’m sure Economics isn’t considered as part of Ethics under the normal scheme of things, but my point is that any study of Ethics must include a study of the ethics of the various forms of social economics eg is capitalism or communism the more ethical system? However any study of Economics is void of any consideration for Ethics. How was Japan?

  4. Cam, Japan was great. Very clean, low crime rate, and a service oriented culture. We could learn a lot. Actually, here’s a crossover point – one of the reasons that the streets are so clean in Tokyo is that the government removed all of the public rubbish bins after the Sarin attacks on the subway. Rather than throw trash on the sidewalk, parents started training their children to carry their rubbish home.

  5. Cam,

    Looking forward to hearing the new podcast with Peter and Bill. I have been following Bill’s tweets from Cop.

    And I remember the G’Day world where Peter mentioned Mining the Sky. Great idea. It’s funny how memory works. I remember extactly where I was walking when I heard that concept: Tarragindi Forest. Great walk through there and good show.

  6. Hi Folks :-),

    @Tony Kynaston – You’re welcome 🙂 Oh! And I appreciate you even trying to understand what I wrote..and don’t worry mate, you might get it eventually…don’t give up. Your deft grasp of the TED vids will have to do for now… 🙂

    Though I must admit to feeling a little awkward having the unfair of advantage of understanding both mine and yours 🙂

    And if you intended to scare me with your description of economics as “human beings being human beings”, then you’ll be happy to know it worked…I’m terrified. 🙂

    You’re not really waiting for the government are ya? ;-P

    @Cameron – then it’s not me mate…I’m in Canberra 🙂


    Stephen G

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